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Relentless: 1939 & The Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers

April 6, 2021

 

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This is part of a series of essays that follows the rough time line of Savoy Lindy Hop from 1935 onwards. You may find the Harvest Moon Ball series interesting to go deeper into the grand time line of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers at this time:  1935, 1936, 1937,  1938. 

In 1939, things were going well for Herbert Whitey and his Lindy Hoppers. First off, their touring had perhaps reached its zenith — eight of his couples, lead by Frankie Manning, were on a grand, near-year-long tour of Australia and New Zealand. Then there was a group of all-men dancers he had on Broadway in Knickerbocker Holiday. On top of that, the highly-anticipated New York World’s Fair was going to feature his Lindy Hoppers — forty of them. Then there was another call from Broadway, a show called The Hot Mikado, asking him for dance teams. (What we’d call “couples” today.)

Whitey suddenly found that he had more gigs than he had qualified dancers for. But, we get the feeling Whitey rarely said “no” to a paycheck. Not only did he promise all of these gigs dancers, he even talked Hot Mikado from six couples to seven (one offstage as a backup). According to Frankie, it got to the point that if you could swing out a little bit, he’d put you into a group.  

The year looked like it was going to be relentless.

 

The World’s Fair 

The World’s Fair of 1939 was held in Flushing, Queens, just one bridge over from Harlem. Among the hundreds of exhibits from all over the world, there would be a Savoy Ballroom, showcasing Jazz Dance and the Lindy Hop. And, the Black American newspapers were very proud; even though the venture was owned by the Savoy’s White founder, Moe Gale, the Savoy’s Pavilion was the only large all-Black-run exhibit — all Black staff, band, and performers, and it even showcased a Black cultural art.

Norma remembered the groundbreaking ceremony for the Savoy. It was the winter before the fair, and cuttingly cold. She remembered her group of four couples performed without music. We would bet good money this event is where these fun photos of a spontaneous looking jam circle and general goof-off session come from:

 

The photographs are part of the New York Public Archives on the fair. These dancers are dancing in a big open space — it did not look like this during the fair, when there lots of buildings and people around. And it’s hard to think of another reason why such a large group of Harlem’s Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers would be in the middle of a big open space like this in the cold surrounded by people like Chick Webb (who would face a major health decline and, sadly, die during the early months of the fair. Yet another reason this was not likely taken during the fair when it was open to the public.) 

Norma and Leon James are in the pictures, and we’re fairly certain we also spot William Downes, Anne Johnson, George Greenidge, and Joe Daniels, all of whom Norma mentioned were in her group at the performance. As a bonus, there’s also what appears to be a young Al Minns peaking out of a corner.

There’ a lot of Lindy Hoppers on hand. We’d wager these are part of the dozens of dancing teams Whitey was boasting he’d bring to the fair — it only makes sense he’d have as many as possible at the ground-breaking, and what better way to show who they are than snazzy matching varsity jackets? Here are the photos with our IDs. (If the name has an (*) it means we’re only pretty sure. (**) Less sure, but it makes sense in context. If it doesn’t have anything, we’re almost certain.) 

 

The Fair opened April 30th. And, much to the dancers’ disappointment, the grand ballroom they had envisioned was more of a tent. Plus it was a theater, not a ballroom. It seated around 700 people, and on stage was a single papier-miche bush meant to represent the jungles of Africa.  

Savoy theaterYou see, the small theater would present a 20-minute long show about the history of jazz dance. (For those who danced in the 2000s, when it became popular for big events to put on a show, and almost every one of them was “the history of Lindy Hop,” know that we were in good company.)  The Savoy’s show began with the dance’s roots in Africa, and had an African dance demonstration by a woman that Norma Miller bet had never been to Africa and was just doing Shake Blues. Then came demonstrations of Cake Walk and, the articles boasted, the Shim Sham, the Big Apple, Shag, Trucking, Slow Motion, the Suzy Q, and finally the Lindy. It ended with the spectacular high-flying fast-paced routines Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers was known for — according to Norma, they specifically performed a “new” “sensational” “mutiny” sequence, a stringing together of powerful air steps by the ensemble, one after another after another, even passing partners to each other.  

