It was a strange week: all the swing clubs were packed, but the talk was all about an event yet to come: Roseland Ballroom. Wednesday. Frankie's Birthday. It was the reason that the social scene was littered with people from out of town - from upstate, out of state, England, Germany, Sweden. There's only one person who could inspire this amount of devotion and long-haul flight plans. After the glorious success of Can't Top The Lindy Hop at The Roosevelt Hotel for his 80th birthday in 1994, could a night at Roseland match it?
Certainly the line-up was impressive: for our dancing pleasure, The Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of Grover Mitchell. The Basie Orchestra first played The Savoy in 1937, when it was frequented by a young man called - oh, you know. Now, 62 years later, the Orchestra was back to play for the same person, except that this time it was probably their honour to perform in front of him. The evening's live musical entertainment was completed by George Gee's Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra. The GGM-BO are residents at New York's Swing 46 Club, and there was plenty of home support for the local favourites.
The Masters of Ceremony for the evening were Chazz Young and Norma Miller. In what was probably not a tribute to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Norma was resplendent in a shimmering silvery, floor-length dress. As always, she was in fine form. On the subject of remaining single throughout her life she commented: "When I was young, I was asked all these questions and had no answers. Now I've got all the answers, no-one's asking the questions!"
The first order of the evening was the performance of The Lindy Chorus danced to Andy Kirk's Wednesday Night Hop, by 16 groups from dance troupes and studios. The original plan to have each team on a different part of the dance floor disintegrated into lines of people trying not to bump into each other during the Charleston sequence. Bumping into other people was a feature of the evening. With 1,200 people there, the space available for social dancing was woefully inadequate. Yup, it sure was the place to get your kicks. You would think that if a dance was being organised, somewhere high on the list of priorities would be having enough space to dance, wouldn't you? Large though the Roseland Ballroom is, the wooden dance floor has a wide carpeted perimeter, and with the exception of some of the faster tunes played by the orchestras, was packed well past overflowing for most of the evening.
Norma introduced a varied set of performers in the first installment of the cabaret: The Big Apple Lindy Hoppers immediately established a link to 1994 by dancing a Big Apple to Duke Ellington's 'Let's Get Together', the same music they had used before. Minnie's Moochers were terrific; a teenage troupe from Ithaca that had been dancing all over town in the preceding days. Their youth and exuberance, combined with a cunning routine to disguise the fact that they had twice as many girls as boys, won the hearts of the crowd and a standing ovation. "The Lindy Hop is in good hands!" cried Norma, and no-one disagreed.
Dancing to a different beat were The Grit Grinders. ASDC winner Janice Wilson's troupe's style can be best described as laid back, as they sauntered through a loose swing tune. The excitement picked up afterwards, as Frankie and Norma danced to Shiny Stockings. This was an object lesson in how the Lindy Hop is danced. Style, class and humour were to the fore, and anyone who couldn't learn something from this wasn't really looking. There may not have been any new moves on show, but it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it.
The second cabaret spot opened with Andrew Vassiliou and Sing Lim. Sing was hobbling around on a crutch when not dancing, but in true trooper fashion, threw it away to dance Half And Half with her partner. Ryan Francois and Jenny Thomas really entertained the crowd with some very classy choreography, while The Rhythm Hot Shots reverted to an early version of their famous Lindy Hop routine to include many moves from the film Hellzapoppin'. Billed in the programme to appear but didn't were Buster Brown and Savion Glover. Whether it was a fill-in or not, everybody loved Frankie and Chazz's Shim Sham.
Around midnight, the birthday celebrations got underway. Dozens of press-ganged dancers became waiters and waitresses. Each man got a large tray of sweet potato pies, and an accompanying woman to distribute napkins and forks. The idea that each pie should be divided between four people was optimistic in the extreme, as hungry dancers descended on the trays like vultures. The pies were delicious, and incredibly many actually made it to the after-dance party.
The evening was extremely well-organised by Laura Jeffers and her team. Everything appeared to run smoothly throughout the evening, in some cases overly so. When it came to the jam session, it had all the spontaneity of a railway timetable. George Gee told the audience to sit down, and they would be entertained with one of Roseland's famous jam sessions. Those who could enter the circle were strictly controlled, which certainly stifled the improvisational aspect. There were a few delightful exceptions: Ryan François being led in by Dawn Hampton, for the ultimate demonstration of less is more, Andrew Vassiliou dancing with Jenny Thomas, as Sing Lim hobbled around in the background on her crutch, and Ryan and Jenny together, just joshing around in true jam style. It was good to see Rob and Diane and Marcus and Babl, none of whom performed during the evening, getting the chance to do some stuff-strutting.
In the intervening years between The Roosevelt to The Roseland, a lot has changed. Some dancers have left, others have joined, there's a 'swing' revival, Lindy Hop moves are seen in pop videos more often, there are more news features. The whole scene is more commercial. Certainly this was reflected in the ticket prices. CTTLH cost $75 for the weekend. FM85 prices started at $50, and I was told it was well worth paying the extra to get a $100 'Cats Corner' ticket. All this appeared to entitle me to was a bottle of beer and a bottle of water. There was supposed to be a reception upstairs at 7.30pm, but this was so exclusive that no-one attended. From 8.30 onwards, everyone was allowed to go anywhere, and there was no real benefit for paying the extra $50.
This was less of a birthday party and more of a corporate event. It was well-used by those attending to promote their own classes, clubs and activities. I went dressed in a Zoot suit, expecting to merge in with a similarly-attired crowd. In fact, I was asked if I was performing, as the outfit stood out amongst the shirt sleeves and t-shirts worn by so many. There was even someone wearing a black leJive t-shirt! Overall, I thought it showed a lack of respect and too much opportunism on the part of these people. They knew that the place would be packed with dancers, and they used Frankie's birthday to promote their own enterprises. How would you feel if someone showed up at your birthday party and started trying to sell stuff to your guests?
On the plus side, it was announced during the evening that a pair of Frankie's shoes would be added to the display at Roseland. They will be in good company. Ray Bolger, Ann Miller, Fred and Adele Astaire already have examples of their battered footwear on show. And once the Roseland had finished at 1am there was a party at Swing 46. I turned up there around 3am, expecting the last few to be there. Not a bit of it. It was in full swing. As I walked in, there was a booth on the right, full of young dancers. And sat in the middle of them was Frank Manning, with a smile that made the Cheshire Cat look like a manic depressive. I'm sure he enjoyed his evening at Roseland, but somehow it looked like this is really where he enjoys being most: in a small club with swing music playing, some sweet potato pie, amongst his terpsichorean grandchildren.
Three days later, I visited the Roosevelt Hotel with a friend. We had lunch in the deli of course, but before that, I went into the hotel. I wanted to see the rooms where the classes held, the corridors where the steps were practised, but most of all, The Ballroom. It was being set up for a big function. I looked down from the balcony onto the floor where Can't Top The Lindy Hop had set the standard for weekend events. As I turned to leave, I was sure that I could hear voices whispering "Two thousand and four, two thousand and four..."
© Andrew Winton June 1999
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