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The 1943 Harvest Moon Ball

September 7, 2021
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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. This is the shorter snack-sized version. For a more in- depth look at the HMB and Harlem at this time, check out the Geek Out version here. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.

A Strange Year

1943 was a strange year for the HMB coverage. There were hardly any pictures of dancing from the ball, and none that we could find of the Savoy dancers, who usually had at least two or three every year. We also don’t have a program with the number listings for this year currently — but, it wouldn’t matter much if we did, because the couple 1943 newsreels we’ve found show only three couples of Harlem dancers and one hard-to-make-out number tag. It doesn’t help that, to our knowledge, none of the Harlem finalists except one are seen in any other footage or mentioned in dance history. So, needless to say, until we get more footage, or more information, this year’s IDs are going to remain quite a mystery. There’s still a few seconds of great Lindy to see, though.

Policing & Dancing

In April of 1943, the Daily News announced the Savoy Ballroom was going to be closed until further notice. According to the article, police detectives had been introduced to sex workers via an attendant at the Savoy, and soldiers who visited the ballroom had reported getting venereal diseases from sex workers they had met there. The article implies the military gave the order to the police to close the place, and “judges” upheld the opinion.

The NAACP, understandably, thought this was overreacting. The Savoy Ballroom was “a place of clean fun,” they argued, and called the charges against the Savoy “lies.” They also mentioned that closing down the Savoy was detrimental to the community in a neighborhood where there were few recreational places Black Americans were allowed (remember, this was a community without strong governmental support in recreational infrastructure, and many of the nightclubs were White-only). The Savoy was one of the few places Harlemites could go for a cheap night of dancing. Harlem citizens in general protested the closing.

Before we go further, we want to stress that we are in no way able to unpack all of this here. There are too many layers of history and systemic discrimination, on top of the things we simply don’t know about the closing. But we will do our best to give a respectful rough sketch of the situation from what we have found in articles from the era.

We’d like to start by pointing out that, even if the soldiers’ had gotten venereal diseases from sex workers they acquired via contacts they met in the Savoy ballroom, blaming a ballroom for the illegal hustles its patrons, or even lower-level staff, do would mean you should probably close down every single nightclub that has ever existed. Drugs, sex, and nightlife are a common pairing.

Needless to say, they didn’t close down every nightclub. So what other motives would they have for closing down the Savoy Ballroom? One New York Age editorial offered this opinion:

New York Age, May 8, 1943

There you have it: This citizen felt the reason the Savoy closed was because it allowed Whites to dance with Blacks. How much credence can we give this opinion? Well, Norma Miller remembered that Savoy floor manager and Lindy Hop group manager Herbert Whitey had strong concerns about Black dancers dating White dancers while representing the ballroom. Especially considering this was a time when the idea of Black men being able to romantically interact with White women (and vice-versa) was a big threat to White America values. From all we’ve heard about him, Whitey didn’t seem to be scared of much, and yet here he was nervous about public interracial flirtation. It sounds like the Savoy was living very cautiously.

Some facts to back this up: The Savoy Ballroom during this era only served beer and wine, and its hostesses were not permitted to date staff, musicians, or their clientele, or accept drinks men tried to buy for them. They had to dress conservatively and weren’t allowed to leave the Savoy with a customer. Sounds like an organization terrified of being shut down for anything that could be framed as a vice charge, doesn’t it?

If the Savoy were undergoing such rules and regulations, it’s safe to assume they would not have condoned their employees being involved in sex work. They were surely aware that sex workers would look for clients by coming to the ballroom — but the ballroom took in thousands of patrons on busy nights, there was probably literally nothing they could do about it, except perhaps lean into their staff rules and regulations. Norma herself mentioned in her book that the ballroom was always wary of trumped-up vice charges.

So, we’d say it’s a safe bet that if the Savoy was shut down for vice charges while other New York ballrooms weren’t, then someone, somewhere, had an alternative agenda to shutting down the Savoy. And the most obvious agenda anyone could have had with the Savoy was the fact that it was a huge destination for local and tourist Whites that allowed them to mingle with Blacks without the barrier of a stage lip. Basically, it’s an understandable conclusion.