Twenty minutes, what could be so bad? First of all, doing Lindy Hop with lots of air steps in a row at a blazing speed is not only asking your body to be both really fast and really strong, it’s also putting all your stabilizing muscles through the ringer again and again and again, which leads to fatigue and injuries — your body quickly starts to get pulled, strained, tight, angry, and vocal. It gets beaten up.

Secondly, the show ran on every hour, six times straight, starting at noon. For this reason, the plan involved a second group of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that would switch out, along with the band, and perform for five more shows after an hour break —  seven more on weekends. The only problem was, the first day of performance came and there was no second group. Whitey had used up all his dancing couples.

Those Lindy Hoppers had to perform those intense, body-brutal shows 11 to 13 times every day, from noon to midnight or 2 a.m., seven days a week. And they were expected to do this for six months straight. Norma Miller was in charge of the group, and Whitey even gave her one of his intimidating “henchman” to keep things in check, because, as you can imagine, that was one continually pissed off group of performers. Seasoned Lindy Hop performer Frankie Manning, just back from his year-long tour, did one day of the shows and then bowed out. It was too grueling.

WLHWorldsFairlarge

From a Life magazine article May 15, 1939, on the fair. According to Frankie Manning: Dancer on the left is “exotic dancer” Princess Aurelia. The couple in the center are “Little” Bea and Leroy “Stretch” Jones, two first generation Lindy greats who showcased the Cakewalk in the show. On the right is John “Tiny” Bunch. (He is holding up a couple in the picture below, possibly “Duke and Martha.”) Photo courtesy of Judy Pritchett.

But according to Norma, no matter how much the dancers complained about the show, what they hated most of all was bally-hooing. A barker would, carnival style, yell at people walking by outside to “Come on everyone, come on in and see the world’s finest colored dancers!” — that kind of thing. A band played, and one of the Lindy Hopping couples — usually the ones who were late, or the most recent couples added to the show — would go out and do a short demonstration.

We haven’t seen any footage of the Savoy Theater stage show, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it existed out there somewhere. (A lot of things at the fair were filmed.) But, it just so happens, we have footage of at least three different Bally-Hoos on film: 

 

(By the way, for those wanting to geek-out — the second leader looks like it’s William Downes, and the figures they do might look familiar: they’re all found in versions of the California routine, two years before that choreography is created.)   

With that kind of schedule, its no surprise injuries were happening often, and one night they even had to call for an ambulance. The Savoy’s owner, Moe Gale, had a brother who was a doctor. When he came to examine the dancers, he said the work was too stressful. As jazz dance historian Harri Heinilä discussed in his dissertation, the show was also facing a slump in attendance that was pushing the show into dire financial straits. This was perhaps a mismanagement issue, as the show was still very popular at the fair.        

After three months, the exhibit closed. Ultimately, the the Savoy Theater show wouldn’t see August.

GIANT PICTURE spread on worlds fair svaoy linndy The_Pittsburgh_Courier_Sat__Apr_29__1939_

From the Pittsburgh Courier, April 29, 1939.

 

The Fair, Off-Stage

gettyimages jitterbug

(Original Caption) 9/23/39-New York: Alfred Schock and Evelyn Stein are going to town in a big way during the jitterbug session that marked the opening of the Mardi Gras swing casino at the New York World’s Fair. The casino is free to all fair goers — all rug-cutting is strictly on the house.

At first, the fair apparently didn’t really have a place to dance. Seeing this as a problem, Savoy owner Moe Gale even announced he would build a giant dance space. The problem was soon solved by the park itself, it seems — they began holding dances at their band shell, and then later turned one of their great event halls, a hulking curved art deco building nicknamed the “White elephant,” into the “Mardi Gras Casino,” capable of holding 3,000 couples. During the Fair, several jitterbug contests were held. 

