From the Pepsi-Cola Junior Club of Harlem to the Harlem World Disco

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

Between May 1945 and June 1947, the Pepsi-Cola Junior Club at 121 Lenox Avenue in Harlem nurtured the future Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Sugar and George Sullivan, and it could be considered in a certain way a starting point of the emerging Third Generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. Later, the club building also provided a rehearsal place for the famous Sonny Allen and the Rockets, a versatile Harlem singing and jazz dance company, and the building re-emerged in the end of the 1970s as the Harlem World Disco which became famous for its Hip Hop activities. Thus, suggesting the continuation of Harlem jazz dance over the post-war decades.

When the Pepsi-Cola company opened the junior club at 121 Lenox Avenue in May 1945, it was presented as a gift to African American Harlemites[1]. According to The Afro-American, the purpose of the club was to promote “good citizenship through self-government” done by the participating Harlem teenagers.[2] That meant that adults were allowed in the club only on special occasions[3]. Although adults were not usually allowed to participate in the club events, they, however, were part of the club organization. Mrs. Nina Purveyance was the director of the club for the two years it existed, and the club members were guided by the advisory board that consisted of fifteen men and women representing various activities in the Harlem community like police officers, priests, judges, and social agencies[4].

The club in Harlem was part of the chain of the junior clubs which the Pepsi-Cola company operated in the New York metropolitan area during the World War II and the years following the war. By 1946, there were three other Pepsi-Cola junior clubs, two of which were located in Northern New York and in Long Island. In addition to the junior clubs, the Pepsi-Cola company established Pepsi-Cola centers for servicemen and women which were open also to African Americans[5].

Despite a noble idea of creating good citizens by providing Harlem youngsters a place where they can learn principles of self-government and socialize with each other, practically, the reason for the club was economic. In the 1940s, there was a rivalry between the Coca Cola company and the Pepsi-Cola company. The latter had an idea of marketing Pepsi-Cola to African Americans by getting African Americans involved in the company’s activities starting in 1940 when the company hired three African Americans for its sales team.[6] The Harlem junior club was likely part of this strategy to win African Americans over to the Pepsi-Cola company.

Dances, Christmas and birthday parties, and other festivities were organized in the lavishly decorated club which was open almost every afternoon and evening, but not on Sundays, and it had a dance floor, a soft drink counter, a juke box, ping pong tables, and booths for card and checker games. The club also had an indirect lighting system that, according to The New York Amsterdam News, was comparable or even superior to the New York’s finer night clubs. Walter S. Mack Jr., the president of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation, claimed that the operation cost of the club was over 200,000 dollars during its existence. As the club had about 700 members ranging between 14 and 19 years, and it was visited more than 100,000 times, the cost per visit was approximately two dollars.[7]  While the Pepsi-Cola Corporation seemed to put much money to the club, which suggests the importance of African Americans’ support for the Pepsi-Cola products, and while the club attracted a lot of customers with a relatively small cost, which speaks for its success among Harlem youngsters, the club was likely unprofitable[8].

Particularly, two club events were reported in the African-American newspapers which brought out activities of the Harlem branch of the Pepsi-Cola junior clubs. The first of them concerned the twenty-second Women’s International Exposition at Madison Square Garden between November 13 and 18 in 1945. The exposition had 168-200 exhibitors including numerous groups based on various nationalities, youth, politics, and other social aspects. It was earlier a morale builder for the women who worked in the war-related jobs, but at this time the exposition delivered to the women various lectures, panels, forums, and exhibits, in addition to counseling service, as based on the idea of how to make a transition from war to peace activities.[9]

The New York Amsterdam News stated that the Harlem branch youngsters at the Madison Square Garden event demonstrated club workings and put on a dance show which led to an offer to “dance for soldiers every Thursday evening at the Hotel Astor”. George Sullivan and Ruth Guillroy (should be Guillory) who later has been known as Sugar Sullivan were among the seventeen members of the Harlem branch, who participated in the event.[10]  Their participation in the event and the offer suggest the continuation of the U.S. war politics which emphasized national unity between races at the same time when basic Civil liberties were denied to African Americans[11]. On the other hand, it speaks for the continuation of racial mixing in connection with Harlem jazz dance, which still continued in the 1940s, although to a lesser degree than in the 1930s and the 1920s[12].

