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My name is Charles J. Dorkins: I was an employee at The Savoy Ballroom, for about one year, 1946/1947. I am probably the only person who had an opportunity to observe The Savoy close up, “backstage”. 1946: Located in New York City’s Harlem, was The Savoy Ballroom, probably the largest dance hall in the world. It certainly was the most famous. When facing the “Savoy building”, looking East, from the street at Lenox Avenue and 141st Street, you would view a wide, 2-story building, 2 blocks wide, about 200 feet deep - a “slim” building. On the street level, in the center of the building, was the Savoy Ballroom entrance. On each side, there were several small business operations: a furniture store, a pool room, a small grocery store, etc. Fragile businesses. In the center of the building was be a dominating canopy: “SAVOY”. The street entrance door to the ballroom would be the width of the canopy. The small entry hall would contain the cashier, a stairway (UP) to the ballroom, and the company office. (DOWN) leading to the checkroom and the dressing rooms for musicians and dancers, staff, also my photo workroom. I don’t know where the rest rooms were. UP, led to the dance floor, spreading left and right. To the immediate left was the sales counter for souvenirs and candy, etc. To the far right wall was the company office. Straight ahead, at the wall, across the dance floor, were the 2-band stands, raised (about 2 feet), large enough to hold a full orchestra of maybe 14 members, on the left. To the right, was space to hold maybe a 6 member orchestra (the “house band”). With the small dancefloor space in front of the bandstand, most of the dancing was done - left and right of the bandstands. There was plenty of space on each side of the bandstand, extending to the outer walls. Many patrons would stand in front of the orchestras. Two bands; the music and the dancing never stopped. On each side in front of the bandstand was the dance floor, maybe about 50 feet deep, 4,000 feet square. Every week, the beautiful floor received a generous serving of wax flakes. When a full audience was vigorously dancing, all to the same beat, I was surprised that the building did not collapse. It certainly did vibrate. Audience seating and tables ringed the dance floor. A large room. When recalling the activities of The Savoy, I think that probably the most vital ingredient to the smooth operation of the dancehall, was the “security force”. This was a group of 6 to 8 tuxedoed men who kept order. They kept order in a place where freedom of action was encouraged, where free consumption of alcohol was not monitored, where flirtatious dancing was everywhere - this was the setting where these men operated. They were fearless. When a patron lost control, they quickly and silently went into action. They swiftly “escorted” the person down the stairs to the basement “for an interview”. If this meeting did not pass OK, the subject was promptly delivered to the sidewalk. Now, this action, being thrown out of an establishment, is structurally very dangerous: it sets up the return of the now, armed subject - for revenge. This drama is played out continually, everywhere. Moe Gale (Jewish), was the secret, invisible owner of the Savoy (with his Italian Mafia connections). He was also booking agent for most black musical performers in the country. He would show up one morning per week, to take care of Savoy business. He also showed up to have a meeting with Mariea. Mariea (from some Caribbean island) had been a maid in Moe’s Long Island home, and his secret sex partner. To have Mariea vacate his home, Moe made her head of concessions at The Savoy. When I got my job at The Savoy, Mariea was my boss. I was a “darkroom man”. When the lady photographer snapped a group photo in the ballroom, I was the guy in the basement swiftly making prints. I was placed there by the Mafia guy who controlled this concession, and the coat checking and at all similar situations throughout New York City. When patrons tipped a coat-check lady, they thought it was for her - but she was on salary and had to surrender all tips. After checking the finances of The Savoy, Mariea and Moe would go for their afternoon auto ride. Mariea told me all about their interesting afternoon rides. The big problem was that Mariea fell madly in love with me. The other problem was that Mariea was not young or beautiful. One day we ended up in a room in the Theresa Hotel. The Theresa Hotel was the only modern hotel in Harlem - the only modern hotel in New York where Negroes could obtain occupancy. If Mariea and I had been discovered in the hotel, there would have been “serious consequences”.
Everyone in New York was made to believe that the owner of The Savoy was Charles Buchanan. But Buchanan was only a “front man”. Buchanan had been a liquor salesman, to neighborhood bars and stores. These kinds of “nice looking guys” were used extensively in the Harlem community. A few of my close buddies were in this club. As “manager” of The Savoy, Buchanan simply had a new job. In the 1940s the Savoy had a contract to supply “Lindy Hop” dancers annually, to “The Harvest Moon Ball”, The New York Daily News newspaper’s annual dance contest, in Madison Square Garden. The problem was that the patrons of the Savoy were no longer interested in doing “The Lindy Hop”. Many patrons of The Savoy also loved to do “ballroom dancing”, waltzing, Mambo - and “Bee-bop”. Now, some of the dancehall dancers were surrounded by crowds applauding these new steps. The music created the dance. The music had changed, but the business guys hadn’t. Moe was very happy with his Daily News contract - so, The Savoy created the “Lindy Hoppers” - trained them - dressed them - paid them. - for the pseudo contests. The neighborhood dancers had become a professional dance group, touring the world. At the time I was at The Savoy, I was headed for my life’s career as a movie maker. I could easily see that the social and dance events that happened in The Savoy were a fabulous source for historical film. I have written a Broadway play, based on some of the events I witnessed. Mura Dehn, a lady of Russian origin, discovered Harlem, and The Savoy - and it changed her life. Mura came from previously performing at the famed Folies Bergé´, of Paris. Mura, in her determination to capture the clever Savoy dancers on film, convinced her friend, a successful magazine fashion photographer, to come to the Savoy and film the dancers. Neither Mura, or her friend had any experience making movies, but they did have funds to buy film and rent cameras. The results of their filming displayed their crude technical expertise. But, they did do more than anybody else had done. It was really an ironic accident that I had met Mura through other social channels. When she discovered that I knew filmmaking, she eagerly sought my cooperation and friendship. But, I had a very difficult technical effort dealing with Mura’s input in the project. Mura had a European’s concept with the whole package. It was maddening, dealing with her effort to combine the wrong music with the wrong dancing. Eventually, I had to abandon her, or should I say, she discarded me. I had co-signed her request for funds to complete her dance film, but when she got the money, she ignored me. She ended up placing rented film editing equipment in her apartment, then spending day and night working on her project. She made a partnership with a Chinese couple, to continue her work. I ended my employment at The Savoy, one terrible blizzard night, when the City of New York ordered all autos off the street! After work, in the wee hours of the morning, I left Manhattan, headed for Pittsburgh. December 27, 1947
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