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“Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs” at the Savoy, 1937

May 26, 2020

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Perhaps you’ve seen the footage before of a young Frankie Manning dancing at the Savoy ballroom. With Chick Webb and his band swinging in the background, Frankie is clearly seen dancing and smiling, and sporting a suave 1930s mustache. It was used in Ken Burns’ Jazz, for instance, but if you haven’t seen it before, or in awhile, here is a pretty clear copy recently made available on Getty’s stock footage website: (Please note the announcer makes a racist pun on “dark” that was sadly typical of the time.)

 

So there’s some Frankie Manning for you on his birthday. But who’s that dancing with him? And if you watched it a few times, you might notice there seems to be a group of three couples, including Frankie, that pal around and talk to each other while they’re dancing. Those three couples get the bulk of the camera’s attention in these short snippets. So who are they?

We think those three couples are none other than Naomi Waller & Frankie Manning, Mildred Cruse & Billie Williams, and Lucille Middleton & Jerome Williams.  

Here’s a little bit about their story, and why we think it’s them.

“Maniacs”

You might not have noticed that a lot of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers group shots that Frankie Manning are in are of the same six people. For instance, each of the these photos:

Whitey's Hopping Maniacs

“Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs,” Each picture shows Naomi Waller & Frankie Manning, Lucille Middleton & Jerome Williams, and Mildred Cruse & Billie Williams.

These are Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs, as Frankie named them, according to his book. Though, they were often billed with liberal interpretations, such as “Whyte’s Maniacs” or “White’s Maniacs,” and a slew of other variations. Here’s an advertisement for a performance they did in Hartford, Connecticut:

WHYTE'S MANIACS Hartford_Courant_Mon__Oct_11__1937_

Hartford Courant, October 11, 1937

That act in the ad above mentions twelve Lindy Hoppers. However, Frankie’s book implies they most often perform as a pretty tight-knit group of the three couples. And, at some point in 1937, they were at the Savoy to film during a newsreel. Here’s the film again, with our IDs attached. It plays again at 70% and 50% to help take it in.

 

According to Frankie, the Maniacs were one of Whitey’s three main teams during this era, and the one Frankie managed (which is probably the most appropriate word, though Whitey was definitely the overall manager of all the groups). Another team was managed by John “Tiny” Bunch. The third — the collection of Harvest Moon Ball champions and veterans at one point billed as “The Six Lindy Hop Champions,” that performed in A Day at the Races — we’ve gathered from the history sources was managed by Willa Mae Ricker. (A fascinating discovery involving the members of these groups will be highlighted in an upcoming article on the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.)

How did we decide it was them? Since most of their dancing is not very familiar to us — these dancers for the most part were not featured heavily in the Whitey’s film performances —  we initially relied a lot on facial and body type recognition. However, once we realized that we probably had an entire documented team of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the shot, we were able to revisit the footage with special attention to their faces and who they were dancing with which reinforced our initial hypotheses. Here’s our breakdown:

Naomi Waller comparrison

The image with the red border is from the footage. All others are confirmed shots of Naomi Waller over a span of several years.

Lucille Middleton Comparrison

The images with the red border are from the footage. All others are confirmed shots of Lucille Middleton.

Jerome Williams comparrison

The photos with the red border is from the footage. All others are confirmed shots of Jerome Williams. The left most is from approx. five years later, which shows a more receded hair line, but still a similar brow, nose and mouth.

Mildred Cruse and Billie WIlliams Comparrison

The photo with the red border is from the footage. All others are confirmed shots of Mildred & Billie.

If you agree with us that this is most likely them, then it’s very exciting — this team was a treasured part of the early Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and we have never gotten to see them dance together. Until this footage.

According to Frankie, this was the group he performed with at the Apollo, and then at the Cotton Club, when he realized he was officially a professional dancer. Here’s the ad for one of their Cotton Club shows — this one from September 1936, marking the Cotton Club moving downtown from Harlem (which is another story all together).

WHYTE'S MANIACS cottotn club opening show The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Fri__Sep_11__1936_

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 11, 1936

 

Frankie said that at this time in their performance groups, each couple was often expected to showcase a different dancing personality — Mildred & Billie were smooth dancers, Lucille &  Jerome were comic dancers and danced with a lot of humorous styling and steps (she was also taller than him, and obvious height differences were a common trait in their comic teams), and Naomi and Frankie were the “flash.” At this time, they would be the ones throwing the air steps, though Frankie figured for the earlier years like this he would probably only have thrown “Ace in the hole” (what most modern dancers call “the candlestick,” as first begun by swinging the partner between the legs, as demonstrated by Willa Mae Ricker and Snookie Beasely in A Day at the Races), and his trademark first air step, “Over the back.”