Here is some footage of the off-stage swing dancing at the fair. First up, a competition — notice the popularity of Shag among the young White dancers. Second, a performance, it looks like, combining Swing dancers with Europian folk dancers. Finally, some social dancing showing an integrated dance floor of mostly Lindy and traveling dances with many same sex couples. People have sometimes assumed there were so many women dancing with women because of World War II — but in America, World War II was still two years away. We assume these women just loved dancing so much they didn’t mind whether they were leading or following it.

By the way, some fun facts about the fair  — it introduced nylon panty-hose, a giant robot that could smoke cigarettes, a time capsule to be opened in 5,000 years (which is also the time capsule the term “time capsule” comes from), and was the first place many visitors experienced television and colored photographs (both of which technically had been around for decades).

There’s a story in Norma’s book about how Whitey pulled her, and her main partner of the time George Greenidge, away after the afternoon shows and hauled them to an outdoor television studio on the fair grounds. There in front of a camera, they danced, already exhausted from the day’s shows, and gave a scaled-down version of their routine before sprinting back to the Savoy Theatre in time for the evening shows. And thus, Norma figured Lindy Hop was the first dance on television.

Even though television had been in development for decades, there’s a chance she was correct, at least as far as public TV goes. That’s because on April 30th, coinciding with the World Fair’s  “World of Tomorrow”-themed opening, NBC officially began regularly scheduled television programming for the public (very few of which had televisions — but NBC was playing the long game). One of its first programs was televising happenings at the World’s Fair.

Daily_News_Sun__Apr_30__1939_

From the Daily News, Sunday, April 30th, 1939. FDR’s opening speech at the World’s Fair was their official broadcast launch. 

The fair also had a colony of “Sun worshipers” — nudists. (We won’t argue the philosophical integrity of the fair’s nudist colony, but we will mention that in the footage they all appeared to be young, stereotypically-attractive women walking around in heels.) Not only that, but burlesque strip-tease dancing and nude women were featured in many of the shows and exhibits. One article mentioned the Savoy had hired a nude dancer for their show.

 

The Hot Mikado

As historian Harri Heinilä mentions in his dissertation, the Savoy Theater’s admission slump was likely propelled even further when yet another show featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers came to the fair. And this one had the addition of Black American tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — it was the Broadway musical Hot Mikado, a Swing take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. In fact, it’s more accurate to say it was a blatant rip-off of a hit swing version of Mikado performed by an all-Black Chicago theater company. The last week of June, Hot Mikado moved to the fair. 

The show’s original Whitey’s Lindy Hopper cast list was legendary. A picture in Frankie Manning’s book (below) shows the long line of the group — of the 12 dancers shown, more than half had taken home first place in the Harvest Moon Ball: Leon James, Mildred Pollard, Al Minns, Connie Hill, Russell Williams, Gladys Crowder, and Eddie Davis. And Lindy greats Frankie Manning, Norma Miller & George Greenidge, and (soon-to-be Harvest Moon Ball Champs) Thomas “Tops” Lee & Wilda Crawford also worked Hot Mikado. Basically, the dancing cast was the equivalent of a 1939 Lindy Hop Dream Team. Mildred Pollard even did a Shake Blues dance in the show, which was a specialty of hers(The link Says “Sandra Gibson,” the name she used later in life.) 

HotMikadoWLH

The Hot Mikado Whitey’s Lindy Hopper cast (one version of it, at least). Left to Right: Belle Hill & Leon James, Mildred Pollard & Al Minns, Mae Miller & Walter Johnson, Connie Hill & Russell Williams, Geneva Davis & Lee Lyons, Gladys Crowder & Eddie Davis. (Thanks, Frankie’s Book!) Photo courtesy of Judy Pritchett.

Many of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers at this time were young, brash, and naïve when it came to the world backstage. The other performers looked down upon them, calling them “raggedy” Lindy Hoppers. In her book, Norma tells a story: Apparently, Whitey did not get an agreed upon sum of money, and told the dancers not to dance. And Whitey’s dancers always danced, or didn’t dance, when Whitey said to. When it was time for their entrance, the music played, but the Whitey’s were still in their dressing room. Furious, “Bojangles” admirably didn’t take it out on the young dancers — he knew about Whitey and the control he had over his performers. Instead, he demanded the director work it out so that the Whitey’s were on stage the next show.  “Bojangles” knew the Lindy Hoppers were important. As he said, “Nobody mess with the Lindy Hoppers. They take care of the first act, I take care of the second.”  

