Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila
Very sad news has been carried recently as the former buildings of Lafayette Theatre, Connie’s Inn and Hoofers’ Club have been destroyed for making a way for new buildings in Harlem.
A great part of the Harlem Jazz Dance history has thus gone forever with those demolitions. All the mentioned places were showcases for several African American Jazz Dancers like Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Honi Coles, Eddie Rector, Toots Davis and Earl ‘Snakehips’ Tucker just mention a few of those countless dancers. Without them Harlem would n0t have been the place for the African American dance entertainment during its Golden Era between the 1920s and the 1950s.
The most important reason for forgetting these buildings and their significance to Harlem culture for years has possibly been the distance between the Harlem Renaissance movement and Jazz Dance and its practitioners. That distance was created already from the very beginning of the movement in the 1920s, when Harlem was developing to the most important center for African Americans in the U.S. According to Terry Monaghan, Jazz Dance and especially one of its key dances, The Lindy Hop, were mainly left outside the movement and thus disconnected from their logical context as part of the Harlem Renaissance.
It also has been forgotten that the exceptional freedom, which Harlemites felt in the segregated U.S at the time, was remarkably achieved by those Jazz Dancers who helped to tear down racial barriers with their all races approved dancing, and they thus paved the way for the later Civil Rights Movement. The mentioned distance still can be felt as current dancers are rarely deeply interested in Harlem culture and Harlem’s cultural contributions to Jazz Dance, as far as the Harlem entertainment is concerned. Because of that Harlem has become more or less ‘storied’. We just can hope that new generations take a firmer stance on Harlem Jazz Dance and the entertainment history before all that has been forgotten and demolished.
The Connie’s Inn building on August 21st, 2012.
The history of the ‘Connie’s Inn building’ as an entertainment place started in November 1921, when Jack Goldberg opened Shuffle Inn at 165 West 131st Street. The name ‘Shuffle Inn’ obviously came from the successful ‘Shuffle Along’ theatrical play which gave stardom at least for Josephine Baker and Florence Mills. Shuffle Inn was integrated from the beginning, although it seems that white customers were in the majority. After two years of its existence, George and Conrad ‘Connie’ Immerman, two brothers, bought Shuffle Inn and made it Connie’s Inn with the new entrance at 2221 Seventh Avenue by June 1923. The original Connie’s Inn orchestra was Wilbur Sweatman’s Jazz Kings. By September 12th there was a show – in ‘the nature of a big opening’ -: ‘Harper & Blanks And Their Sensational Musical Revue’ including Eddie and Grace Rector, Cole and Parker, and Mutt and Jeff. Leroy Smith and His Orchestra provided the music. Although Connie’s Inn initially advertised that ‘all are welcome’, the management started quite soon to favor white customers and Connie’s Inn became a cabaret for “white tourists” from downtown.
The orchestras kept changing during years as Allie Ross’ Orchestra replaced Leroy Smith’s Green Dragon Orchestra in 1926. Later, between 1929 and 1930, Louis Armstrong came in with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra, when ‘Hot Chocolates’ show created possibly the greatest stir in Connie’s Inn. Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller and Andy Razaf wrote the show and it produced hit songs like ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ‘ and ‘That Rhythm Man’. Fletcher Henderson Orchestra came in after that for 1930-1931 and was replaced by Louis Russell Band in May 1931. Don Redman’s ‘Chant of the Weed’ orchestra replaced Louis Russell Band in October 1931 and stayed in Harlem until the end of the Connie’s Inn era.
When it comes to dancing, the act called Three Little Words brought the tap routine: Shim Sham on the stage of Connie’s Inn at that time, and the whole club joined them including waiters. That gave a feel of the integration in the otherwise segregated club. Three Little Words got Shim Sham from Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, who had developed the routine (which was named originally as Goofus) in the “next door” building, Lafayette Theatre, a few years earlier in 1927.
