Interview with an Everyday NYC Swing Era Jitterbug

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“Jitterbugs” in Central Park during the Swing era.

About five years ago we had the opportunity to talk with an average White American jitterbug from the original swing era about what dancing was like, and meant to, an avid social dancer of the time. “Anthony” (name has been changed at his request) was born in 1925 and grew up in an Italian American family in New York City during the 30s and 40s, where he loved to “Lindy.” When I spent the day with him, he and his wife were very warm people who love to laugh and make cracks at each other.

Things of interest we talked about before the tape recorder came out: Women wore heels to social dance; men, he said, didn’t look at how other guys danced, they looked at the women; and women had to learn to follow the different styles of New York neighborhoods cause the guys only knew their own neighborhood’s style.

So, both you and your wife grew up in New York?
Yeah, she was born in Brooklyn, I was born in New York. I was born on the steps of a building in the East Side of New York. [Across from a hospital, but they didn’t make it to the hospital.] I used to go to Madison Square Boy’s Club.

Where did you learn how to dance?
When I say “dancer”…I’m not a dancer, per se, like your class. I’m not even in a junior class. But we used to have dances in the neighborhood. Wednesday night they had dances over in the school hall over there for an hour and a half, two hours.

What kind of dances did you do?
We did Lindy and Foxtrot. Basically that was it. And most of the guys then only did Foxtrot, and of course they couldn’t do the Lindy. That was an experienced dancer sort of thing. The girls would be doing it by themselves. And as you get a little more older you get a little more braver, and then by the time you’re seventeen, you’re out there, making a complete fool of yourself. But then, when you get into the Navy you go to these foreign countries, especially in England — they went big for jitterbugging. I don’t know how you find it now. But back during the war they loved it. So, guys used to make out like mad. The Americans were good, into Lindy and jitterbugging. We used to call it Lindy.

So that’s how we learned. You get older, get a little more confidence, get better and better and better. My sisters were good dancers, so I danced with them.

Anthony was in the Navy from ’42 to ’46. Anthony’s wife learned to dance during the war, when there weren’t a lot of partners around New York. She danced often with her sisters.

UNITED STATES – APRIL 21, 1943: Dancing the Jitterbug to the Harry James Orchestra at the Paramount. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Do you mind telling me about the Paramount Theater again for the tape recorder?
We used to go to the Paramount*, and, if you got there at about 8 o’clock, they had early shows and they had the bands and a first rate movie. That used to cost you a quarter I think — until about eleven o’clock and then they’d clear you out and opened it up and you had to pay more. One thing I remember…the time they raided the place. All the kids from all the boroughs [were there] — the lights went up and they blocked the entrances and exits, and everybody had to show their identification. Most of the kids there were all playing hooky, I don’t know if it’s because Sinatra was there, or Goodman, or somebody, but the place was mobbed. When Sinatra was there they were lined around the block.

[Before tape recording began, Anthony had mentioned how kids would jump out in the aisles and dance and the theater employees would go down the aisle making them get back in their seats, but by the time they got to the bottom of the aisle, the ones at the top were dancing again — so they soon gave up.]

Was that when you’d see the dancers from other neighborhoods?
The only place where I remember they were all dancing was Roseland. I didn’t come into New York that much, but when we did come in, we’d go to Roseland Ballroom. It was a Monday night, I guess, everybody came to Roseland, and all did dancing and met different people and all that stuff. And that place was crowded. They had dances almost every night there during the war. And it was free, to servicemen. And you’d dance there, and you’d meet different people. And that was great, that was fun.

You mentioned earlier how different Burroughs had different styles?
Each borough danced different. They had a different interpretation of the Lindy. Basically it was the same, but there was always some variation. You could dance with them, but you’d do a step that they didn’t do before and they’d say “Oh, I don’t do it that way.” I know in Corona we danced a certain way, and Brooklyn danced entirely different. You can imagine the difference between when we were in England…they interpreted that was the right way to do it, whether it was or not. English soldiers resented it. We were…what was it…overpaid, oversexed, and over there. We had the money, we had their women. And danced with their women, and we were probably better dancers than they were — [chuckles] whether we were or not. It was fun.

You mentioned that you had seen some of the Harlem dancers. Where did you get to see them?
I went once with my cousin, Bud. He took me up to Harlem one time, and I was only 15… and he was only 16! We snuck into one club, I wouldn’t even know what club it was, and he said “You watch these people dance, Tony” and God, they were great. I walked out and I said to myself, “These people, they got rhythm, and they were doing all these over-the-shoulders, under-the-legs, back-and-forth” and I said “If I could do stuff like that…” I haven’t seen it done since, not like that. And of course at Madison Square Garden they used to have them—

—the Harvest Moon Ball?
Yeah, they had the jitterbug jive and they stole the show. They would really rock the place. Then they’d show them on the movies on Fox News and stuff like that [meaning the old news reels that would be played with films at the theaters, where all of our Harvest Moon Ball footage comes from].

Your favorite song to do Lindy to…?
Was “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller. And then “Begin the Beguine.” Anything by Glenn Miller is a great Lindy. Harry James, I loved Woody Herman. My favorite song is “Woodchopper’s Ball” by Woody Herman. The only thing I never particularly cared for was Stan Kenton.

What kind of clothes did you wear when you went out dancing?
Before the war I was conservative. You wear dungarees. I wore a suit, maybe. After the war, I had a zoot suit, and I mean it was zoot. It was so pegged I had a zipper to get it on my feet. The jacket was down to here [below the knee]; I had a long chain. I think about it now, I was embarrassed. It was ice-cream colored. I don’t think I have a picture of it.

My buddy, my best friend, the only two of us alive out of the twelve of us that used to hang out together, and he had one identical to mine. We looked like popsicles. I think about it now, it was hideous.

Young men in zoot suits in the 1940s.

What kind of shoes did you like to dance in?
All Thom McAn shoes, cause the Navy dressed you in Thom McAn shoes. And I always bought them, I loved them.

What are the things you look for in a partner?
Well, at that age you always wanted a beautiful girl. I like them smart. I’m not intimidated by smart women. Who’s not afraid to talk to ya, has her own opinions. I enjoy that.

What did your parents think of swing music?
My dad, he was crippled, only had one leg. He wasn’t into dancing. He didn’t have an opinion on it.

On the boats in the Navy, did you ever have dance lessons or dance with each other on the boat?
No, we never did that. I think that was the Army [laughs]. I was never at sea for very long stretches, maybe three weeks at a time.

When did you stop jitterbugging?
When I started dating [my wife]. She lived in Richmond Hill, and we worked together; we’d go out from work and I’d have to take her home, and from her house to my house was an hour and a half — I didn’t drive — if I left her at midnight, it would sometimes be 2 o’clock before I got home…. Once you started dating the girl you would marry, that’s when things changed, I find, for me, anyway. I find the guys tended to matriculate towards the woman’s friends.

Like most swing era dancers, he didn’t want to talk about dancing all night; the topic changed to other things.

* — The Paramount was a “movie theater,” but it was much grander than the average modern theater, and at the time, they would pair swing concerts together with movies.  From Wikipedia: “The Paramount began hosting live music along with its feature films as the swing era got underway. Glen Gray’s orchestra was the first live band to play there during the week of Christmas 1935. Over the following years, the Paramount became the leading band house in the United States, as performers such as Benny Goodman, Jack Benny, Tommy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters, Harry James, Phil Spitalny, Xavier Cugat, Fred Waring, Eddy Duchin, Gene Krupa, Bill Kenny & The Ink Spots, Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo played extended runs there.”

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