A less obvious agenda would be the power play of a powerful man: Mayor Laguardia may have wanted the Savoy closed and changed owners, because he had a beef with the wealthy and influential Savoy owner Moe Gale. This is something Jazz historian Harri Heinila̎ explores some in his dissertation and we explore a tiny bit more in our Geek Out edition.

One last thing about the editorial above: though we don’t know how we feel about the statement that economic lynching is far worse than the human lynching that took part in the South at this time, this piece does convey how passionate the community was about the Savoy Ballroom, and how it represented fairness, health, happiness, and social equality for the Black American community.

Then, a few months later, a new spark erupted the kindling of tension in Harlem. On August 1st, while the Savoy was still closed, a policeman arrested a woman in the lobby of a Harlem hotel for disorderly conduct. While he was doing so, Robert Bandy, a Black American soldier on leave, and his mother, tried to stop the police officer from doing so. According to Bandy, the police officer hit the woman, and then threw his nightstick at Bandy, which Bandy caught. When Bandy hesitated to give it back, the officer shot him. According to the officer, Bandy had taken the nightstick and tried to beat the police officer with it.

Though the bullet wound was superficial and Bandy was taken to a hospital to recover, the word of mouth quickly turned “a Black soldier has been shot” into “a Black soldier has been killed.” Just as in 1935, the conditions Black Americans faced had lead to a boiling tension ready to overflow at any moment, and this was Harlem’s next moment. Just as in 1935, windows of White businesses were broken. Goods, especially those that had been heavily marked-up due to war-time scarcity — and thus almost impossible the impoverished in the community to afford — were looted. And, just as in 1935, only a tiny portion of the Harlem population were involved in the riots.

The 1943 Harlem riot, only eight years after the 1935 riot, would last two days and six people would die. Around 700 were injured and 600 jailed. Though some things had changed in American since the 1935 riot, apparently not nearly enough had. (For more on the riot, check out the Geek Out edition.)

Afterwards, the following appeared in the Black American New York Age:

The New York Age, August 14, 1943

The “Four Freedoms” mentioned were a promise of President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address to all Americans. They are the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Black Americans saw a frustrating irony in the speech, as they felt they were guaranteed none of those freedoms.

A couple weeks after the riot, the Black American New York Age had this to say:

The New York Age, August 14, 1943

The Savoy closing and the 1943 riot were connected. Not directly, but fundamentally: Because both were manifestations of the fact that the Black American community of New York was suffering. Suffering because Harlem didn’t get the same educational, recreational, infrastructural, and healthcare services the rest of New York City did. Suffering because White-owned stores dominated Harlem and didn’t allow Black people to rise above the most menial positions. Suffering because the city and U.S. War Department used Harlem as a scapegoat for vice, unfairly punishing the town economically and socially. Suffering because, due to the rule of a White mainstream majority, Black Americans had almost no power in the government or economy. And so, whenever a community in New York City had to get the short stick, guess which one got it?

The Savoy was finally able to reopen in October.

Over in the Geek Out version: More details on the Savoy closing, and a discussion of a striking HMB article regarding “smoothness” and “originality” in Lindy Hop at this time.

Prelims

Harlem prelims were held August 30 at the Apollo theater, while the Savoy was still closed. Tiny Bradshaw was the band. The judges for the prelims were three Harlemites and Black Americans; dance teacher Mary Bruce, stage director Clarence Robinson, and actor and radio personality Ralph Cooper.

Leading up to the prelims, and even the morning after, the Daily News mentioned it would be taking eight Harlem couples to the finals. But then, when it finally announced those finalists in later editions, it said “five finalists” and indeed only listed five:

Those dancers were Willnet Spence & John Smith, Ethel Mitchell & Donald Robinson, Lila Watkins & James Brown, Anita Powell & William Freeman, and Audrey Evans & Joseph Hubbard. And, just like in 1942, most of these dancers were new names to us.

We can’t help but feel there was a story behind the announced eight couples that became only five. For instance, perhaps three of the couples could have been disqualified if they had been discovered to be professionals. It’s conjecture on our part, but it’s something that might account for the discrepancy.

