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:
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.