We have a little footage from the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hot Mikado. Based on descriptions, it looks like they had two Lindy pieces in the show. If so, we have snippets of each:

By the way, the second couple to jam in the clip is almost certainly Joyce James & Joe Daniels, and the third couple, we believe, is very likely Lucille Middleton & Frankie Manning — they are pretty much the jams those couples do in the Keep Punching jitterbug contest clip, and both of these jams match their movement and body types.   

One final story about Hot Mikado: You might have noticed the men were wearing tights. Well, according to Al and Leon (via Marshall Stearns’ book), they followed in the prankster tradition of performers, and the male dancers started stuffing their tights for comical effect and/or audience admiration. The director noticed, but did not realize it was a prank, and he told them all to put on two dance belts instead of one.      

 

Swingin’ the Dream

Pretty soon after Hot Mikado finished its run at the fair, Whitey got yet another call from Broadway. Swing adaptations of beloved classics were apparently in the air, cause this this time it was a Swing version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. It has since become an almost famous theatre folly, and no one seems to know why it flopped. On paper, it looked incredible: Louis Armstrong as Bottom, Benny Goodman’s sextet in the orchestra pit, and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers as the sprites of the forest. Early in 2021, the New York Times ran a great article on the show, and selections of the score and script are currently being prepared for a sort of documentary-on-stage. Sadly, no footage of the original show remains, and the show mysteriously capsized shortly after launching.  

Swing the dream Whitey's Daily_News_Tue__Nov_7__1939_

From the Daily News, November 7, 1939. We assume the last line is a joke, possibly even a racist one depending on a stereotype of Black Americans and a distrust of technology.

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers swing dream ad Daily_News_Wed__Dec_6__1939_

 

In December, the Black American Pittsburgh Courier announced the closing of Swingin’ the Dream on the same page it mentioned the opening of a new film, Keep Punching. In the film, two years after the Big Apple craze began, Whitey’s finally got to put a version of their Big Apple performance on celluloid.

In the second, “jitterbug contest” portion of the film, the jams match the significantly shorter style of the Hot Mikado jams — and as we mentioned, two of them are pretty much the same as the Hot Mikado jams seen in the clip above. It makes sense; Keep Punching was likely filmed during the time these dancers were performing Hot Mikado every evening, and when you’re a dancer, you don’t waste well-trained material. We also happen to know that four out of the six Keep Punching couples is known to have performed in the Hot Mikado — they were perhaps literally doing the material they had developed for the Broadway show.

Not much is remembered about the filming, except that historian Judy Pritchett recalls that, on short notice, the Whitey’s packed up and went to a studio in Queens to film it. Notice the T-shirts, which had the same designs as the letter jackets.      

Keep Punching Jam couples: 1st, Billy Williams and Ann Johnson; 2nd, Joyce James and Joe Daniels; 3rd, Eleanor “Stumpy” Watson and Sonny Jenkins; 4th, Lucille Middleton and Frankie Manning; 5th, Thomas “Tops” Lee and Wilda Crawford; 6th, Norma Miller and George Greenidge. (Thanks, Frankie’s biography!)

 

The epic year was over. Though Lindy Hop would continue to reach new heights and continue for generations in Harlem, it would never again have such a high demand by “high” entertainment. And Whitey’s ways were catching up with him. His controlling management, intimidating tactics, harsh working conditions, and low pay were pushing some of his best dancers away. He was hemorrhaging veterans, especially women — by the end of 1939, Edith Mathews, Mildred Pollard, Ella Gibson, Mildred Cruse, and Naomi Waller had already left, some of them explicitly saying it was because of Whitey. And he was making one of his most vital dancers very mad; Norma Miller was not only one of his hardest working and most seasoned dancers, she was also managing entire shows of dozens of Lindy Hoppers for him. And as anyone who ever met her knows, Norma didn’t put up with shit kindly. She was livid that Whitey was filling Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers with mediocre couples, and then teaching them all of the veterans’ sequences and steps. For Norma, bad pay was one thing, but creative theft and poor dancing was another. A true artist.         

