In Defense of the Former Lincoln Theatre Building in Harlem

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

It was recently reported that the former Lincoln Theatre building at 58 West 135th Street, which has been the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church for the last decades, will be demolished for a new apartment building. It was stated that the reason for the demolition and the new building is that the church can’t keep up with the cost of maintenance of the old building. So, the building is intended to be sold for 10.2 million dollars to a fund which demolishes it and replaces the old one with a new building:

https://ny.curbed.com/2017/5/15/15643340/harlem-church-razed-residential-building-metropolitan-african-methodist-episcopal

Surprisingly, there have been no statements for saving the building. The demolition has not caused any stir among those who say that they are trying to promote and save the African-American culture in Harlem, and what is still left about it. That is very strange when compared to the noise that the demolition of the Renaissance Ballroom building caused in 2015. There were a petition, articles, comments, people protesting on the street, and even a picture of a historian arrested because of his actions during the protest for the late ballroom building. Practically, the demolition of the Renaissance Ballroom building was almost about one hit from the wrecking ball when the protest emerged. It was already destroyed so much by fire in 1979 when the ballroom was closed. Now, there is a culturally remarkable building waiting for the demolition, which has survived almost intact through the decades when Harlem’s culturally significant buildings were demolished, and at this moment in Harlem, there is nobody saying even a word for saving the building.

To someone who is not aware of all the twists and turns in the Harlem cultural history that all sounds unreal: how that can happen that there is no one in Harlem for saving the building? The fact, however, is that the demolition of the former Lincoln Theatre is a part of the downfall of Harlem culture of entertainment since the Harlem Renaissance Movement in the 1920s and 1930s neglected Harlem jazz dances as part of “low culture”, instead of acknowledging jazz dances like the Harlem signature dance, the Lindy Hop, as part of “high culture” and as a remarkable cultural achievement. That would have cemented the dance as part of the Harlem Renaissance, and it would have helped the Lindy Hop to survive through the decades when the interest in it was waning. Because the Lindy stayed as a fad, it was exposed to changes in fashion, and it slumped when it went out of fashion.

The Lindy Hop became a part of the Lincoln Theatre when George ‘Shorty’ Snowden, who with his partner Mattie Purnell invented the Lindy Hop in the dance marathon at Harlem’s Rockland Palace on West 155 Street and 8th Avenue between June and July 1928, did the Lindy Hop in the event at the Lincoln Theatre starting from the middle of September 1928. At the same time, the theater organized for the first time the Lindy Hop competitions every weekday for a month. The Lincoln Theatre was also connected to the naming of the Harlem Lindy Hop because the term ‘Lindy Hop’ in connection with the Harlem Lindy Hop was mentioned for the first time in advertisements and articles of the September event in newspapers.

That all has been downplayed and even obscured for the last three decades because the mainly white people-based movement of the revival of the interest in the Lindy Hop has ignored the real Harlem cultural history. The movement started at the beginning of the 1980s when the revivalists began to be interested in the Lindy Hop whose popularity had waned drastically by then. As the movement was at the very beginning genuinely interested in all Old-timers who were connected to the Lindy Hop, it turned out to be a movement for one person and his affiliates starting from the very end of the 1980s when the famous Frankie Manning was winning fame among the mainly white enthusiasts.

During the “modified” version of the revival of the interest, which could be called the revival of Frankie Manning, revivalists have ignored and obscured George Snowden’s part as the creator of the Lindy Hop and his role as the first and a remarkable exponent of the dance who took the Lindy Hop to contests, ballrooms, theaters, Broadway plays, and to places around the U.S. years before Frankie Manning really knew about the Lindy Hop, at least, in the context of the Savoy Ballroom (He frequented the Savoy at the earliest from 1933.), and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers to which Manning belonged was even established. At best, most of the revivalists have recognized Snowden as the one who named the dance, instead of properly acknowledging his legacy of the Harlem dance. And as there is no real evidence for his role in naming of the dance, there is proper evidence for his creator role.

Thus, Snowden became a part of politics practiced by the revivalists who have exaggerated Manning’s role in the Lindy Hop, and at the same time they have downplayed the real Harlem cultural history, which includes the Lincoln Theatre and its Lindy Hop history. Indeed, Frankie Manning’s autobiography (see page 259) mentions that the Lincoln Theatre “presented virtually all of the great African American vaudeville stars…and was known as the home of Fats Waller’s…first professional engagement…”, and it mentions the role of the Lindy Hop in the theater, but only briefly (see page 245): “In fall 1928, [Snowden and his partner Pauline Morse] performed at various Harlem venues, including the Lincoln Theatre and Rockland Palace, in conjunction with advertised Lindy [H]op contests.” It could have mentioned that Snowden and Morse were a part of the ‘Lindy Hop Revue’ as it was advertised concerning the Lincoln Theatre performances, which refers clearly to the fact that they did the Lindy Hop. The Lincoln Theatre could be called one of the “sacred places” of the Harlem Lindy Hop, in addition to the late Rockland Palace, Savoy Ballroom, and Renaissance Ballroom buildings, and still existing Alhambra Ballroom. Also the former Smalls Paradise building still exists, but also its role in the Lindy Hop has usually been forgotten and even ignored. In Smalls Paradise, there were many Lindy Hop performances and dances since George Snowden’s days.