After their jam, the couples would line up and wait for the Swing Out cue. The group’s Swing Outs in a line, much like today, brought the house down. Then they’d do “Stops,” the first ensemble routine Frankie remembers them having. (The first “Stops” routine was slightly different than the modern versions it would evolve into and are most often taught today.)  This is back in the days when the audiences demanded encores of their performers, and so Frankie’s group had to come up with something. So, he just had them start swinging out together until he told them to stop.

This Cotton Club Revue was so successful that in May of 1937, they went on a European tour, visiting Paris (where Frankie and his ex-girlfriend Lucille Middleton got into a passionate fight, leaving him walking all over Paris until sunrise), England (where, according to his book, Frankie accidentally curtsied rather than bowed to the Queen of England, but wore a white glove on the hand she shook for awhile after), and Dublin.  (Historian Judy Pritchett said the curtsy and the glove were just a joke. We understand if you’re disappointed.)

Lindy Hop Historian Karen Campos McCormack dug around and wrote an entire essay on the Whitey’s visiting Ireland. An example of the great material she dug up was this quote from French jazz critic Hugues Panassié:

Whitey’s Hopper Maniacs are three couples who specialise in a dance called the lindy hop (the name comes from the Lindbergh hop), a dance which has been raging for some time in America. The six dancers are remarkable, in particular Naomi Waller and Lucille Middleton. It is difficult to give readers who have never seen the lindy hop an idea of what it looks like. It is the most dynamic dance in the world. The dancers throw their partners up in the air, jump in front of each other and perform the most unpredictable gags. (as quoted in This Thing Called Swing, p220).

If we were forced to guess, we’d say this clip was from early 1937. Our main reason being that there’s no sign of anyone from Whitey’s other main team, the “Six Lindy Hop Champions” one. That team was on tour for the beginning of 1937, up until after Easter (where they were in California, filming A Day at the Races). And since the “Hopping Maniacs” would go on tour in May, and then dissolve soon afterwards, early 1937 seems like a good bet.

It’s probably not a coincidence that one of Whitey’s best performance teams happens to be social dancing right in the middle of the camera when the news crew comes to the Savoy. That was most likely part of Whitey’s plan all along. As Norma Miller discussed in her book, even on the run-of-the-mill social dance night, Whitey would constantly send his dancers all over the ballroom to perform in front of celebrities, reporters, and tourists.

As far as other dancers go, there certainly seems to be some great ones out there. Just look for any woman in a hat, and you’ll see some great Lindy Hop. (There’s two of them.)

Though we don’t know their names, one of those couples seems to be the same couple shown in this photograph:

gettyimages-53370728-594x594

The other couple is good enough that we might have heard their names before, but we (the authors, at least) sadly don’t know their faces:

ID unknown

Transitions

When the “Maniacs” tour returned to New York, Naomi quit Lindy Hopping to become a chorus girl.  Mildred Cruse married a tap dancer she had met on tour and stopped working with the Whitey’s. By 1938, two-thirds of the group’s partnerships had dissolved.

By that time, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in general were getting more and more gigs. And based on the names of the couples Frankie works with over the next few years, the Whitey’s started changing around partnerships and groups much more often. Frankie himself would go with an almost completely different group of Whiteys to Australia and other locations for an entire year starting in the second half of 1938.  The “Big Apple” dance craze had become so popular they were now often called things like “White’s Big Apple Dancers,” though, tellingly, most newspaper announcements didn’t differentiate the groups and simply referred to all of them as “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.”

And so the “Hopping Maniacs” — both the name and the tight-knit group itself — had faded into new names and new lives.  And, as far as we know, they had never got to perform one of their show-stopping routines on film so that we could see them.

But at least we have the few precious seconds of them social dancing at the Savoy.

 

flourish

 

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Sources

  • Huge thanks to the Frankie Manning Foundation for their continued sharing of photos and articles related to the history of the dance.
  • When not otherwise stated, all information regarding the opinions and experiences of the original dancers taken from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman and Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Francesca De Vita permalink
    May 26, 2020 10:43 pm

    I have no words to thank you, this is pure gold!!
    I showed this video to the students today for Frankie’s birthday, in order to “introduce” them to him and Naomi. I didn’t realize that it was the six of them. Urgent update tomorrow and most of all thank you for your amazing work! (I have already quoted your valuable contributions today, they will hear about you again :-) )

  2. Ari Silburt permalink
    June 5, 2020 1:57 am

    Always amazing stuff Bobby, a true service you are doing to the community!

  3. June 6, 2020 2:30 am

    I also love seeing Ella in the background of this, particularly the spot where she seems to be moving her arms (maybe mock conducting?) to whatever is going on this music – you gotta think she wants to dance to whatever song is on!

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