Another club event which was reported in The New York Amsterdam News was the first anniversary of the Harlem branch in May 1946. The club celebrated the first anniversary by organizing a Big Barn Dance that included Square dancing, but also Jitterbug. The paper discussed, in particular, zoot suit clad Ruth Guillory and her partner Eugene ‘Ray’ Daniels, who were depicted in a picture showing the routine which helped them to win the club’s Jitterbug contest. According to the paper, Ruth and Ray won earlier the Jitterbug division of the Miss America Magazine dance contest, and as a prize of the magazine dance contest they had received original paintings from the Walt Disney Production, Make Mine Music, autographed by Walt Disney.[13]

As far as Lindy Hop/Jitterbug contests are concerned, the Miss America Magazine dance contest was a start of Ruth Guillory’s (Sugar Sullivan’s) dancing career which led to the Daily News Harvest Moon Ball contest and to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in the late 1940s. In 1955, she won with George Sullivan the Jitterbug Jive division in the Harvest Moon Ball contest. Both Sugar and George became famous also as the leading Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers in the 1950s.[14]

The end of the Pepsi-Cola junior club of Harlem came in 1947, when the president of the Pepsi-Cola company Walter S. Mack Jr. announced that the club was going to be closed by the end of June. He stated that for the time the company sponsored the club, the Harlem community did never show appreciation for his efforts which helped to keep Harlem youngsters off the streets and gangs. All he got from the community was harsh criticism.[15] Walter S. Mack Jr.’s claims cannot be substantiated by the press which did not criticize his efforts when the club existed, but it is possible that there was some sort of criticism behind the scenes.[16]

The more plausible explanation for the end of the club, however, is that it did no more serve its purpose to promote profitably Pepsi-Cola products to Harlemites and African-Americans. This is suggested by the facts that the club existed only for two years, and when Walter S. Mack Jr. announced its end, he offered the club to any responsible party with one or one and a half years rent for free. The rent for one year was otherwise 10,000 dollars. The Harlem community was for the continuation of the Harlem branch, which also supports the explanation that the club did not make a profit for the Pepsi Cola Company. The general tenor expressed by the Harlem community including the club members and its president Ray Daniels, police officers, and various church representatives was that the club had significantly prevented juvenile delinquency and gang activity in Harlem. Despite this, there were no parties who had taken Walter S. Mack Jr.’s offer to continue the club.[17]

As the years went by, the former junior club building re-emerged as a rehearsal space for the Sonny Allen and the Rockets which also Sugar Sullivan belonged to. A versatile singing and jazz dance group Sonny Allen and the Rockets toured mainly around the U.S. and Canada between the very end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s. They sang and performed various jazz dances like Mambo and the Lindy Hop. The group, which consisted of five members, included also a full orchestra. When they were back in Harlem, they rehearsed on the first floor of the building that also worked as the Democratic club led by Sonny Allen’s father.[18]

In 1978, the former junior club building, after working as the Woolworth department store, was opened as the Harlem World Disco on June 28. According to one of its owners and the president of the club Earl Washington, the 30,000 square foot disco in Harlem was planned to be a tourist attraction which had raised interest in the Harlem community and its places of entertainment, in addition to serving Harlem community organizations which could use the place for their events.[19]

By paying homage to the Harlem jazz dance history which Harlemites still recognized at the beginning of the 1980s, the disco was described as part of the continuum of Harlem entertainment history and as a modern Savoy Ballroom, without forgetting other places of entertainment in Harlem like the new Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre and the Smalls’ Paradise. The disco besides dancing and entertaining customers could decrease Harlem’s unemployment, and it was endorsed by politicians like Assemblyman George W. Miller and Major of New York City Edward Koch particularly for its presumed positive effects on Harlem’s economy.[20]  When considering the fact that the disco existed for seven years, it likely had positive effects on the Harlem community, but not necessarily economically because according to one of its employees, the place did not make a profit until the very end of its existence[21]. According to the press, the disco was also criticized by the Harlem Muslims who considered it could increase criminal activity in Harlem and nearby their mosque on 116th Street, across the street from the disco.[22]

Although originally intended to serve tourists and the local community, the Harlem World Disco turned to serve emerging Hip Hop communities from Harlem, the Bronx, and the New York metropolitan area. Famous Hip Hop acts like Cold Crush Brothers, Fantastic Romantic Five, Treacherous Three, and Busy Bee performed in the place. In spite of strong interest in Hip Hop at the Harlem World, disco nights with artists like Eartha Kitt, Arthur Prysock, GQ, and Atlantic Star were frequently organized there.[23]

Charlie Rock who worked in the Harlem World claims that the place was closed quietly in 1985 for financial and political reasons because politicians involved in the Harlem World were no more supporting it and the local community turned against it. Also, the owner of the place at the time could not afford to it anymore, in particular, because other clubs capitalized successfully on the idea of Hip Hop.[24]  Charlie Rock’s statements are supported by the fact that the closure of the Harlem World did not cause much discussion in public if not at all.[25] This suggests that the Harlem community was lost interest in it. The place was closed at the time when interest in Harlem was increasing because of the mainly white people-based revival of interest in the original Harlem jazz dance, the Lindy Hop[26]. It is another story to speculate what could have happened with the Lindy Hop revival if the Harlem World Disco had continued after 1985.

The former Pepsi-Cola Junior Club building in September 2012:

Endnotes:

[1]‘Opens Youth Center in N.Y.’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[2]New Canteen Opens for Harlem Youth’, The Afro-American, May 19, 1945, p. 10

[3]‘Opens Youth Center in N.Y.’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16 and Nora Holt, ’Pepsi-Cola Club In First Anniversary’, The New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 1946, p. 14.

