CRASHING CARS & KEEPING THE SAVOY’S MEMORY ALIVE by Terry Monaghan
Always in a hurry, Louise “Mama Lu” Parks crashed cars regularly. Usually about one a year, and they were usually Lincolns or Cadillacs. That activity was indicative in two ways of Mama Lu – she was a classy woman who went in pursuit of her goals with a ferocious enthusiasm. She had to. Coming to the Savoy Ballroom during its last phase she was lucky enough to imbibe its infectiously swinging atmosphere, but like many others unlucky enough to have experienced its sad demise.
Mama Lu was not to be downhearted though; there was still work to be done. Charles Buchanan, the Manager of the Savoy, urged the last illustrious group of Savoy Lindy Hoppers to take on the responsibility of staging the Lindy Hop preliminaries, at the new Savoy Manor in the Bronx, for the Harvest Moon Ball Dance Competition held each September at Madison Square Gardens. Coming to the fore, Mama Lu created a replacement scenario that attracted new dancers at one end whilst turning out Lindy Hop Champions at the other.
After being born in Raleigh, North Carolina she moved to Boston at an early age and only made it to New York when she was old enough to strike out on her own. Her family wanted her to be a minister, but she had her sights fixed on the stage and appeared in various productions. In 1955 she got a grant from the state to teach “square dancing” to young people but decided that was not such a great idea for a 127th Street venue in Harlem and got to work on jazz dancing instead. Starting as a hat-check girl at the Savoy, Mama Lu soon progressed to becoming a significant dancer there in her own right and finished up getting some of the best of her contemporaries – including Lee Moates, George Sullivan and “Big Nick” – to teach the youngsters. These three-month summer classes became an annual event that both attracted new youngsters to the dance form whilst the experienced ones prepared for the Harvest Moon Ball that took place at the end of September or the beginning of October. Invariably the winners finished up dancing in her company. By 1961 a professional company had been established which stayed on the road until her sad demise in 1990. Their 29 year run, set a record that no other group of Lindy Hoppers has come near to challenging.
At a time when popular dance was moving rapidly away from couple dancing, keeping the Lindy Hop alive as a performance and competitive dance form became an increasingly laborious task but she had powerful allies to work with. Redoubtable spirits like Marshall Stearns and Mura Dehn who argued the case for, and staged, dance demonstrations to show that the “latest” dance crazes were still only variations on traditional historical dance forms, created precedents by which various types of authentic jazz dancers got together in demonstration/performance shows that showed various continuities of the dance forms. What better setting for her dancers than to work alongside so many former great dancers?
Local politics played a part as the Republicans began to make inroads into New York City. Governor Rockerfeller, who had attended the Beaux Arts Ball at the Savoy regularly before it closed, became a helpful ally. The bedrock for success, however, remained the talents of the company, which Dickie Harris and Thelma Grant clearly demonstrated, in their decisive victory at the Harvest Moon Ball in 1966. Shortly after, the company made it to Radio City Music Hall, the first group of Lindy Hoppers to perform there since Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the 1930’s. The resultant publicity, backed up by the remorseless work of Mura Dehn secured the inclusion of the company in the group of artists representing the USA at the Cultural Festival that preceded the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. Working regularly with Lionel Hampton, another staunch Republican, led to a gig in the White House for the New Year Inaugural Ball for the newly elected President Nixon. Later that same year, they joined the (State Department sponsored) “Back To Africa” tour that Mura Dehn organized in which they toured and performed across eight African countries. For the Mama Lu Dancers it was something of a homecoming as they re-met African artists who they had made friends with in Mexico. Experiencing everything from dodging bullets in the Nigerian civil war to being personally presented with gold medals by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in his palace widened their horizons and was to prove a useful antidote for the difficult years of the 1970’s that lay ahead.
Disco-soul proved to be a more insidious threat, to the continuity of the old dance forms, than anything else to date as its’ watered down Latin rhythms took new generations further and further away from an interest in, or even an ability to recognize, swing. In 1974 the Daily News, the major sponsor, withdrew its support for the Harvest Moon Ball. Eventually, the much smaller replacement event dropped the Lindy Hop in 1979 in favor of the Hustle. However the Mama Lu approach that was developed in the 1960’s of making sure her dancers were always the best at whatever was the latest style enabled her company to always be accepted and to keep the Lindy to the forefront.
Mama Lu had already seen the writing on the wall and looked again to Europe for new possibilities. Some of her dancers had already toured Sweden in 1963 – 4 with the “King Coleman Show”, along with other brief performing visits to other parts of Europe. The company started working the George Wein circuit of European jazz festivals in 1978, which ironically brought them back together with the major big bands; they had danced so avidly with in the US.
Other possibilities arose from this initiative. They made repeated tours of Sweden and contact was established with Wolfgang Steuer of the World Rock ‘N’ Roll Federation in Germany, which led to Steuer sponsoring the winners of the new Mama Lu Harvest Moon Ball event, to compete in the international finals in Europe. (A lot better deal than the same organization has been offering other groups recently!) This was a fortunate coincidence, as by then the official Harvest Moon Competition Organization had given up on swing dancing altogether. These new European activities attracted the attention of the British TV Company who produced the major arts, program “The Southbank Show”. In 1981 they paid for one of Mama Lu’s events to be re-staged at Small’s Paradise Club on 7th Avenue in Harlem, which became the first major TV programme on Lindy Hop.
