This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.
Mentors & Dancing
We have not mentioned Herbert “Whitey” White much since the World War II essays. When we last left him, he had moved upstate from Manhattan and started a small nightclub and bar for Black American soldiers stationed there. Most sources say the bar was named “The Savoy,” however, thanks to research shared by historian Judy Pritchett, it appears it was known as “Whitey’s” at the time of his death. After the war, the club must have continued doing well enough, because he stayed there, rather than coming back to Harlem. He apparently even had a farm.
Considering what we know of Whitey — that the former prize-fighter and reported WWI sergeant was a smart, manipulative leader and stereotypical “alpha” personality who headed up organizations like Harlem’s Jolly Fellows Social Club and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers — it might seem strange he would enjoy the relatively quiet life of living on a farm in what was a mostly-White small upstate New York city.
But enjoy it he apparently did. His Lindy Hoppers helped him with the business — taking over various roles in the bar and training their dancing there over the years. His groups would shuttle back and forth between Oswego and Harlem on trips that would take around four to five hours each way. He even bought them bikes for when they were in Oswego, and would follow them around in his Buick as they road across the city. One of these dancers was 1944 HMB champ Pal Andrews; we have talked about her in previous HMB essays. She enjoyed Oswego life: she taught dance at the local college in Oswego, was engaged to Whitey’s son, and was a close, intimate friend of Whitey.
Whitey had had health problems in these last few years, and had been in and out of the local veteran’s hospital. In September of 1950, a group of the Oswego dancers including Whitey went to hear Louis Armstrong perform, and then came back and stayed up late talking. Around 3am, Whitey staggered out of the restroom and laid down on the bed, asking for them to call help. He died soon after with Pal at his bedside. The doctors later determined it was a cerebral hemorrhage.
Whitey was many things to many people. A mentor, a thug; a fair dealer, an exploiter; a manager, a gang leader. In Marshall Stearns’ notes, Al Minns said this about Whitey: “It was too bad he was born when he was, and didn’t get a good education…If he had come up now, he could have been a wonderful force for good…but because he came up when he did during the Depression, before the negro could do anything, he was sort of a fringe hood.”
And, since we don’t know much about his later life, it’s only fair to allow that he might have grown significantly in those final upstate years. After all, the man Pal Andrews paints in her memories is that of a gentler soul.
After the 1930s generation of Savoy’s Lindy Hoppers mostly went off to manage themselves, we’re not exactly sure of how much a role he played in the Harlem life-cycle of the Harvest Moon Ball. On the one hand, we have always heard he continued to train Lindy Hoppers — ones that toured throughout this time, some of which were with him the night he died. And we know that, in 1944, according to Eleanor Watkins- Atkinson, Whitey had enough power to make sure that she and George Greenidge were replaced in the finals when they refused to give him their prize money if they had won.
On the other hand, it seems that living most of the year in Oswego would make it impossible to be as hands-on in the HMB as he obviously had been in the late 30s, when all evidence suggests he had his hand in every part of the process, from handling press to tampering with which Harlem finalists would go to the ball after the prelims.
But yet we still have the impression he had stepped back significantly by the late 40s. In 1947, for instance, it was mentioned he was not around to train the dancers as he was recovering from an illness. We also noticed this: In the ’30s and early ’40s, it is Whitey who tells the press that “this year’s crop of Lindy Hoppers is the best one yet,” for each yearly HMB Daily News hype article. Beginning in the mid-40s, it is always Savoy manager Charles Buchanan who says, “this year’s crop of Lindy Hoppers is the best one yet.”
(Then, in another decade, a young Black woman fresh from Boston, who almost certainly never even met Whitey, would find herself being the one to always tell the papers, “This year’s crop of Lindy Hopper’s it the best one yet.” But we get ahead of ourselves.)
This is the 1950 Harvest Moon Ball. This is what Lindy Hop looked like the year Herbert “Whitey” White passed away. And a large part of why it looked this way, and perhaps why this Black American folk dance was still even in the Harvest Moon Ball, was because of him.
Savoy prelims were held August 25th. The band was not mentioned in articles we saw.
The Savoy finalists were Johnnie Mae Finley & Thomas Freeman, Elsie Grace Thomas & Charles Jones, Clara Reed & Robert Davis, Rubina Harris & Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson, Theresa Mason & Ambrose Bell, Ruth Sullivan & Willie James Posey.
This is the finalists listing from the 1950 program:
And here is our breakdown video of all the footage we have seen from this year’s ball:
The changing fashions of the 1940s into the 1950s is becoming evident in the longer skirts and the changing hairstyles.
Here is our first heat of Harlem dancers. The cameras are mostly on Clara and Robert, whom we don’t know much about. Clara & Robert are seen doing the Down-the-back carry-off that Jessyca Samuels & James “Blue” Outlaw did the previous year in their Ed Sullivan winning performance. It would continue to be favorite move of the third generation.
Lucky Kargo is highlighted in this round. Lucky was one of the White dancers (along with Sal Esposito dancing here in the background) the Harlem dancers respected, who came to the Savoy and danced in the “Corner.” As Sonny Allen says, he was great at doing Air Steps, but could not dance well at the blazing tempos the Harlem dancers trained at. The White heats tended to have slower music than the Black heats, who asked the band to put the music “upstairs” (as Sonny Allen recalls).
Theresa Mason & Ambrose Bell will be this year’s winners. In the middle, Sugar Sullivan competes with Willie Posey. It’s Sugar’s first time back since she first started working with the Savoy dancers.
And, in the foreground, we meet Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson for the first time, dancing with Rubina Harris. Aside from being mentioned as a great dancer of the time, Big Nick is often mentioned as a coach and trainer for other dancers of both his peers and future generations of dancers.
In first place, Harlem dancers Theresa Mason & Ambrose Bell. In second was Emily Santore & Sal Esposito. And, in third, Vicky LoGuidice & Victor Masalone.
(By the way, this is the third time Sal Esposito has gotten second place. Emily herself had gotten 2nd the year before. They must have been chomping at the bit to win the contest. In 1951, they would give it one last try. It would be Sal’s 5th year making finals in the comp. Emily would ultimately make finals in seven years of the comp.)
After 1950’s HMB, “Big Nick” Nicholson felt he was ready to take the title. He began preparing with a new partner— the talented, up-and-coming Sugar Sullivan.
And, it was around this time a dance expert — a well-known Russian-American dancer and scholar name Mura Dehn — was putting together a project that she hoped would help preserve Harlem’s Jazz dance for future generations. 1951 was going to be an eventful year.
Sources & Thanks
- HUGE THANKS to Sugar Sullivan and Gloria Thompson, 1950s Savoy dancers who later worked extensively with Mama Lu Parks. We have been interviewing (and paying them) for their knowledge and feedback on this footage and the dancers involved in them.
- Also huge thanks to Sonny Allen, Savoy Lindy Hopper and Harvest Moon Ball winner we have also been interviewing. Most of the donations for this project go *directly* to them and other original dancers I’m interviewing.
- Huge thanks to Judy Pritchett for information on Herbert Whitey.
- Huge thanks to Crystal Johnson, 1972 HMB winner and Mama Lu Parks dancer for the program listings.
- Huge thanks to Forrest Outman who provided some of the Harvest Moon Ball footage from this time period, and who provided vital research information.
- Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1950 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
- 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 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!