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The 1936 Harvest Moon Ball (GEEK OUT)

July 30, 2020

Geek ask 2

This is the longer GEEK OUT version, where we go into detail in everything. For the snack sized version, click here. For our 1935 HMB essay, click here.

This is long, but for a reason. This is not just the story of a contest. It’s the story of a year in the life of Lindy Hop. It’s a story of context. A story of hidden memories. It’s a story of two dozen heroes. 

May, 1936

The first “National Dance Congress” was held in New York, involving many of the of the greatest Euro-centric dance scholars and performers of the time. A relatively famous dancer and choreographer named Mura Dehn had, years earlier, stumbled into the Savoy Ballroom and fell in love with the dancing there. She had gone on to spend the years since studying Black American dance in all its forms.

She used the congress to express that Black American dances like Jazz dance were a truly groundbreaking art form and worthy of serious attention. Most of her peers did not agree with her.

The Missing Clip

While sorting through all the Harvest Moon Ball footage we could find, we came upon this clip. No information anywhere about it:

It turns out there was also a hole in our early Harvest Moon Ball footage: 1936. But this didn’t necessarily solve the problem — you can’t take much for granted when Harvest Moon Ball footage is concerned. There were multiple newsreel companies, using multiple filming angles, and who occasionally showed different heats than each other. Then, just to make it even harder, stock film companies would later take footage from different years and splice them together when they re-released them. 

To let you in backstage and show you the production at work, here’s how we found its home:

  • Video quality. While much of the HMB footage passed around the internet is a copy of a copy, you still see an evolution in film quality and clarity from the mid-1930s to the 40s and into the 50s. This clip quality looks like its from the 30s.
  • Limited air steps. This clip most likely took place before ’39/’40 when there are lots of air steps being thrown — but they still do a candlestick/ace in the hole, so it’s probably after 1935, when those high acrobatics were first seen coming into the dance.

Let’s dive into some deeper geek territory:

  • The dancers are doing ensemble “Stops”  and “slow motion.” Frankie doesn’t have those entering the dance until after 1935, and he doesn’t have the “Stops” routine entering the dance until after 1936.
  • The skirts’ hem lines — they’re below the knees. By 1938’s HMB, the skirts are fuller and many are above the knee.

So we’re getting a rough idea of ’35, ’36, or ’37.  How did we hone in from there?

  • Well, perhaps you noticed there is a couple doing shag in the Lindy comp. It just so happens that due to its popularity, the Harvest Moon Ball introduced Shag in 1937 as its own contest. So, if a random couple is doing shag in the Lindy contest, it’s probably before then.
  • The spotlights. This is a discovery we were very excited about. Notice the dancers are dancing on a darker floor, and spotlights are following each couple around. Guess what changes in 1937? The Harvest Moon Ball moves to having a giant, well-lit stage and no spotlights following each couple.

Because of the high acrobatic step, and the spotlights, and because we hadn’t seen any of the 1935 dancers in this clip, we were pretty confident it was 1936. That’s when we began digging around in the newspapers — which is where we found this picture in the Daily News:

1936 FUll cover spread Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

Pictures from the Daily News, August 27, 1936

Those are the dancers in this newsreel. So there you have it, the newsreel was a 1936 Harvest Moon Ball newsreel. (And, it is the only newsreel from this year we personally have seen, there may have been others.)

But who are these dancers? And who did they share the floor with? And how did they get there? Let’s begin with the bending of a few rules.

“Rules”

1936 00 First announcement Daily_News_Sun__Jul_12__1936_

From the announcement of the 2nd annual Harvest Moon Ball.

On July 12, 1936, The Daily News announced the follow up to its highly successful first Harvest Moon Ball. They began peppering every day with the announcement, and telling the story of previous year’s winners. We showed one of those near the end of the previous Geek Out essay).

Before we go further, we should mention something that is supposed to have happened since the last Harvest Moon Ball contest: The contest where, the legend goes, Frankie Manning and Freida Washington introduced the first air step into swing-era Lindy Hop. Since we covered that contest in the 1935 essay, we won’t go over it here (and you should really hear Frankie tell you, anyway).

But, two things to bear in mind: (1) We have seen air steps in previous 1920s Charleston contests — which Frankie and Freida had probably never seen — so we know Frankie and Freida didn’t invent them in the wider world of jazz dance. He only claimed to have introduced them to Lindy Hop. This lines up with the film record, as we haven’t seen them in Lindy Hop footage before this year, 1936. (2) Frankie said Lindy Hop already had lifts, where a partner holds up another partner, which the evidence certainly seems to suggest, but it had not yet had moves where a partner is without the support  of partner or floor, hence, “air step”.

So, Frankie and Freida’s specific contribution in this area is that of introducing non-supported partner acrobatics into Lindy Hop — which was still a huge contribution, considering how many air steps came to be invented in the next few years, and how much the average human today equates swing dancing to throwing each other around.

The Savoy at this time was having weekly Lindy Hop contests, and according to Frankie’s book, had been since at least 1934. In the New York Daily News newspaper, there was one advertisement for a contest at the Savoy at the end of 1935:

Daily_News_Sat__Nov_30__1935_

From the Daily News, Nov. 30 1935

 

Then there were two more similar advertisements in early 1936. Since there were so many contests and special engagements at the Savoy, and there are so few mentioned in the newspapers, it’s probable they only occasionally advertised contests. According to historian Judy Pritchett, Frankie said contests tended to go by word of mouth, on the street — “Psst… Hey, did you hear? Shorty Snowden is going to be in at the contest at the Savoy this week…”  Which makes sense, considering Harlem was its own tight-knit community. And so the three mentioned ads are probably not anything special. Still, we thought the geek-reader would appreciate seeing the advertisement.

Back to the ball. In the rules, they mentioned that previous divisional winners were not allowed to enter again, so Leon James and Edith Mathews couldn’t sign up if they had wanted to. You also couldn’t be a professional dancer — they expected you to put some form of occupation on the entry form. Also, you had to be eighteen years of age.

But none of this seemed to stop Whitey from bending the rules. For instance, he encouraged Norma Miller to do it again. Following the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball, Norma Miller had pretty much gone professional — touring the world performing Lindy Hop — and had done so at only 15 years of age. So obviously the whole “under 18” thing was also not a large concern. They didn’t even have “date of birth” on the entry form. 

Please know: we’re not complaining — we’re very glad he got his best dancers on that stage so that they, and their art form, could get recognition, and with the added bonus that it was all filmed so that we can enjoy it today. Remember, we would not have Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and perhaps would not be doing the dance the same way today if it weren’t for Whitey and the methods he used to make sure great Lindy Hop was seen. We’re just saying, Whitey obviously worked around rules. And this year, it looks like he REALLY went around a rule, as we’ll see.

Playing the swing music for the evening would be Clyde McCoy. Yes, THE Clyde McCoy. After you have Fletcher Henderson the first year, where you gonna go from there —  to Clyde McCoy, that’s where. All joking aside, Clyde was very popular for his growling-trumpet style and his rendition of “Sugar Blues,” which actually inspired his face and endorsement for one of the first and most famous electric guitar Wah-Wah pedals. Which makes perfect sense now that we realize the connection.  And — another non-Lindy-history geek fact — he’s descended straight down a generation from the most famous McCoys in American history, as in, The Hatfields and McCoys.

 

Running and Dances

Between the announcement of the Harvest Moon Ball and the prelims at the Savoy, a very important thing happened for both Black America, and the world: the 1936 Olympics took place. In Nazi-run Germany.

1936 Black Eagles

Eight of the 18 Black American 1936 Olympians. Via NPR, pictured: (left to right, rear) high jumpers Dave Albritton and Cornelius Johnson; hurdler Tidye Pickett; sprinter Ralph Metcalfe; boxer Jim Clark; sprinter Mack Robinson. In front: weightlifter John Terry (left); long jumper John Brooks. They don’t mention who the White guy is photo-bombing the picture.