[4]’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16. ‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, p. 1. ‘Opens Youth Center in N.Y.’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[5]’Negro Staff To Be integrated In Pepsi Cola Field Organization’, New Journal and Guide, October 11, 1947, p. 9. ’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16. Nora Holt, ’Pepsi-Cola Club In First Anniversary’, The New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 1946, p. 14. Louis Lautier, ’Capital Spotlight’, The Afro-American, October 17, 1942, p. 4.

[6]Stephanie Capparell, ‘How Pepsi Opened Door to Diversity; A 1940s All Black Team Targeted a New Market And Broke a Barrier’, The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2007, B1. Michelle Archer, ‘Pepsi’s challenge in 1940s: Color barrier; CEO hired black marketing team’, USA Today, January 22, 2007, p. B5. ’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[7]‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, pp. 1 and 16 and ’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[8]The claim that the club was not profitable is discussed in the paragraph that starts with “The more plausible explanation for the end of the club…”.

[9]‘Women’s Exposition to Cover Wide Field’, The New York Times, November 13, 1945, p. 18. ‘163 Exhibitors Get Space’, The New York Times, October 11, 1945, p. 24. ‘ “Women In Peace” To Be Exposition Theme’, The New York Amsterdam News, October 13, 1945, p. 10. ‘Peace Theme in Exhibit’, The New York Times, September 29, 1945, p. 18.

[10]Kay, ’CanTEEN’, The New York Amsterdam News, December 1, 1945, p. 20.

[11]Harri Heinilä, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 (Helsinki, Finland: Unigrafia, 2015), p. 187.

[12]In the Harlem context, a yardstick for measuring racial mixing is Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom which was known for interracial dancing between African-Americans and whites. By the 1940s, less and less whites frequented the ballroom. See Heinilä 2015, pp. 116 and 126.

[13]Nora Holt, ’Pepsi-Cola Club In First Anniversary’, The New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 1946, p. 14.

[14]See Sugar Sullivan interview by Sally Somner, in Durham, March 19, 2001, the New York Public Library. See also ‘The Third Generation’ by Terry Monaghan, published in https://authenticjazzdance.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/the-third-generation-by-terry-monaghan/on March 11, 2017.

[15]‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, p. 1.

[16]I have not found anything which supports Walter S. Mack Jr.’s claims. However, it is possible that Harlemites criticized the club in private.

[17]‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, p. 1 and ’Pepsi-Cola Club Marked to Close’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 14, 1947, p. 27.

[18]Rennie McDougall, ‘In Harlem, They’re Still Dancing the Original Swing’, The Village Voice, September 6, 2017. Published in https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/09/06/in-harlem-theyre-still-dancing-the-original-swing/ . Sonny Allen interview by Harri Heinilä, in Helsinki, September 2013. Harri Heinilä has the original copy of the interview.

[19]’Harlem World Club Now At Noted Corner’, The Billboard, July 8, 1978, p. 49 and Nelson George, ’New disco expects to advance revival of Harlem’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 24, 1978, p. D6. See also Zamgba Browne, ’New Disco Stirs Muslim Protest’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 29, 1978, p. D1.

[20]‘Harlem disco to open soon’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 3, 1978, p. D2. Zamgba Browne, ’New Disco Stirs Muslim Protest’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 29, 1978, p. D1. Jeanne Parnell, ’Discomania!’, New Journal and Guide, January 19, 1979, p. A9. ’Harlem World praised’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1980, p. 31.

[21]‘Charlie Rock of “The Harlem World Crew” and Harlem World. With Troy L. Smith’, Fall of 2003. Published in http://www.thafoundation.com/charock.htm. Later referred to as Smith 2003.

[22]J. Zamgba Browne, ‘Muslims protest disco’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 22, 1978, p. A1 and A2. Zamgba Browne, ’New Disco Stirs Muslim Protest’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 29, 1978, p. D1. Disco Protested’, the Los Angeles Sentinel, June 25, 1979, p. A8.

[23]Smith 2003.

[24]Ibid. I have not found any articles in which the closing date is exactly stated. The closing year 1985 is supported by the fact that the press referred to the Harlem World in the past tense in 1986. See for example, J.D. Considine, ‘Taking the Rap to Baltimore’, The Sun, June 8, 1986, p. 10L.

[25]The reasons for the closure which Charlie Rock mentions were not discussed in public to a great extent as far as the press is concerned. I have not found those articles from the time when the place was closed.

[26]The revival is discussed in numerous articles and studies. One of the best studies on it is Terry Monaghan’s “Stompin’ At the Savoy” -Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, (Dancing At The Crossroads. African Diasporic Dances in Britain. Conference Proceedings 1-2 August 2002).

About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and the former 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 .
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s