Recreating the late 1930s Savoy

By Sharon Davis

The Savoy Ballroom underwent many renovations and redecorations over the decades that it was open. From studying archival photographs I have identified five distinctly different interior decors between 1926 and 1958 (read my renovation research here). We have chosen to recreate the Savoy Ballroom in our virtual reality project as it looked between 1936 and 1941.

On this page I will try to take you on a photographic tour of the space via the photographs we will be using to help us model The Savoy in virtual reality, looking at specific details of the decoration, furniture and structure of the ballroom.

Why the late 1930’s period?

We have chosen to recreate the Savoy Ballroom as it looked from the 1936 renovation (the ballroom re-opened after these works on 12th September 1936) until around 1941. There are a number of reasons we have chosen this period to focus on.

Firstly, this period was the height of the Savoy’s success and popularity. With this decor, the ballroom witnessed the legendary band battles between house band Chick Webb and visiting orchestras Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. A young Ella Fitzgerald’s career blossomed in this period, having joined Chick Webb’s band at the Savoy around 1935. This period was the height of popularity & success for the Savoy’s elite team of dancers, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, as they represented The Savoy dancing across the country on stage and screen. And this was how The Savoy looked at the time of Chick Webb’s death in 1939.

Secondly and more simply, some of the best photographic evidence we have is from this period. Recreating the Savoy Ballroom in virtual reality requires attention to details of the building and decor that have not posed particular interest to historians up to now. Since the flamboyant dancers and famous musicians were the usual attraction for photographers that visited The Savoy, evidence of the mundane details of the ballroom itself are hard to come by. What little photographic record we have of the features of the space is mostly from this period.

Getting a Sense of the Whole Room

The Details

Jump to:

The Building Exterior & the Marquee

The outside of the building and the famous marquee above the entrance did not change drastically across the decades, so I have included here photographs from the late 1930s into the 1950s.

The Street Entrance

The Twin Bandstands

The Stairwell

Hostess Booth

Up to 1943, the Savoy Ballroom was renowned for its “hostesses” – attractive, well-dressed and well-mannered young ladies in the employ of the ballroom, who could teach you the latest dance steps or simply give you the pleasure of their company on the dancefloor – at a price of three dances for 25 cents. Dance partners for hire, sometimes referred to as “taxi dancers”. The hostess booth in the Savoy was by the stairwell.

The Lounge Chairs

The Boxes

The Loges

The Ceiling

The Columns

The Carpet

Cat’s Corner

The 141st Street end of the dancefloor was where the elite Savoy Ballroom dancers danced in what was known as “The Corner” or “Cat’s Corner”. When facing the bandstand, Cat’s Corner was to the left of the band. Oddly, this is the corner of the ballroom that is the least photographed.

140th Street-side Windows

On either side of the bandstand were windows fitted with wooden blinds. There is a built-in bench in front of the blinds and a ruffled/corrugated valance at the top. The most clear photographs show the windows on the 140th Street side of the bandstand.

141st Street-side Windows & Exit

The 141st Street side of the dancefloor had two sets of windows with blinds and benches just like the other side of the bandstand, but with a slightly wider gap between them. There was also two steps up to an exit door (labelled Exit 3 in my floorplan).

Chick Webb’s drum kit

The Electric Fans

There were electric fans mounted on the walls around the ballroom.

The Murals