 

The reason it was important for Black America was because eighteen Black American athletes would partake in the games, including two Black American women.

Among those athletes was a young track and field athlete who had already set three world records and tied a fourth. You’ll probably recognize his name: Jesse Owens. But do you recognize the name Ralph Metcalfe? How about Cornelius Johnson? Or Louise Stokes? If you haven’t, their stories, and the domination of the team as a whole, may make you wonder why that is.

The 1936 games had been awarded to Berlin in 1931, before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Once he did come to power, many countries, including America, were hesitant to give Germany that spotlight. They were aware of the storm cloud growing over Germany — in September of 1935, Germany had passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jewish Germans and Black Germans of their citizenship, and outlawed marriages and sexual intercourse between White Germans and Jews and People of Color. (For public relations purposes, however, they decided not to prosecute anyone under those laws until after the Olympics.)

In America, there were many voices calling for Jewish, Black, and American athletes in general, to boycott taking part in Germany’s Olympics. The NAACP and New York’s Mayor LaGuardia were among them. There was also, understandably, a great deal of fear for their safety.

Four of the Black athletes wrote a letter for newspapers saying they wanted to compete; they wanted to show the German athletes and the world — and their home, America — what they were capable of. Many Black newspapers agreed.  Jewish runner Marty Glickman said, “The antisemitism we might encounter in Berlin would be no worse than what I faced growing up in Brooklyn.”

Many dubious actions followed, including a trip to Germany where the American Olympic committee was wined and dined by Hitler, who feared a domino-effect if the United States boycotted the games. The head of the committee came back and reported they had seen no signs of antisemitism and discrimination. Suspicious, many still thought America should boycott the games.

When the American committee cast its votes on whether to boycott the Berlin Olympics, the votes were 56 for, 58 against. On July 11, the Olympic trials took place place in New York City, on Randall’s Island, in the same stadium where the Carnival of Swing would take place in 1938.  The temperature was sweltering and athletes dropped left and right from heat exhaustion and injuries. Black American Cornelius Johnson broke the world record in the high jump at that trial. Which was then tied that very day by fellow Black American Dave Albritton. They were the first Black athletes to hold the record in that event.

The supportive newspapers called the eighteen Black athletes that made it on the team  “The Black Eagles,” or the “Black Auxiliary.” Others referred to them as “the Black gang.”

In Germany, the Nazis wanted to use the Olympics as propaganda.  They wiped Anti-Semitic messages from the city, and as a jab to the United States, included the Black American athletes equally in the star treatment given to the athletes at large. The strange result was that the Black Americans, in what we now recognize as one of the most notoriously racist cultures in history, experienced a life free from segregation. They were given equality across the board and allowed to sit wherever they wanted, eat wherever they wanted, and go into whatever business they wanted in the city.  The Black women athletes even had German servants assigned to them to attend to their every need. The Germans were not used to seeing Black Americans, let alone Black champion athletes, and the Eagles became celebrities, constantly given the attention of the press and fans. 

In the first day’s events, the high jump, Cornelius Johnson broke the Olympic record and took gold.  David Albritton got silver. Hitler left before congratulating them. Afterwards, officials told him he would either have to greet all athletes, or none of them. He chose none.

In the hundred meter sprint, Jesse Owens beat his Black teammate Ralph Metcalfe — who had already set or equally matched 16 world records in his career —  by only 1/10 of a second. They took the gold and silver. Metcalfe would stay out till four in the morning after the event, and then quit running shortly afterwards. 

Archie Williams dominated the 400 meter run so strongly that one English sports announcer  excitedly yelled “That negro’s dangerous!” as Williams began to overtake all his opponents. 

In 1932, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett had been the first Black American women to be accepted on the Olympics team. However, once there, they experienced discriminatory hazing and were both disappointingly substituted for White runners in their race, and thus did not compete at the games they had qualified for. 1936 was their chance.  Stokes’ hometown raised $680 for the athlete to be able to go.

Tidye, who ran in the semifinals of the 80m hurdles, was the first Black American woman to compete in the Olympics. Unfortunately, the German hurdles were not what she was used to, and she tripped over her second hurdle, breaking her foot, and couldn’t finish the race. 

Watching, Louise Stokes vowed she’d win a gold medal for Tidye. But right before her race, the coach pulled Louise and put a White racer in her place, again. Understandably, she never ran another race again.  She took up bowling, and dominated that sport as well.

 

Women Olympic Picture The_Boston_Globe_Mon__Aug_31__1936_

From The Boston Globe, Aug 31, 1936. Louise is back row, 3rd from left, and Tidye is on the right end of the back row.

 

During the games, Jesse was doing great in the running, having won the 100m and the 200m dash. But his long jumps weren’t going too well. But then Luz Long, a fellow German athlete, gave Jesse a piece of advice. It put his head in the right place and he ended up not only winning the gold, but breaking a world record. That’s the way the story goes. It may not have happened. But something that definitely happened is that after the medal ceremony, Luz, who had just raised his straight arm in salute to the Nazi Swastika, hugged Jesse and took him by the arm and they walked together from the stadium. Jesse Owens would never forget what a courageous act it was.

owens luntz

Owens and Long walking arm in arm off of the Olympic pedestal.

 

All told, seven of the U.S.’s 11 track and field gold medals were won by Black Americans,  as the Black American New York Age newspaper proudly reported:

1936 Jesse Owens wins The_New_York_Age_Sat__Aug_15__1936_

 

Furthermore, those eighteen Black Americans won fourteen medals at that year’s games. Eight of them gold. And more than half of the USA’s Olympic points were earned by Black Americans. 

But two of those medals were not originally planned, and all athletes involved were not happy about it. Right before the relay, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe were subbed in for two of the other runners — Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. They weren’t told why, they were simply ordered to do it, and after a protest they ended up following those orders. Only after the race did they confirm it was because Marty and Sam were Jewish. Someone in the chain of command — it’s unknown whether the idea came from America or Germany — decided it was best if the favored Jewish American runners did not win any gold medals.

Jesse Owens returned home before the rest of the team. Upon his return to the states, the much-loved president Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t extend an invitation to meet with the American who had won four gold medals for the country against their philosophical enemy. The American who was now the world’s most famous athlete. (Reportedly, because Roosevelt, like all Democratic politicians of the pre-Civil Rights Era, relied on the votes of White Southern “Dixie-crats.” Were he to shake a Black person’s hand, let alone invite them to the White House, it would have caused problems with his voter base. Perhaps the fact it was an election year played a role.) A month later Owens would say that he didn’t feel snubbed by Hitler — he felt snubbed by his own president. But the press ignored this speech.

After his New York ticker-tape parade, Owens had to take a freight elevator up the Waldorf Astoria to get to the reception honoring him, because People of Color were not allowed to enter through the front door.

To add more fuel to the fire, Jesse had come home to take advantage of some of the endorsement offers, because he had spent his entire career working part time jobs just to make ends meet because athletes of Color didn’t have near the amount of scholarships as White athletes did. In doing so, he had turned down an invitation to compete with the USA Olympic team in Sweden. Angered United States athletic officials revoked his amateur status, thus ending the only career a track and field athlete could have at the time. In order to make a living doing his passion, he would resort to racing horses in exhibitions.

You might think, as many have proclaimed since, that the entire experience helped prove the White supremacy myths of the time wrong. Unfortunately, racism doesn’t work that way.  If Black American athletes had not won, White Supremacists would certainly have used it as evidence supporting their cause. But when the Black Americans did win, White Supremacy simply shaped it to their agenda — after the event, the Nazis claimed that African-descended people came from cultures that had spent their time running around all day in jungles and not becoming civilized — they were basically animals. And it wasn’t just the Nazi’s who believed this, but U.S. Olympic head coaches. This opinion still influences people all over the Western world. Races could be won,  but there was no way to win racism.