To those who have been “swing dance” enthusiasts (The term has obscured the real terminology of Harlem jazz dance. It was not about “swing dance” in Harlem in the past. That became part of the Harlem dance parlance later starting from the 1980s when the revivalists began to use the term.), other jazz dances have not been so interesting as the Lindy. That has led to the situation where an enormous amount of Harlem jazz dance culture has been ignored. Savoy Lindy Hoppers which Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were as well were not the only exponents of Harlem jazz dancing. As Frankie Manning’s biography suggests, numerous acts like Tap dancers, actors, singers, bands and so on performed in the Lincoln Theatre during its lifetime between 1915 (some sources say 1909 but at this moment 1915 is the year) and the very beginning of the 1940s when the theatre was finally closed after being a picture theater for a while, and then again a theater for theatrical plays. And as mentioned before, it is a well-known fact that Fats Waller had a remarkable career as a musician in the theater, and Count Basie learned much of his craft in the theater. The Lincoln Theatre was among the very first theaters in Harlem which were for African-Americans as opposed to Harlem theaters which were segregated in the beginning. Therefore the theater was a remarkable part of the Harlem Renaissance from the beginning.

Ordinary Harlemites are no more aware of their cultural legacy of entertainment, and that is quite much because of the Harlem Renaissance neglected and even ignored “low culture” art forms as explained earlier. Although the Harlem cultural legacy is deteriorating because of all the recent demolitions (the Lenox Lounge in 2017, the Renaissance Ballroom in 2015, the Lafayette Theatre and Connie’s Inn/Ubangi Club in 2013), it is not yet too late. It is time to learn the real history and understand the real legacy of Harlem culture. People in Harlem have to understand what the legacy has been. Otherwise it could be destroyed to the last existing building.

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About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-7783-9010 .
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2 Responses to In Defense of the Former Lincoln Theatre Building in Harlem

  1. DC Copeland says:

    Great read. Although evidence may not exist that shows Snowden named the dance, evidence does exist that shows the first time the world– outside of Harlem and New York City– heard the name of the dance, and it came from Snowden’s lips. As you are surely aware, this was noted in Marshall and Jean Stearns’ “Jazz Dance.” On June 17, 1928 Fox Movietone News stopped by the Manhattan Casino dance marathon to record what was going on. They were amazed by Snowden’s dancing, even taking close ups of his footwork. When they asked him what he was doing, he replied– without missing a step– “The Lindy.” Legend has it that footage is still out there. Somewhere. Once it’s found, Snowden will be getting the respect he deserves from “‘swing dance’ enthusiasts.”

    As an aside, my “dancical” “Jitterbug!” gives props to Snowden by including him in the climatic dance contest with my hero and heroine. He is also given credit as part of the play’s “Creative and Songwriting Team.” You can find out more about Snowden on a special page http://bit.ly/1L0Ugwi dedicated to him and others whose works either inspired or were included in the story. They are listed by their birthdays. For those who would like to know more about Snowden, after opening the page, scroll down to July 4th (Snowden’s birthday).

    • Hi DC Copeland!

      Thank you for your comment. There is no strict (real) evidence for that Snowden named or rechristened his and Purnell’s invention the Lindy Hop. After reading your blog, I see that you have quoted the late Terry Monaghan’s George Snowden article which was republished in the Jassdancer blog. Monagan stated in his article that “By September though Snowden had rechristened it [his invention] The Lindy Hop when appearing in Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre.” I do not know if you are aware of the discussion in the Yehoodi.com where Terry Monaghan clarified the statement by explaining that it could have been Snowden or someone else who named the dance as the Lindy Hop. As Terry put it: “Snowden told the Stearns in 1959/60 that he and his partner devised the LH and he named it. There is a great deal of evidence to support the first claim, but none to support the second.”

      The discussion is called “Anyone track down “the” Lindy Hop newspaper cover?”. I definitely agree with him. The Yehoodi.com has changed its site structure lately, and the discussion has obviously gone. I have only parts of it which I have discussed in my doctoral dissertation.

      You should also note that there was almost three months gap between Harlem’s Rockland Palace dance marathon and the Lincoln Theatre event, in connection with which, the Lindy Hop was mentioned for the first time in public. Thus, it is unlikely that Snowden named the Lindy Hop in the dance marathon. Snowden told the story to Stearns in 1959. Before that, he had told the story differently to others in the 1930s and possibly in the 1940s. This is discussed in my doctoral dissertation. See pages 134-143.

      I have not found any footage or any other evidence where Snowden names the Lindy Hop. I do not believe that even exists, but you never know. There is obviously a footage of the dance marathon in which Snowden and Purnell, and a soon-to-be-married couple are depicted during the marriage process. Please consult my dissertation page 138. They danced on the truck during their trip to get a marriage license. The couple was accompanied by Snowden and Purnell. It would be such an irony if Snowden and Purnell invented the Lindy Hop during the trip, and outside Harlem because they had to go to downtown, Manhattan to get the license. If anybody is able to take a look at the film, and tell us what really happens in it, thanks.

      As I read your blog, thanks for mentioning Eddie Rector. He is another unsung hero, in addition to Snowden and Purnell. Dancing can be graceful and very rhythmic. That is what Eddie Rector showed to us, and there were many who tried to copy him.

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