By the way, the World Fair’s Savoy Theater show ending back in July did mean many of the Whiteys were available to enter the Harvest Moon Ball prelims and finals that took place in August. It was going to be a good year. 

Next up at Swungover: The 1939 Harvest Moon Ball. 

 

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Additional Notes

We’re even more convinced the “jacket photos” are from the ground-breaking ceremony, after following up a question about the building seen in the background of some of the photos. That open space behind them is most likely the Fountain Lake, that big cathedral-like building in the background is likely the Florida State Exhibit, (which used the lakefront to install a beach), and the curved construction fits the curve of the plot across from the Savoy on the fair map (below.) Furthermore, Jazz historian Nick Rossi pointed out the man in the hat playing the trumpet appears to be Erskine Hawkins, which would also line up with the ground-breaking ceremony as announced. 

Norma mentioned they performed without a band — yet the article and the picture shows the presence of Erskine Hawkins. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Norma’s memory. The band could have arrived late, or they might have cancelled playing due to the cold; instruments and fingers don’t operate too well in that temperature.  

Florida vacross from Savoy MARKED

Note the Savoy (upper right) the curved plot next to it, and the Florida exhibit across the lake and not surrounded by other buildings. Map courtesy of Chris Wareham.

Sources & Thanks

  • Huge thanks to Judy Pritchett for her insight in helping review this article.
  • Huge thanks to Chris Wareham for his insight and research into the World’s Fair, and for contributing the map.
  • Huge thanks to Harri Heinilä for his dissertation An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 (published in 2016)  which has a ton of great research on the period of the World’s Fair (and the rest of Lindy Hop history in this era).  
  • Thanks so much to Robert Crease, Cynthia Millman, and The Frankie Manning Foundation for republishing the fantastic Robert Crease bios which are a great wealth to the history of the dance.   
  • Whenever we refer to either “Norma’s Book” or “Frankie’s Book,” or refer to them speaking, unless otherwise stated, we are speaking of their memoirs: Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen, and Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman. 
  • Whenever we refer to Al Minns and Leon James’s words in this article, the information was gotten from Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns.  

 

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2021 9:30 pm

    in the first set of photos there’s a tall building in the background, all by itself. Looks like the Williamsburg Savings bank, which was the tallest in Brooklyn at the time. Not the Empire State Building, since there are no other tall buildings around. And there weren’t any tall ones in Queens. If it is the bank, the Hoppers could have been in Manhattan

    • Bobby permalink*
      April 6, 2021 10:10 pm

      Good catch…the Savings Bank building seems right — it’s 500 feet tall, tallest building in Brooklyn at this time and Queens doesn’t have anything very tall, as you said. The fairgrounds are roughly 7-8 miles away from it, and that looks closer than that. I could see them being at the downtown ferry or something, and the space is the river, like you suggest — but have no idea why they would be there, and why the pictures would be in the World’s Fair section of the NYC archives.

      I’ll check to see if the fair had any structures that might account for that.

    • Bobby permalink*
      April 7, 2021 12:09 am

      Alright, I think I found our answer! I’m pretty sure the big building is the Florida State Exhibit, which was across the lake from the Savoy (hence the wide open space) and meant to look like a Catholic church (hence the shape and bell tower) Furthermore, the curved construction on the building on the Left matches the curve of the lot right next to the Savoy, which matches up with sightlines (and was where the nudist colony was.)

      I’ll add those resources (map and picture of Florida exhibit) to the article.

      • April 7, 2021 12:16 pm

        I think you’re right! Building shape matches, and it explains why no other buildings are visible.

  2. April 6, 2021 10:10 pm

    I feel totally transported! What a thrilling and exhausting time in a young dancers life. Thanks for bringing this to life for us.

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