Proving these racist beliefs wrong would be these very same 1936 Olympians. They became doctors of Chemistry and Mathematics (Lu Valle) and members of state and national congress (Albritton and Metcalfe). They instructed the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots (Archie Williams), co-wrote the resolution to create Black History Month (Metcalfe), co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus (Metcalfe), won the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Owens), had schools named after them for their service to education (Tidye A Phillips school, Chicago), were buried at Arlington (Pollard), founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League (Stokes), achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (John Woodruff) and one even became a pioneering Black American square dance caller (John Brooks).

In America, White mainstream newspapers quickly dropped the mention of the other athletes — it became the story of “Owens versus Hitler.” America, it seems, was (and arguably still is) much more comfortable with highlighting one personification of Black excellence than they were highlighting a large group. And thus, modern Americans don’t think of the 1936 Olympics as the year of the “Black Eagles.” They just think of it as the time Jesse Owens, seemingly alone, beat Hitler.

After the games Luz Long, that German athlete, and Jesse Owens became penpals. Long was drafted into the German army.  Having a premonition of his own death in the war,  he sent a letter to Jesse saying that after the war, he wanted Jesse to come and tell his son about his father, and show his son how the world could be. (It’s a pretty amazing letter.) Luz died in combat. After the war, Owens would hold to the promise, and befriend Luz’s son. Owens would be the best man at his wedding.

So, what does the 1936 Olympics have to do with the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball, besides of the fact they happened near the same time?

First off, as we learned how this amazing time in American history was shaped by mainstream America, something struck close to home for us. Much in the same way that Jesse Owens was an exceptional athlete who dominates the world’s memory of the 1936 Olympics, Frankie Manning was an exceptional swing dance artist who has dominated the swing scene’s memory of Lindy Hop history. Other Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers may not have had as large of an impact on the dance and the resurgence of Lindy Hop in the modern scene, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve plenty of their own recognition.

That’s why the most important goal of this very essay series is not to simply organize the Harvest Moon Ball footage — it’s so that, in doing so, we can put the spotlight on other pioneers of the dance. So you will know their names, just as you now know the names of Metcalfe, Stokes, Johnson, and Pickett to go alongside Owens.

Secondly, if the 1935 Harlem riot explained New York’s relationship with its Black American community, the story of the 1936 Olympics helps explain America’s — and the Western world’s — relationship with displays of Black American excellence. All the glory Black Americans had won for their country and for their people still didn’t change the fact that they were, by law and by action, segregated and discriminated against by their own country, and still often thought of as uncivilized and even sub-human to most White people. Even by most of those White people who liked them and appreciated their skill.

It’s this public that will watch the Harlem dancers dance their Black American dance while cramped in their seats at Madison Square Garden, or in the Harvest Moon Ball newsreels of 1936 — it’s this lens that most people of the time will see them through.

The Prelims

Shortly after the 1936 Olympics, prelims for the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball at the Savoy would take place on Friday night, Aug 14, 1936. The Tuesday before, however, the midtown White-only Roseland Ballroom had their prelims. Want to see what they were like?

Take a look:

 

This footage came from the British Pathé stock footage site, marked August 24, 1936 as dancers “practicing for a championship.” But since they are wearing numbers and there are stern-looking people walking around with clipboards, it’s likely they’re actually in a contest. (Stern faces and clipboards — how little has changed.)

Now then, here is a photo of the 1936 Roseland prelims from the Daily News:

Roseland prelims dancer pic 2 Daily_News_Thu__Aug_13__1936_

From the Roseland Lindy finals

The couple on the left might look familiar — they are in the clip above wearing those exact clothes. So there you have it, the clip above is almost certainly the Roseland HMB Lindy Hop prelims in 1936.

Finalists from the Roseland included the second place couple from the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball, and future Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, Harry Rosenberg.  The ballroom was allowed to take nine couples.

This clip is pretty neat. First off, look at how much swing-style Charleston they’re doing. If you had never seen Lindy Hop anywhere else except this clip, you’d probably think the Charleston was the basic. There is one swing out, near the very end, and it’s a pretty snappy one, it doesn’t mess around. And, there’s what looks to be a version of the “tango” step. That’s pretty cool to see in 1936. Another step you see is the turn where the leader sends the the follower out and then turns into his own arm — it’s a well-known turn in the Day at the Races ending choreo. So, here’s a dance floor that doesn’t have hardly any tuck turns or side passes, but DOES have a tango and a complex leaders-turn. Isn’t that fascinating?

There are a lot of good dancers here, in terms of the quality of their movement and rhythm (just not a ton of personality expressed, at least compared to the Whitey’s dancers). And, in fact, a lot of them probably learned a lot by going to the Savoy, which dancers like Harry Rosenberg certainly did (we discussed the obvious problems with appropriation and the Roseland Ballroom in our 1935 essay, and go into even more depth in the Geek Out version.)

Then, on August 14, the Savoy had their finals. Once again, Teddy Hill provided the music for the Lindy prelims. Sadly, no news company went to film the Savoy’s prelims. (At least this year.) But they did, as usual, give a little story and publish the finalists from the Savoy comp, complete with the common racist “Black people are naturally good at rhythm” implications often in these stories:

1936 Savoy finalists CLIP Daily_News_Sat__Aug_15__1936_

The Lindy Hop finalists for the Savoy prelims.

Among the finalists are names you know, and a few you love: Norma Miller, here partnering with Billy Ricker, who would be her partner for Hellzapoppin in five years, and for another 30 years later in her life. There’s also Snookie Beasely dancing with Willa Mae Ricker, and Ella Gibson dancing with George Greenidge. (We didn’t technically know how to spell George’s last name. As it is spelled differently in most sources. But thanks to the incredible research skills of Balboa (and fashion) historian Lewis Orchard, we now know it’s officially “Greenidge.” Thanks Lewis!) If those partnerships are familiar to you, there’s a specific reason why, and if you haven’t guessed it by the time we get to the end, there we reveal all.

There’s also Charles Tynes and Lillian Travers, two Savoy Lindy Hoppers we didn’t know of until we broke down the 1935 footage.

And, finally, there’s some new names, like Eileen Mimms and George Austin, Maggie Gilan and Paul Niver, Red Elan and Helen Bundy, (spelled “Bunby” by the often inaccurate journalists), and Mary and Ed Reid. We’ll get to match dancing to two of these couples for sure.

Reading over the list of finalists, those who know Frankie’s book well might notice something unexpected: No Frankie. In his book, he devotes a full page to competing in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball. We’ll come back to it later.

 

The Finals

Stage Picture Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

View from inside the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.

On Aug 26, a tightly-packed 22,000 people watched the finals inside Madison Square Garden while, in a repeat of 1935, another 20,000 clogged the streets outside unable to get in. Though there were several celebrities announced to huge applause, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and mayor LaGuardia, and the audience reportedly gave a five minute whoop and holler for Ginger Rogers.

The emcee of the evening was a relatively popular Daily News columnist who specialized in writing about Broadway theater. He would end up doing such a good job as the emcee that he would get to keep the gig for many years, and in 1947, a CBS exec in the audience of the Harvest Moon Ball thought he would be perfect as one of the first professional television hosts. The emcee’s name was Ed Sullivan.

Once again, the Daily News was kind enough to print the names of the competitors and their numbers. Here were the Lindy Hoppers:

Competitors 1936_

 

Let’s go back to that picture of all the Whitey’s now, and see the caption:

1936 Lindy Photo_

The photograph in the Daily News the day after the ball.