New allies appeared on the scene. Neighborhood dancers in the South Bronx launched the hip-hop uprising against the, by then, smooth conformity of disco, and the re-surfacing of many old dance styles gave the surviving parts of the Lindy scene a new boost. Mura Dehn started filming the breakers, Mama Lu incorporated them into her shows and generally a new interest in Lindy, as the roots of Hip Hop, began to take a hold.
For many years Mama Lu’s Harvest Moon Ball preliminaries and then her stand- alone events, had been the rallying point where old Lindy Hoppers re-met and kept in touch. Awards were given annually to former great, and by then virtually forgotten, dancers like Al Minns, Norma Miller and Frankie Manning. But they did not remain forgotten for much longer. The new spirit re-ignited the smoldering embers of swing and before long other productions were afoot. In 1984, Norma Miller directed a two-performance gig at the Village Gate featuring the Nicholas Brothers and former members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Mama Lu’s Company leapt right in and followed up with a regular gig at the same venue with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band for the next three years called “Jitterbug Jazz”.
Throughout the difficult years Mama Lu’s collaborators had been able to sustain the original inter- relationships of the social, competitive and performance modes of Lindy in close proximity to each other. The new interest in the Lindy that emerged in the early 1980’s saw an increasing separation of these aspects and in particular a predominant narcissistic fascination with the individual’s own dance experience. The old ballroom practice of watching other dancers on the floor went into sharp decline. The Mama Lu dancers, increasingly out of touch with these sentiments, became largely performance dancers. That was still a good gig, but it put a considerable distance between them and many of the new enthusiasts!
Other new allies however were to hand. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, otherwise known as BAM moved into the forefront of promoting the new spirit of black dance on stage and scored a spectacular hit with their 1983 production “Dance Black America.” The noted film director Pennebaker made it into a superb documentary. Mama Lu’s dancers were prominent of course as they were in the following year’s production of “Sweet Saturday Night.” The Village Voice reviewer recorded “Mama Lu’s dancers Lindy like no one I’ve seen.” It wasn’t that the Mama Lu dancers had lost their old competitive skills, as Dickie Harris and Joya James decisive victory in the 1985 TV entertainment competition “Star Search” demonstrated. It was rather that they moved almost unthinkingly into new areas where work needed to be done, leaving the old territory to the new enthusiasts. Thus in following up their British TV coverage the Mama Lu dancers toured the UK in 1983 and 1984 and left a trail of new Lindy Hop enthusiasts in their wake, the most prominent being the Jiving Lindy Hoppers.
Surprisingly little credit has been given recently to the sterling efforts of Mama Lu and her company in keeping the memory of the Savoy Ballroom and its dancing alive throughout the difficult years of the 60’s and 70’s let alone arousing new enthusiasm for the dance form. Larry Shultz met Al Minns at one of her Harvest Moon Ball events which led to the emergence and founding of the New York Swing Dance Society (NYSDS). Their many visits to Sweden must have played a significant role in promoting the resurgence of Lindy Hop there, which eventually led to the formation of the Swedish Swing Society and subsequently the Rhythm Hot Shots and the Herrang dance camp. Without a doubt Mama Lu was central to the emergence of the new scene in the UK. The fixation with “classes” had begun to take hold elsewhere however, and the new enthusiasts were less interested in performance. In 1988 the NYSDS held its 4th anniversary dance at the Cat Club featuring the Count Basie orchestra and despite her offer of performing being declined Mama Lu marched her dancers through the doors and they swung out with their friends in the Basie band anyway.
Fortunately her status was recognized more generously elsewhere and later that year in December, the Bronx Arts Council honored her at a special evening show at Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, at which one of her former youthful protégés Gregory Hines appeared alongside the veteran tap dancers of the Copasetics who had toured Africa with her company back in 1969. In June 1989, the Mama Lu Dancers scored a major hit with the Basie Band at Carnegie Hall for Joe William’s 70th birthday party.
But Mama Lu was not in good health, legally blind and suffering from diabetes, she kept up an unrelenting pressure and despite many pleas from her wide circle of collaborators and friends, refused to take it easy. She fell ill whilst directing her dancers on a cruise ship off Florida in August 1990 and had to be brought ashore. She died on the 23rd September back in the Bronx. That year her Harvest Moon Ball was cancelled and never re-staged. Tina Pratt, the tap dancer, got together a celebration of her memory in the Bronx in April 1991, which brought together a wide circle of contacts, reflecting the life she lived.
Her company has been through some rough times since then, but kept together under the guidance of Richard “Dickie” Harris, and continuing to rehearse weekly in the 127th Street venue where she first began so long ago. Recently the company has enjoyed a new influx of recruits and once again is making its presence felt on the NY Scene. At the Mid-Summer Swing event at the Lincoln Center in July 2000, eighteen dancers got together – 10 from Mama Lu’s Company, 3 from the Jiving Lindy Hoppers and 5 from the Lindy Hop Ensemble of Singapore – to perform a ten minute number in memory of this great woman who had passed away ten years previously. A number of her old Savoy Ballroom friends and collaborators turned up – “Sugar” Sullivan, Barbara Billups, “Little Nick” Mosley and Charlotte “Mommy” Thacker along with a number of former Harvest Moon Ball Champions she had trained. It was a gorgeously warm evening marked by that frenetic but inclusive ambience that Mama Lu invariably generated, when she wasn’t crashing cars.