3. The Savoy Ballroom – Past

The Savoy Ballroom in the daytime.
The Savoy Ballroom. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The Savoy Ballroom began operation on March 12, 1926, as one of the country’s first racially integrated public venues. The Ballroom evolved under the vision of owner Moe Gale – a Jewish businessman – and manager Charles Buchanan, an African-American businessman, and civic leader. Buchanan and Gale envisioned for the Savoy to serve as an alternative for individuals interested in dining in a more refined atmosphere than the time period’s typical nightclubs offered. Located at 596 Lenox Avenue—considered to be the main thoroughfare through upper Harlem—the Savoy Ballroom was coined by poet Langston Hughes as the “Heartbeat of Harlem” in “Juke Box Love Song.” The ballroom’s name was taken from the Savoy Hotel in London to give it a more classy and upscale feeling. 

Due in part to the ballroom’s non-discrimination policy, it ended up serving a clientele of around 85% Black and 15% white, though there was sometimes an even split. During the ballroom’s peak years, which lasted from the 1920s to the 1940s, the Savoy generated around $250,000 in annual profit from an entrance fee ranging from 30 to 85 cents depending on the time of day, rising in price later in the evening. Measuring in at 10,000 square feet with a capacity of 4,000 people, the Savoy Ballroom was modeled after the Roseland Ballroom, providing passionate Black dancers a venue to display their talent. The ballroom came to host many of the best dancers of Lindy Hop, an American dance style created in the African-American community of Harlem. Named after Charles Lindenburg, the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug rose to prominence during the swing era of the late 1930s and early 1940s, giving the ballroom the nickname downtown as the “Home of Happy Feet” while uptown in Harlem it was known as “The Track” for its long and thin flooring. Other well-known dances conceived at the Savoy include the Flying Charleston, Jive, Snakehips, Rhumboogie, and iterations of the Shimmy and Mambo.

With a double bandstand that held one medium and one large-sized band, music was continuously played in the Savoy. During the 1930s, jazz musician Chick Webb served as the bandleader for the Savoy’s most popular house band, being joined by a young Ella Fitzgerald who served as its teenage vocalist. Besides Webb, other prominent bandleaders for the Savoy included Al Cooper, Lucky Millinder, and Buddy Johnson. In October 1958, the Savoy Ballroom went out of business, despite efforts by Borough President Hulan Jack, Buchanan, and other organizations to save it. One of the most cherished Jazz clubs in NYC, it is widely regarded as a tragedy for the entertainment world that it was demolished in Spring 1959 for the construction of the Delano Village housing complex. To honor the ballroom’s legacy, a commemorative plaque was built on Lenox Avenue where the Savoy once stood on May 26, 2002. Nineteen years later on the anniversary of the plaque’s installation, a Google Doodle rhythm game was created featuring popular swing dance tunes.