Imagine our delight when we saw that the newspaper had done so much work for us by identifying three of the couples in the contest. It does turn out they mess up their own order — Willa Mae and Snookie are in the middle, not left.

And, it seems they messed something else up, but that wasn’t their fault. Something suspicious was going on in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball finals.

 

The Mysterious Case of

Ella & George

Notice the picture above mentions George Greenidge and Ella Gibson won this year’s Lindy comp. If you’ve never seen Ella and George up close before, take a look at this picture that was put out after the contest.

George Ella face harvest

The picture above we have had in our files for so long we can’t remember where we got it from. We have not been able to find its original publication in our newspaper research.

There are hardly any photos of George that show his face very clearly — before seeing this picture for the first time, we had only seen him on pixelated, low-resolution versions of A Day at the Races and Keep Punching’s “Jitterbug Contest” clips.  So, when we first saw this picture we said, “Wow, so that’s what George Greenidge looks like.” You might be thinking the same thing.

This is where things start to get weird.  

Before we go further, let’s check a few basic facts off the list. Is this photo actually from the 1936 HMB? It certainly seems to be: they appear to be wearing the same outfits as in the picture we’ve already shown you, and that you will see throughout the footage. And all the pictures from the event mention George and Ella as the winners, further reinforcing they’re from the event. And Bill Robinson was at the 1936 ball, wearing what could be the same coat in another picture from the Daily News from the contest. (The photo does have one probable mistake: “Central Park” is not mentioned anywhere in articles about the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball, and it’s not particularly close to Madison Square Garden in New York terms.)

First off: Do you notice anything strange about the winners picture above in general? Sure, a person can have a long face, but don’t all three of them seem to have somewhat thin faces? Here’s what happens when you stretch the picture 10% wider:

1936 winners Stretched

Winner’s photograph above, stretched to 110% width.

Doesn’t that look a little more “natural” now? Stretching it 10% was a guess, but we believe it’s good enough to play with.

Oh yeah, there was one other picture of the winners we found, from the Daily News:

Whitey

 

Now then: As we have been researching this project, something has continually bugged us about the winner’s picture showing George and Ella close up. Now that we have been getting much clearer footage of George Greenidge’s dancing in the higher-definition clips of A Day at the Races, Radio City revels, and Keep Punching that have been uploaded onto the internet over the last few years by people like clip collector Bill Green, we have a lot better idea of what George looked like. We’ve also taken a deeper look at some of the Whitey’s Lindy Hop photos from the past. And, it just so happens we have quite a lot of views of George Greenidge’s profile, thanks to a Life magazine photo shoot he did with Willa Mae Ricker later this very year.

Facial recognition is an important tool we use to identify dancers in the old footage. The three dimensional quality of our face means it can look pretty different based on the angle of the camera, especially from front-facing to profile. Changes especially happen when people smile versus not smiling, and depending on how they’re smiling. One’s face can look pretty different between a giant grin and a smirk, so it can take a lot of investigation if you don’t know someone’s face well.

Now, let’s look at George Greenidge as Life magazine and footage from his Whitey’s film scenes show him, compared to the face in the photographs above (outlined in burgundy below). Compare the faces. Look at every aspect of their shape — the shape of their noses, the shape of their overall profiles, how shallow their faces are verses deep, their cheeks, their chins, their hairlines, everything. 

George comparrison

And let’s look at Ella. Sadly, Day at the Races is the only dancing we have of her on film, and the only pictures we know of her are the Whitey’s Easter pictures from 1937. Let’s compare Ella from those sources with HMB Champ Ella (outlined in burgundy).

Ella comparrison

Hopefully you’re seeing what began to dawn on us through this research: “George Greenidge” and “Ella Gibson,” winners of the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball, don’t appear to actually be the real George and Ella.

Obviously, their dancing and body types are the other important comparison tools. So, let’s do a little comparison of George & Ella’s A Day at the Races dancing with this HMB’s “George” and “Ella’s” dancing.  Compare their body types, their relatives heights, their postures, their “pulse,” the way their feet and legs relate to the ground, and their choices.

 

Those dancers don’t look to be particularly the same dancers. What’s the story here?

Many might recall Norma Miller and Frankie Manning saying in interviews and books that sometimes at the Harvest Moon Ball the Whitey’s group switched dancers at the last minute. The 1936 ball is probably one of the specific times they had in mind when they said that. But why would they have to switch out dancers? There are a few obvious possibilities — George or Ella could have gotten sick, or more likely, injured. But we found a different reason.

In a fantastic dissertation from Harri Heinilä on Harlem Lindy Hop, Harri retells a story passed on by the late and great Lindy Hop scholar Terry Monaghan —  it’s the story of Whitey refusing to let George Greenidge and a partner (in that story, Eleanor “Stumpy” Watson), do the finals of the Harvest Moon Ball (in that story, 1944) because Eleanor refused to agree to give Whitey the prize money if they won.

Those of you who read the 1935 HMB Geek Out essay might not be that surprised by this, for we showed how Whitey was almost certainly taking their winnings. When we first heard this story, it sounded to us like the year Terry’s story took place was actually 1936, and that partner was Ella Gibson — after all, we had no evidence of George, Eleanor, or Ella dancing professionally past 1940, Ella and Eleanor have similar names, and George is accounted for in the finals of all the other years until the 1940s. So we posited that theory in the first publication of this article.   

But then, on July 31, 2020 — the day after the first publication of this essay — ILHC released an amazing interview it had conducted with Eleanor Watson herself in 2006. At around 6 minutes, she confirmed that she stopped dancing professionally in the late 30s due to pneumonia — but she also came back to do the Harvest Moon Ball a few years later. That’s where she confirms the story of making it through the prelims, but then not going to the finals because they didn’t “kickback” money. We discovered evidence of that story in the 1944 preliminary rosters. So this means this particular instance was after all not that same story, however is still possibly a reason why it went down.

So — for some reason, possibly innocent, like an injury, or possibly dubious, like Whitey showing them who’s boss for some reason, George and Ella don’t move onto the finals. But, Whitey can’t just put a whole new couple into the finals that didn’t go through prelims, so he tells Mildred and Billie “Tonight, you’re George and Ella. Don’t let on otherwise.” Now, imagine the shock to all involved when the substitute couple won first place. Especially to the real George Greenidge and Ella Gibson.

The definitely real George Greenidge and Ella Gibson, we know, went on to do the champions’ tour with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that ended with their performance in A Day at the Races. And the real George, whom, by the way, Terry’s story implies was probably okay with giving Whitey the winnings, would go on to compete in three more Harvest Moon Balls — 1938, 1939, and 1940 — while as a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper. And, he would go by different last names each time. (“Gren,” for two years, and, comically, the last name of Norma’s other partner, “Ricker,” for one).  He had to, because remember — you weren’t allowed to compete again if you had won. Or, if they thought you had won.

Perhaps those years of George competing were, in some part, fueled by a desire to prove to the world his true self was a champion. (And he was — George is not only an incredible dancer with a signature style, he was a great pioneer as an inventor of several of the Charleston and air steps we know and love.)  Ella, sadly, was not mentioned much after A Day at the Races as far as the Lindy Hop history books were concerned. According to Frankie, she had left Whitey’s by the end of 1937. 

So. If this isn’t the real George and Ella, who are THIS “George” and “Ella?” If they were good enough to win, isn’t there a good chance we’d know of them? In searching through all the pictures of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers we have access to, the closest match we could find was this:  Billie Williams and Mildred Cruse. (Some might remember them from our recent essay on them dancing at the Savoy.)