The end of Connie’s Inn in Harlem is unclear. It seems to have happened somewhere between 1933 and 1934 as there were references to Connie’s Inn in Harlem in 1932. There still was a reference to the Harlem Connie’s Inn in March 1934. Conrad ‘Connie’ Immerman also had Connie’s Restaurant at 2524 Broadway in 1931. The restaurant probably was working under his management until he moved Connie’s Inn to Broadway and 48th Street in April 1935. Obviously The Harlem Club replaced the old Connie’s Inn for a very short time until it was closed in 1934 and replaced by the Ubangi Club. The Ubangi Club was working in Harlem until 1937, when also it was closed between April and May after losing the liquor license. The club moved to Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Streets. The Ubangi Club was a gay, integrated cabaret club, where one of highlights was “High, Wide and a Handsome” show including Gladys Bentley, Ralph Brown, and Alma Smith. Willie Bryant provided the music for the show. The Connie’s Inn building went through changes and it worked as a supermarket during the last years.
The Lafayette Theatre building on August 21st 2012.
Lafayette Theatre was located next to Connie’s Inn at 2227 Seventh Avenue. Seventh Avenue was known as ‘Great Black Way’ opposing Broadway as ‘Great White Way’. Lafayette Theatre, which was built in 1912, was originally a segregated theatre for whites, but it desegregated by 1914 becoming possibly the most stylish African American showplace in Harlem. Apparently almost every noted African American performer in show business performed in Lafayette. The Lafayette Players, Harlem’s first legitimate African American theatre group, re-created Broadway shows like ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Hot Chocolates’. Because of the African American emphasis on the play script and acting, the Lafayette Players were able to express themselves such as they really were without pleasing white audiences with the African American stereotypes.
After the Schiffman family took over Lafayette Theatre in 1925, the theatre became the place of jazz with a slogan ‘A New Jazz Band Every Week’. Lafayette Theatre continued to showcase African American talent and included for example such billing as Fletcher Henderson’s Jazz Fantasy. When the Schiffmans moved their operations to the Apollo Theatre in 1935, Lafayette Theatre continued especially under Work Administration Project (WPA)-connected Negro Theatre Project until 1939. The Williams Christian Methodist Episcopal Church bought the Lafayette Theatre building in 1951. The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s staff rated the building as of “outstanding significance”, but it was never designated.
Hoofers’ Club was the place for serious Tap dancers between the 1920s and the 1940s. According to Laurence ‘Baby Lawrence’ Jackson, the club located in two different ends of Lafayette Theatre: first, it was located in the end where Bill Robinson later, in 1941, opened his Mimo Professional Club at 2237 Seventh Avenue, and then, finally, it was located in the end next to the Connie’s Inn building. Hoofers’ Club was basically a cellar room, which the piano playing proprietor Lonnie Hicks from Atlanta established for those who wanted to practice, watch and learn Tap for free. He made his business with the gambling upstairs. The Hoofers Club gathered Tap greats like King Rastus Brown, Eddie Rector, John W. Sublett known as Bubbles, Honi Coles, Raymond Winfield, Harold Mablin, Slappy Wallace, Roland Holder, and Laurence ‘Baby Lawrence’ Jackson. According to Jackson, the names of the great hoofers were scratched on the wall of the club. Hoofers’ Club was re-created in the 1984 movie, Cotton Club, which also included the original Hoofers’ Club dancer Honi Coles.
Here is a dance scene from the movie:
This article is based especially on the studies and articles as follows:
– Jean and Marshall Stearns: Jazz Dance.
– George Hoefer: Jazz Odyssey, Vol. 3: The Sound of Harlem.
– Jervis Anderson: This was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950.
– Terry Monaghan: “Stompin’ At the Savoy” -Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.
– Streetscapes: Harlem’s Lafayette Theater; Jackhammering the Past by Christopher Gray from New York Times, November 11, 1990.