You might wonder, if that were the case, why they wouldn’t mention it — they’re a newspaper after all, and that’s a story. If it were the case, we would guess that the Daily News probably wanted to keep it a little quiet, because, as we have stressed often in this essay series: The Lindy Hoppers were obviously the audience and newsreel favorites. The publicity, ticket sales, hype, and charity donations the Daily News received because of the presence of the Lindy Hoppers was certainly huge.

We have suspected previously that the Daily News tended to plug their ears and look the other way when it came to the Lindy Hoppers and whether or not they were professionals. (For instance, Whitey’s professional Lindy Hoppers made up almost the entire bulk of Harlem Lindy Hop finalists couples in the first seven years of the HMB, and the only time we have seen the paper mention Lindy Hoppers being caught for being professionals was in 1940, in a Broadway gossip column that mentioned it buried in a paragraph, not a Harvest Moon Ball story with a headline.)

Regardless of our theory, it is a fact that the Harvest Moon Ball Harlem Lindy finalists will continue to have a strong turnover during the war years.

From the Daily News, Aug 30, 1943

Finals

Finals were held September 8. Johnny Long provided the swing music.

Click here to see one of the newsreels from this year.

And here is our breakdown:

Heat A

Heat A was one of the Harlem heats from the contest, and is the only Harlem heat we’ve seen in footage from this year. There’s some neat stuff here. The handspring down the back goes over the leader’s shoulder rather than over his head, making this a fantastic, controllable version for those wary of the more dangerous high-flying version. That same leader does his own front handspring (commonly called a “pancake” today) on his partner, making this a first Leader’s Front-Handspring as far as we know in the footage.

There’s also a Down-the-back (in the background of the full clip) and a “Boat” where the follower rides the leader sitting on the floor. (Which we first see done by James “Blue” Outlaw & Alyce Pearson in 1941’s HMB footage.)

We discuss Heat C briefly in the Geek Out edition.

Winners

Winners for the Jitterbug Jive: In 1st, Rose Ramona & James Riccardi; 2nd, Julie Denora & Vic Marsalona, and 3rd, Lila Watkins & James Brown (the only Harlem couple to place).

Here, for the first time in nine years of the HMB, a non-Black American couple had won. On top of that, for the first time in many years, a non-Black American couple had come in second.

From the 1968 HMB program looking back on the 1943 HMB.

Aftermath

As we mentioned, 1943 was a strange year for the HMB coverage. No Harlem dancers in pictures. White first and second place winners. Even the newsreels spent more time than usual on White Jitterbugs and less on Black Harlem dancers.

As usual, a Loew’s Theater engagement with all the winners followed the ball. Not as usual, the winning Rumba leader was met by police and escorted from the building. Gilbert Duke had deserted from the Navy and been missing for a year. Even his New York wife and four-year-old son had only recently been informed of it and had no idea where he was. At the Madison Square Garden finals, a friend of his heard Duke’s name called during the civilian Rumba contest (Duke for some reason neglected to give a fake name) and confirmed it when he saw the dancer. The next day the friend called Duke’s wife. “Guess who I saw last night?”

His wife claimed she “didn’t want to see him get into trouble,” then ironically, or perhaps wryly, called the cops. The police knew where he would be, and when he would be there — Backstage at Loew’s Theater, getting ready to perform with the other champions. Sure enough, there they arrested him.

The Harvest Moon Ball did a solid, however, and brought in the 2nd place leader to dance with the first place follower — they didn’t oust her just because her partner was in jail.

This pictures in the Daily News makes one wonder if one of his friends wouldn’t have seen him anyway.
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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

Sources & Thanks

  •  Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1943 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
  • Thanks to Associate Professor, instructor, and swing and Zambian heritage dancer Chisomo Selemani for her help in reviewing aspects of this piece.
  • Thanks so much to Robert CreaseCynthia Millman, and The Frankie Manning Foundation for republishing the fantastic Robert Crease bios which are a great wealth to these articles specifically and the history of the dance in particular that have helped shape these essays.
  • Whenever we refer to either “Norma’s Book” or “Frankie’s Book,” 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.
  • All spelling and grammar problems are mine alone; one man army!

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