Mildred Cruse and Billie WIlliams Comparrison to 1936 winners Stretched

There are a lot of things Billie & Mildred share in common with the mysterious winners: Billie has a similar pointed nose, hairline, and profile in general, and Mildred has similar chin and mouth, eyebrows, and note the tiny hint of widow’s peak in both the women’s hairlines. Also, there is the fact they were a couple known to work together. Mildred and Billie we know were one of the top Whitey’s couples who were working with Frankie Manning’s performance groups during these years, and therefore could hold their own in a Harvest Moon Ball. But though we thought this all gave a strong case, our gut wasn’t 100% behind it — we’re trying to make sure we err conservatively in these projects.

Then we realized that, in his book, Frankie Manning says that Billie Williams and Mildred Cruse won the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.

Now, we had read this section in his book a half a dozen times, even as we were wondering why George Greenidge and Ella Gibson’s dancing didn’t look as strong as it normally did in this Harvest Moon Ball footage. How did we come to gloss over Frankie’s thoughts? Because, ever since we have gone over this footage and saw the lists of participants, it had appeared like Frankie had mismatched memories or had been mistaken in his memory of this event. He remembered being in this ball himself, his group doing the stops routine in the heat, and that Midlred & Billie won, Lucille Middleton & Jerome Williams came in 2nd, and Naomi Waller & he came in third. But none of these dancers appeared on any list given by the paper, or appeared to be in this contest.

When we first saw the stops routine in the footage, we looked at each dancer closely, frame by frame, even squinting, hoping to find Frankie. But as you might agree once you see this footage broken down, Frankie does not seem to be anywhere in it.

As we did in our 1935 HMB essay, we want to stress that we don’t hold any negative feelings toward Frankie Manning, or his co-author Cynthia Millman, for this small, probably-inaccurate account of a memory. First off, he was remembering from many decades past, and had done countless contests and performances.

To understand the situation even further, we need to take you back to a very different world than the one before you today. We need to take you back to 2006. That was the year Lindy Hopper, historian, librarian, and author Cynthia Millman turned in her manuscript for Frankie Manning’s book — 120,000 words on the memories and life of Lindy Hop’s biggest legend. Cynthia’s job was not only taking Frankie’s many stories and forming them into a narrative, it was researching and fact checking every memory as much as possible. 

At the time of her research, Cynthia could only see Harvest Moon Ball footage by going to research facilities where she was allowed to watch it one time through. She wasn’t even allowed to touch the machine except to push the play or stop button. And though she looked into purchasing those clips, they were (and still are) very expensive. Furthermore, there was no access to the Daily News archives at that time, the ones that have been such a crucial resource as we’re  telling the stories of these Harvest Moon Balls. Several Lindy historians had pleaded to get access to them, but were denied.

So that gives you some idea of how hard it was to get information to corroborate Frankie’s memories. And when it came to the many memories Cynthia was able to research, she was amazed at how well he remembered things. She was constantly confirming the stories as he had told them. (We ourselves are constantly amazed at how accurate it proves to be in our own research.)

When Cynthia found research that conflicted with Frankie’s memories, Frankie was not defensive about it and very open to change. (Though, occasionally, he was annoyed when some reporting of a moment had been handed down through jazz history as a fact, when Frankie had been in that room when it happened and remembered that moment going differently. A feeling we think everyone can empathize with.)

When it comes to Frankie not being in the 1936 ball, Cynthia has no doubt Frankie could have been mistaken about this memory and agrees with our findings. She imagined Frankie saying, “Let me know what he figures out, cause I’d love to know what happened!”

It’s also important to note that in a conversation with historian Judy Pritchett, she observed that Frankie didn’t seem to care very much about the Harvest Moon Balls. She wagered that for him, it was just a PR opportunity for the Whitey’s — the only real place he felt his dancing won or lost was on the contest floors of the Savoy or on the stages before Harlem’s discerning crowds.

And maybe we should give this memory of his more credit than we thought. After all, he might have remembered exactly who the 1936 winners were — because it just so happens Mildred Cruse herself said she won the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.

In a short 1983 dancer biography written by professor and dance historian Robert Crease for the New York Swing Dance Society Newsletter, Mildred explained how she was secretly dancing Lindy Hop at the Savoy without her religious father’s approval, when she met a dancer named Billie Williams. Billie soon asked her to be his partner. In the article, all she said about the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball is that Whitey “recruited them for his Lindy Hoppers and enrolled them in the Harvest Moon Ball. To their surprise, they came in first.” (You might have spotted something slightly amiss about the implied timing of her story if you had seen the 1935 HMB footage. We’ll come back to that. It’s not important for right now.)

So, how does “Billie and Mildred”’s dancing compare to our mysterious couple? Let’s watch the comparison.

 

Though they’re dancing to two different tempos and energy levels, it looks a lot closer than George Greenidge and Ella Gibson looked. Both the mysterious follower and Mildred have similar characteristics to how their feet punch the ground. Both the mysterious leader and Billy have similar postures. (After working through this, we also saw Billie more close up in the Keep Punching’s Jitterbug Contest, where he dances with Ann Johnson. We’re pretty sure it’s him.)

After Cynthia Millman reviewed these findings, she dug through her research papers, and was able to find a list of Harvest Moon Ball winners that had been given to Frankie to look over. He had corrected the list:

Frankie paper 1936

Frankie’s update to a list of 1936 Harvest Moon Ball Winners.

 

Now then, there’s one more thing our geek readers should see in this saga. A week after the Harvest Moon Ball, the following appeared in a “chatterbox” column in the Black American New York Age newspaper by a Yonkers journalist, church choir director, and musician named Thomas Seay Jr., who seemed to know everybody and had a great story to tell about everyone: (If you’re in a rush, start at the last long paragraph that begins “And now…”)

1936 curiius George Greenich article RESIZED The_New_York_Age_Sat__Sep_5__1936_

Columnist discussing knowing George Greenidge (and Ella Fitzgerald) New York Age, September 5, 1936.

 

As you can see, after he tells the story of knowing Ella Fitzgerald, the columnist tells the story of seeing Greenidge’s “shining face” smiling at him in the Daily News on Thursday. Now, the only pictures the paper had of “Greenidge” on Thursday were the three pictures in a row, and the only one with a “shining face smiling” is this one:

George's grinning mug Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

“George” and “Ella” performing.

 

Now, this to us is not proof that George was actually the winner of the contest. The columnist implies they haven’t seen George in awhile, and this picture could have fooled him, especially as it’s small, and in newspaper print. George’s name is pretty unique, especially in conjunction with Lindy Hop, and so the columnist could have easily gave the picture the benefit of the doubt. (It does possibly offer some really interesting insight on George Greenidge, who we’ll discuss in future essays.)

With all of that in mind, we feel we can trust the evidence that almost all seems to point to this couple being Billie Williams and Mildred Cruse.

Before we move on, we want to just quickly mention what a striking coincidence it was that both the 1936 Olympics and the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball seemed to have involved dubious and very impactful replacements at the last minute.

Alright, with this strange story in mind, let’s see our breakdown of who’s who in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.

(If you’d like to get the general idea of how we generally solve the puzzle of identifying couples, check out our 1935 Geek Out article, which goes into depth on that process.)

 

Heat A

Mildred & Billie

Most-likely-Mildred & Billy perform the first two high acrobatic steps in Lindy Hop footage that we know of.

Here, Mildred and Billy perform, as far as is known, the first two high, acrobatic lifts ever on film in Lindy Hop. (Remember, they’re not technically air steps. We won’t see those in HMB footage until 1937.) The first one they do is what Frankie called the “Ace in the Hole,” but today is more commonly called the “Candlestick.” Then the film shows Billy lifting Mildred’s back onto his shoulder where she kicks upwards (and pretty far backwards). To this audience, having not seen this before, these steps probably brought the house down.

We do want to point out one pretty slick moment below — in the top left corner, Mildred and Billie break from Back Charleston (what we call “Tandem” today), then Billie looks like he does a kick-kick-kick-cross (like the famous Big Apple line step), and then they both scoot-slide back into closed position:

Most-likely-Mildred & Billy perform a very satisfying Charleston sequence.

