Theatre Frolics

Frankie and Norma talked, and the teachers were The Weakest Link 

Set well back at the blunt end (another nautical term) was the Princess Theater. It is a tiered venue, and covers both decks 6 and 7. In the evening it is used for the shows that were put on every night. But during the day, it was empty - or so they thought.

Sunday 23 May was the first full day at sea, and after a hard day of classes, exhausted hoppers collapsed into the sumptuous theatre seats for an hour of Frankie's Stories. Here are some of them:

The Birthday Boy telling it like it was

Frankie's mother used to go to rent parties. Frankie would go along and look at people drinking bathtub gin and "messin' around". She also belonged to a dance club and one time Frankie helped decorate the ballroom. For this he was allowed to go to the dance. He went home and was ready by 7pm even though the dance didn't start until 9pm. When he got there he watched the dancers, then joined in and danced like they did at the rent parties. It was at this time his mother told him that he would never be a dancer as he was too stiff. He then went home, bought some records and practised. Frankie said he decided to dance to please his mother, not to prove her wrong.

One time, Frankie was caned by his grandmother for spilling her snuff!

When Frankie first went to the Alhambra Ballroom, it was five cents to get in. He stood there for two hours and didn't ask anyone to dance. This was the same for the first three Sundays. Finally he asked a girl to dance - and it was a waltz! He managed to busk his way through it be watching another couple, and doing what they did.

Frankie first went to The Savoy Ballroom one Sunday with some friends, including some girls to dance with. Chick Webb was playing, and although there was no sound system, they could be heard from two blocks away. Frankie got started by stealing steps from the best dancers in Cats Corner. "Everybody steals from everybody else. I was the biggest thief in the Savoy! I could see a step twice and then I got it". These steps were not broken down; Frankie would get them by chanting the rhythm. "Don't get discouraged - eventually you'll get it or something better".

There were regular Lindy Hop contests at The Lafayette Theatre. Frankie entered with his partner Julie. The crowd booed them so much that the comedian 'hooked' them off stage with a long pole.

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers appeared with The Cotton Club Revue at The Alhambra Theatre on 125th Street. They were billed as The Savoy Lindy Hoppers and according to Frankie "We tore the place up!" There were three couples on unison, which had not been seen before and they got three encores. But the manager told them that they were not in the next show. When Frankie asked Whitey why they had been cut, he was told that it was because the show was too long. But Whitey did get an agreement that they would appear at a later date. Frankie's advice? "Hang in there!"

Frankie's father once told him "I've got two left feet". Frankie looked in his father's closet - and saw that all his shoes were left-footed! His father worked in a barrel factory in South Carolina. One day Frankie tried to pick up a barrel and his fingers got crushed - he still has the scar. Frankie's father poured turpentine on it, because it was considered to be a cure-all at the time.

Coming home from the factory with his father one day, they passed through a swamp. Frankie picked up a big stick, and threw it. His father started running away because he thought it was a snake! 

The Savoy Ballroom had Black and White contests. Frankie had a white friend, Harry Rosenberg, and used to show him a lot of steps.  Frankie won the black section, and Harry won the white section. They had a dance off at The Apollo Theatre. After each dance they were inseparable. Eventually Frankie did his 'slow motion' routine and won. Harry was furious "You never showed me that!" "Hey", said Frankie, "I gotta keep something for myself!" Harry's partner Ruthie is still alive and lives in Queens.

Norma Miller
Norma Miller in sparkling form

Norma Miller gave her talk on Monday 24 May. Billed as Lindy's Early Days, it turned out to be a trailer for an upcoming book and film. Norma has been working with Dreamtime Entertainment and it is planned to have the premiere at The Apollo Theatre with Bill Cosby, Ruth Brown, B.B. King and Frankie Manning in October 2004.

Norma is great friends with Bill Cosby, and showed a clip of her appearing on his show in the 70s. She also presented Frankie with an early copy of the book that will accompany the film. She said that there had been three great men in her life: besides Frankie, she mentioned Louis Armstrong and Joe Louis.

Originally billed as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Thursday afternoon turned out to be a really funny version of The Weakest Link. Question master Manu brought three teams of teachers on stage to compete. Team one was Virginie, Jason and Steve, team two Sylvia and Bill and team three was Ryan, Jenny and Elliot, standing in for the oversleeping Lennart.

Weakest Link team one
Team One looking suitably baffled at a simple question

Here is a selection of some of the more classic exchanges, in which the contestants' sense of humour is surpassed only by their lack of knowledge.

Manu: What was Duke Ellington's real first name?
Virginie: Er..... Jean-Pierre!
Manu: Let me check that with the judges...

Manu: Which style goes "Hold, step-step, hold, step-step"?
Ryan: None that I do!
Manu: The answer is Balboa.
Ryan: I was right!

Manu: Who had a hit with The Joint Is Jumpin' and Honeysuckle Rose?
Steve: Er.... the fat guy?
Manu: That's right, Fats Waller
[It was clear from his expression that Steve had no idea and had guessed wildly!]

Manu: Which current Lindy Hopper was a three times UK tap champion?
Jenny: Me!

Manu: Which bass player did Ella Fitzgerald marry?
Virginie: My Dad?

[In defence of Virginie's slightly wacked-out answers, she had a hell of a journey to join the cruise. She went to a wedding in Paris and so missed embarking at Fort Lauderdale. She flew from Paris to Chicago, from Chicago to Miami, from Miami to Puerto Rico, and from there to St Thomas. It took two days!]

Ryan and Jenny grin while Elliot looks for his left hand

The competition eventually got down to the three girls, Virginie, Sylvia and Jenny, who had conspired to get rid of the men with ruthless efficiency. At the forefront of this cull was Jenny, who when given a choice between two contestants to vote off, got rid of her own husband Ryan!

By the time it got down to the two finalists, the audience was laughing so much they were past caring. Sylvia may have won it.

July 2004 Andrew Winton.

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