 

Try it at home, it’s very satisfying.

 

Willa Mae & Snookie

Next let’s take a look at Willa Mae Ricker and “Snookie” Beasley. 

In the GIF above they do a Charleston combo that ends in a mini-dip — the same much-loved step they will do in A Day at the Races.  Those looking for graceful but still swinging Lindy arms really just need to watch Willa Mae Ricker. Here, they do a turn that Helen and Red also do — perhaps it was popular at the time. The modern scene is very familiar with the strong, linear “barrel turn” this move would evolve into over the next few years. During the turn, Snookie effortlessly hops backwards on one foot before a strong stomp-off — casual, cool, and a lot harder than it looks.

 

Willa Mae keeps its casual and elegant while Snookie goes through Charlestons, an early barrel turn, and a Texas Tommy.

 

Helen & Red

Now let’s talk about two Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers we haven’t had much of a chance to get to know yet, Helen Bundy and Red Elan. They are hardly mentioned in either Frankie or Norma’s book, but they are obviously very good Lindy Hoppers of their time. From this (admittedly very limited) sample, they seem to be the most synced-up partnership in their heat.

Helen & Red’s smooth drags (background)

 

Helen & Red’s drags show how connected they are. They also choose to make their drags smooth and slidey, in stark contrast to all of the more energetic movement around them. Now let’s look at them do an interesting first in the Harvest Moon Ball footage:

Helen & Red do Squat Charlestons.

Here, when Red is in his Squat Charlestons, we see the leader’s dramatic “running” bend suspended for a period of time. Helen is bent too — it’s probably to some extent a product of doing Squat Charlestons dramatically. But, as far as we know, this is the first time this happens in Lindy Hop on film. At all other times in this clip (with the exception of Billie Williams in the “stops” routine portion of this clip) the leaders and followers still dance relatively upright , even when doing other Charleston sequences.

So, overall, it looks like the “running” look and air steps still hadn’t become common yet to these top dancers. (But, before a year goes by, the real George Greenidge will do an entire jam in A Day at the Races in a “running” stance, and do an air step in that jam.)

 

The group slow motion section.

The Ensemble

In the first year, Edith Mathews and Leon James had proven that the rules didn’t apply to Lindy Hop at the Harvest Moon Ball. It’s understandable, then, that this year all bets were off. As you can see, the group decides to do “stops,” and slow motion, as a group. And both, by Frankie’s account, were new additions to the dance.

In his book, Frankie discusses how he had helped the Whitey’s develop “stops” and ensemble dancing simultaneously. “Stops” was their first “California Routine” — meaning, the first ending routine they had for their shows. (He talks about inventing “slow motion” after seeing a strobe-light act at the Apollo, but only recalls that happening as a group for the first time in late 1937, not 1936. And that, it appears, was also re-invented for the Lindy Hop era, as it was done in earlier jazz dancing of the 1920s.)

We mentioned at the end of the 1935 essay how Whitey’s Lindy Hop was truly defined after the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball. Here, one year later, with ensemble dancing, and acrobatic high lifts, “stops,” and slow motion, we can see how much it truly has grown from the previous year.

And the fact that three couples of a heat decide to do a routine, knowing they were possibly throwing a wrench in the judging, is evidence they were truly sharing their dance with that audience, and not just caring about the judging.

By the way, all those dancers are dancing to a song as fast as the original Jumpin’ at the Woodside. Let it sink in how calm and laid back they look.

 

Harriet & Pierce (Shag)

We should take a moment to commiserate with Harriet and Harold, the Shag couple, for just a moment. (We got a clean ID on their number in the footage.)

Let’s say you’re a dancer in 1930’s New York, and you love Shag. You decide to maybe make a statement about how there’s not a Shag division at the Harvest Moon Ball, and so you compete in the Lindy Hop prelims. You are good enough to tie with another couple. (Harriet and Harold dead-tied with another couple and the judges took them both.) 

You make it to the finals…only to be surrounded by an entire performance team of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Your chance to show off some Shag may get a little overshadowed.

Of course, we don’t know if that’s what Harriet and Harold were thinking. They might have just been ecstatic to dance their dance in front of 22,000 people regardless. And they should have been proud, as they seem to be the first Shag that was on the Harvest Moon Ball stage. And, as we will find out,  a demand made by Shaggers would indeed  be heard: In 1937, the Harvest Moon Ball would announce its first  “Collegiate Shag” division. To discuss Shag more, we’re going to need the help of some experts, which we will do for our 1937 Harvest Moon Ball essay.

The next couple on the competitors list, #10, Savoy couple George and Eileen, should have been in this heat, but are nowhere to be seen — they were also finalists for the Fox Trot, the first contest of the night, hence their low contest number. There’s a possibility they missed their heat and will make it in time for the another, as we shall see.

 

Heat B

Norma & Billy

Norma Miller & Billy Ricker are the camera favorites and were probably the obvious stars of their heat. Just as in the 1935 footage, however, the editors chose to show so much footage of the dramatic, “rag doll” move that it gives the impression that they spent most of their heat in it, which probably wasn’t the case. As fun as that move is, let’s concentrate on their other dancing:

Norma & Billy

Norma’s “twists” are on in full force. In them, she also throws her hand around high and then brings it low to accentuate her movement.  Billy does a tight little backward-crossing Charleston style step during the twists.

Speaking of Charleston, their Tandem Charleston is obviously springing with a lot of force into that floor — it’s a sign of the powerful pulse they keep in their legs throughout their dancing. It’s a common trait among Savoy dancers, but they appear to be on the most powerful end of that spectrum.

Norma and Billy had their own story to tell from this year. According to Billy Ricker, they felt their dancing was going fantastically, and they were confident in doing well in the contest. And, indeed it certainly appears so. But then, Norma’s blouse got caught and ripped open. “She was practically nude on stage,” Billy remembered. Robert Crease, who reported this story in another short bio published for the New York Swing Dance Society, said that points were deducted and they were disqualified.

Rewatch the Back Charleston section above — it can be hard to tell, but her blouse does appear ripped open up from the waist to the bust line. And those of you who had the chance to know Norma will not be surprised by this: if you go back and watch this section closely, you can actually see Norma look down, notice it, and then clearly not give a shit and keep on dancing.

Anyways, that might be why the newsreel mostly only showed their rag-doll drag footage. Before we move onto the next couple, we just wanted to thank historian Karen Campos McCormack for helping us confirm this was Norma.

 

Maggie & Paul

In the background behind Norma & Billy’s antics, you’ll see Maggie Gilan and Paul Niver:

Savoy RHUMBA couple pic

Rhumba and Lindy finalists Maggie & Paul. Notice the large crowd of young Whites in the Savoy audience.

They went to the finals in both Rhumba and Lindy Hop. You don’t get to see them much in this clip.  But, we were able to give them a “Most Likely” identification because of this picture in the Daily News (right).

And now for another mystery: This heat should have three Savoy couples in it. It definitely has two, as we’ve seen. A third couple in this heat appears to be number “60,” which would be correct:  Marion Torino & Joe Fleischman. The fourth couple, however — their last number appears to be either a “1” or a “4,” and we’re looking for #59 for the other Savoy couple. If the last number was a “1,” that would make sense — the next couple in line is #61: Martha Teitelbaum & Sam Muslin (who tied with our shag couple in their prelims, btw). (We didn’t include those identifications in the video as we don’t see them dancing for very long.

Alright, before we move on, let’s get a rough idea of where the heats seem to be lining up in the footage versus the program:

Competitors 1936_ HEATS

As you can see, Heat A in our breakdown film was the second heat, and Heat B in the film was the third. (The blacked out names are people who were not in the heats they were supposed to be in — we have two Savoy couples unaccounted for in the second and third heats, and one still to come in the final one.) With this in mind, let’s look at the curious case of Heats C & D.

Heat C

You’ll notice in Heat C we have a “possible” Savoy finalist couple. That couple in the front left is moving in ways characteristic of many Savoy dancers — throwing their arms and occasionally heads into their movements with attack, and allowing them to come high. And the lock-turns, syncopated footwork play, continual swivels, and legomania they do are things that we haven’t seen in any of the non-Savoy dancers in these early Harvest Moon Ball years or the Roseland prelims shown above.

If we had to guess, we’d go with this couple being Lillian Travers & Charles Tynes. You can see a couple that is most likely them in our 1935 Harvest Moon Ball footage. First off, the tiny bit of this dancing we see here in 1936 shows a similar lower-pulse style — this leader has a taste of Leon James in his dancing, and Charles looked like he had the same in 1935. Furthermore, this woman’s body type is very similar to Lillian, and the heights of the partnership appear close to Charles and Lillian. Finally, this leader looks to be wearing a very similar suit. (Not that he necessarily would have worn it two years in a row — but if you own a white suit, and it’s the Harvest Moon Ball, well, you may just pull it out of the closet again.)

However, there are some possible problems — first off, what little we can see of these dancers’ skin seems lighter than Charles and Lillian, and they might even be white. (Or the glare of the spotlights could be creating a lightening effect.) But in reality, their dancing characteristics are so different from the White dancers we’ve seen so far that if they were White, they were probably anomalies. And most likely spent a lot of time at the Savoy.

Finally, there’s a possible math problem — if one or two of the other couples were a no- show in an earlier heat — Charles and Lillian’s final heat would have only had two or three couples in it — but all of the heats on film have four. One possible answer is they didn’t film the final heat, and all we are seeing are the first four heats. Another possible answer is that the couples who did not go earlier were able to dance in later heats, thus keeping four couples in each heat. It just so happens there are three mysterious couples in these filmed heats that have Savoy characteristics to their dancing, so perhaps that’s exactly what happened.

The couple in the back is possibly Harry Rosenberg & Rose Steinberg, also discussed in our 1935 essay. But, again, there are a few ifs involved. If they are correctly identified in the 1935 clip (which should be right if the numbers worked out the way they seem to have), and if Rose wore the same outfit this year. And even though their body types and what little we can see of their dancing seem to fit with our 1935 couple, the fact that they are so far away from the camera and that there is a heat that wasn’t filmed means it’s just a gut-guess based on a possibility. (And if it is Harry & Rose, they were scheduled to be in the first heat, which would cast doubt on Charles and Lillian, who were scheduled to be in the last.)

 

 

Heat D

1937 mimms

Eileen & George from the 1938 Savoy prelims.

While we only have a few seconds of Heat D footage, you can see there are some interesting possibilities going on: the couple on the left front is most likely a Savoy couple — not only do they appear to both be Black American, they also dance with a specific swing and styling to their legs in their Charleston that point to them being veteran Harlem Lindy Hoppers.

If we had to guess, we would put money on Eileen Mimms and George Austin. This HMB couple happens to have the same height difference and body types as George and Eileen in this picture from the 1938 Savoy prelims. 

The couple on the bottom right corner of this heat is another mystery. They are both showing characteristic traits of Savoy dancing — she allows her head and upper body to “fall” and emphasizes breaks while he is very playful with his feet and does some commonly-Savoy kicking, crossing, and slip-slopping.

Since we have three unidentified Savoy couples from the list that could be in this dance footage, and three really Savoy-looking couples on the dance floor, it’s possible it all matches up rather neatly, and that would make this couple the married duo Mary and Ed Reid.

 

1936’s Lindy Hop

We recommend taking a moment to look at the clip and try to forget what you know about Lindy Hop, only taking in what you see. Then, and only then, compare it to what Lindy Hop means to you today.

When we do this, we notice there aren’t any swing outs in this entire clip (just the one in the prelims). In fact, in 1935, Norma and “Stomping” Billy Hill do the only swing outs shown in the entire first two years of the Harvest Moon Ball footage. There were probably more done and the film editors just didn’t happen to include any, but it still suggests swing outs were not as popular at this point as they are today.

We also notice that there are hardly any side-passes or tuck-turns. The popular turns seem to be the Leader’s solo spin after a circle, and the partnered, more-or-less-in-place barrel turns.

We see that the Lindy Hop is still relatively upright for everyone involved. And that a lot of different Charleston patterns are widely used by all types of Lindy Hop dancers, but seem particularly heavily used by the Roseland Lindy Hoppers.

As we already mentioned, while some acrobatic high-lifts are happening, air steps as Frankie specifically defined them are not seen in this top level competition (in this arguably small and short sample set, though one would think if it were on film, the editors would have prioritized getting in something exciting like that). This makes us think it’s possible that Frankie and Freida’s air step contest might not have happened yet. In his book, he talks about going into the Savoy and teaching Freida’s and his Over The Back step to lots of the dancers soon after the contest, and that kick-starting the invention of new air steps and himself quickly inventing the over the shoulder flip soon after. So, it could possibly have been late 1936 — after the HMB — that the contest took place, not 1935. (He also mentions doing the “Ace in the Hole” with Naomi Waller in the Cotton Club at 1936, when talking about the inventions of air steps, so perhaps he did consider it one of the air steps that came following his and Frieda’s Over the Back invention.)  

It appears that if the air step contest came in the end of 1935, then Air Steps were relatively slow to spread. Or, if the contest came at the end of 1936, they were relatively fast to spread, since a couple pop up in early 1937’s A Day at the Races and the 1937 Harvest Moon Ball. We may never truly know, and ultimately it’s not that important. At the very least, here in 1936 we don’t have any evidence yet that air steps are being done by these top level Lindy Hoppers.

But until the unlikely event that new footage of this time pops up, this means that the first true air step on film we know of will be the “font roll” (modern name, as far as we know) into a “baby doll drop” (modern name, as far as we know) Norma does over Leon James in A Day at the Races, filmed in march of 1937. The “Side Flip” (Whitey’s original name) is also done in that performance, which Frankie said was the invention of the dancer who does it in that routine — the dancer who haunts this essay — George Greenidge.

The scores

The judges were a very similar panel as 1935, allegedly judging by the same Olympic standards as 1935, though we don’t know what their “ideal” of Lindy Hop was. Or how many of those rules were thrown out when it came to Lindy. (According to Frankie, quite a lot.) But, here were their winners:

1936 winners Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

The winners as posted in the Daily News the day after, Aug 27th.

There you have it: “Ella” & “George” (Mildred & Billie) in first, Willamae & Snookie in 2nd, and Rose & Harry in 3rd.

 

The Day After

Once again, the Daily News gave different photo spreads on the contest the day after. We’ve shown the prime photographs already, but here are a few other pictures of interest.

1936 ginger pic Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

Ginger Rogers & Mayor LaGuardia attended.

1936 FUll cover spread Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

George Ella face harvest

The mis-matched winners. Most likely instructed by Whitey to keep up the pretense of being “George” and “Ella” to avoid any problems with the contest’s governing committee.

1936 day after photo spread 01 Daily_News_Thu__Aug_27__1936_

Two dancing legends: Ginger Rogers excitedly shaking hands with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.

We mentioned in the 1935 essay what it must have been like for the first Lindy Hoppers to dance in front of 18,000 people at once. To paint the picture a little more, Ed Sullivan tells about his own experience as he remembers announcing Ginger Rogers to the crowd of 22,000 at this year’s HMB:

1936 Ed Sullivan story on HMB The_Pittsburgh_Press_Sat__Aug_29__1936_

From Ed Sullivan’s “Broadway” column, Oct 29, 1936.

Later this year, Ginger will tell Ed Sullivan again that the applause was one of the highlights of her entire career.

Just as they had the previous year, the Daily News revisited the winners the next day.

Whitey

Whitey with winners “George” (Billie Williams) and “Ella,” (Mildred Cruse) about to begin their awarded contract of performing at Loews theaters for a week.

The Aftermath

Just as they had done the previous year, the winners of each style and overall winners were given week-long performing contracts at Loew’s theaters.  The show was a popular one, as many in the thousands who could not make it in to see the finals were probably anxious to get tickets.

Now, recall how one heat of the Whitey’s did ensemble dancing. Interestingly, Loew’s theater soon ended up hiring another of the Lindy Hop couples. And that seemed to go over very well:

1936 Savoy dancers doing well in after show Daily_News_Sat__Aug_29__1936_

From an Aug 29th review of the Loews Theater show.

Perhaps this was inspired by the ensemble dancing they saw on stage, or perhaps Snookie and Willa Mae were brought in to further raise the energy, as the Lindy Hop was yet again the huge hit of the Ball, and the newsreel. 

Now let’s get back to Mildred Cruse, the winner of this year’s ball. Remember how we mentioned there was something amiss about her memory of this time? She had mentioned that she was secretly dancing without her very-religious father’s approval, and had partnered with Billie, when Whitey asked them to dance in the 1936 contest. As readers of our 1935 essay might remember, Mildred Cruse had previously been in the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball, with Snookie Beasely. And it’s 1935 that was likely the ball she was dancing in when she was trying to keep her dancing secret from her family. It’s not a big deal, but it does help support a great story she tells in that interview.

You see, a funny thing happened to her the week after that first Harvest Moon Ball. A neighbor of hers they called “the Bronx Home Tatler” told her parents she had seen Mildred. In a newsreelHer parents immediately took them all out to the theater, and Mildred sank into her chair as they played a newsreel from the Harvest Moon Ball, one which apparently focused on her enough that her parents recognized her. Mildred was mortified and expected the worst. But her parents were actually very understanding. Like parents straight out of progressive sitcoms from the 90s, they told her they always wanted her to be able to talk to them, and even if they didn’t agree with her wishes, they’d try to understand them.

We’re pretty sure it was the 1935 newsreel this story was referring to, which definitely showed her face close enough that on the gloriously large screen of a movie theater — and with the clarity of the actual newsreel film — any tattle-tail neighbors could clearly see it.  

We’re sure Mildred tested her parents’ promise, as she competed in and won the 1936 ball, quickly became a professional Lindy Hopper, dated her partner, often stayed in co-ed hotel rooms with the group (the Whitey’s stayed in the fewest hotel rooms possible to save money), and within two years married a tap dancer. Mildred and that tap dancer, William Martin, were happily married and had four children, and they were still performing a couple’s dance act at the time of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1988.

So. Whitey once again has had two of his couples in the top three placements in the Harvest Moon Ball. And once again, performance demands for his Lindy Hoppers came in.  By September he had a group of his performing with Ethel Waters under the name the Six Lindy Hop Champions. The Daily News, and even the Black American New York Age, however, are relatively quiet as far as Lindy Hop is concerned for the months after the contest.

Then, in October, an article started strangely popping up all over the states — Indiana, Ohio, Delaware, Pittsburgh, even Canada:

1936 SUZ Q The_Star_Press_Thu__Oct_22__1936_

An article in The Star Press from October 22, 1936, introducing the “Susie Q” step to the world, allegedly invented by Herbert Whitey.

Seemingly a puff piece on a hip new dance step, this article’s circulation is surprising, but, sure enough, the newspapers are soon sprinkled with articles on a show or performance that will showcase the new sensation, the “Susie Q.” (And, of course, all the alternate spellings of such.)

Whitey seemed to be getting the hang of promotion and keeping things fresh in the dance performance world. Not to mention, he possibly invented the step the Suzy-Q. (It’s hard to take his word without disclaimers — he had also claimed to have invented the Lindy Hop in an article.) Notice the mention of Helen Bundy, one of the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball dancers.

It also seems the Savoy was renovated around the time of the contest, because on September 19, the following add appeared in the New York Age:

1936 Savoy add saturday contests The_New_York_Age_Sat__Sep_19__1936_

 

And in March of 1937, the definitely real Ella & George, Willa Mae & Snookie, and Norma & 1935’s HMB champion, Leon James, would all go on tour with Ethel Waters, once again as “The Six Lindy Hop Champions.” We know they were the definitely real George and Ella now because Ethel’s tour would take them to the Black nightclub area on Central Avenue in Los Angeles — the city’s “Little Harlem” — where they would wow some film executives in the crowd, and be asked to be a part of a new Marx Brothers comedy they were about to film called A Day at the Races.

So if you were wondering where you had heard of the partnerships George Greenidge & Ella Gibson, and Willa Mae Ricker & Snookie Beasely before, that’s where. The whole reason those specific dancers were in that touring performing group was most likely  because they were (by name, at least) top-placing couples at the Harvest Moon Ball, that Whitey could promote them as such. So even though the Harvest Moon Ball might have been more of a PR opportunity than an important contest for many of the Whitey’s involved, it still perhaps greatly influenced who would appear in A Day at the Races, and thus the history of the dance.

Here is a fascinating article regarding that tour:

1937 Whitey intersting story full page The_New_York_Age_Sat__Feb_20__1937_

From the New York Age, Black American newspaper. Feb 20, 1937. (Notice the word choice, that the winners of the 1936 HMB “…are now members of his troupe.”  Perhaps Mildred and Billie weren’t performers of Whitey before they won the contest. It’s also possible they were, and Whitey had to pretend they hadn’t been, since you weren’t allowed to be a professional dancer and enter the contest.)

 

The 1935 and 1936 Harvest Moon Ball newsreels had helped bring the electric young style of Harlem’s Lindy Hop around the world. Soon, it would be Hollywood’s turn, with the release of A Day at the Races. But while those early greats began their world tours, Cotton Club and Apollo performances, and film shoots, Whitey had a whole new group of up and comers getting ready for the next year’s 1937 Harvest Moon Ball.

flourish

r his death, his European child

For an in-depth essay on A Day at the Races, check out:

A Gaze into a Day At the Races. 

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Geek ask 2

 

Additional Notes

  • You may ask yourself why we constantly refer to her as “Willa Mae” when her name tends to be published “Willamae.” Well, in her later life, when she was in fashion, she had a business card, and that business card said “Willa Mae Ricker.” Seeing as it was the one thing we have seen with her own approval guaranteed, we’ve decided to go with that ever since.
  • The heats BPMs seem to go from the mid 230s to the mid 250s, as best we could tell.
  • Finally, here’s a beauty advice column that manages to be both frivolous and oppressive on 1936’s HMB fashion (but we guess “frivolous and oppressive” is probably a way to describe many “beauty” columns):

    1936 fashion advice weird flash lindy hop Daily_News_Tue__Sep_1__1936_

    Oppressive fashion advice from Sept 1, 1936

Sources & Thanks

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bobby permalink*
    July 31, 2020 7:54 pm

    UPDATE — 7/31/20: ILHC released an amazing interview with Eleanor Watson herself the day after this was published. At around 6 minutes, she confirmed that she stopped dancing professionally in the late 30s due to pneumonia, but she also did tell a story, that we confirmed with newspaper evidence, about coming back to compete in the Harvest moon Ball, and them made it through finals, and then them not being able to go through to finals because they didn’t “kick back” money. So this means this particular 1936 instance was not that what story was referring to. However, it is still possibly a reason why it went down.  We have updated the language in both articles accordingly.

  2. Luís Campos permalink
    August 2, 2020 9:12 pm

    This if great stuff! Just sent you some dollars as a thank you. :)

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