Savoy Renovations & The Evolution of the Bandstand

By Sharon Davis

The Savoy Ballroom underwent numerous renovations and redecorations during its 32-year history. The famous twin bandstand, being the central focus and centrepiece of the ballroom, was repeatedly reimagined. I have tried to nail down the various incarnations of the bandstand, matching them to renovation dates. This helps us to date photographs of the ballroom and will help us choose which version of the bandstand to build in our virtual reality experience. Research is ongoing and will be updated when new information comes to light.

The Drapery Bandstand: 1926 – 1930

The earliest photographs of the Savoy bandstand show an elaborate decor, with draped and fanned fabrics and a fringed velvet valance. I believe this was the original decor when the Savoy opened in 1926 and would have appeared this way until the first renovation in late 1930.

The Blue Sky Bandstand: 1930 – 1936

We know that the Savoy underwent its first renovation in late 1930 because the official reopening on 13 November 1930 was covered in the New York Age. The article reads:

The New York Age - Sat 15 Nov 1930

“Redecorated Savoy to Open Thursday. The newly redecorated Savoy Ballroom, Lenox Avenue 140-141 streets, will be formally opened to the public on Thursday night, November 13. The work of redecorating covered a period of seven weeks and cost well over $50,000., stated Charles Buchanan, manager, under whose direction the entire work was executed. The new Savoy as it is to-day, presents an original modernistic decorative effect that is typically American. Upon entering you are immediately greeted by a gorgeous fountain spouting streams of color-tinged water against a background upon which is mounted a bronze hand carved statue of a water nymph.

The orchestra dias presents an alluring spectacle; the entire background possessing a blue-sky appearance with white capped clouds rolling and darting in and out. The walls and ceiling are vivid pictures of rare beauty. The wide expanse of floor is covered by carpet of modernistic pattern manufactured expressly for Savoy. A complete new dance floor of glistening white pine has been constructed. To eliminate tiring of dancer’s legs, a new, scientific, patented “sleeper system” has been placed beneath the floor to make it more resilient and easier to dance upon.

The New York Age - Sat 15 Nov 1930

The lighting system is one of the high-spots in the redecorating program, incorporating the most modern devices and accessories obtainable. When completely lighted the Savoy is at the peak of its dazzling glory. Vari-colored bulbs and spotlights shoot beaming electric rays in every corner. When dimmed during waltzes, a mellowness and softness predominates, subdued spotlights playing over the shoulders of dancing couples. -The New York Age, 15 November 1930, p6. Read the full article here.

So from this article we know that the new bandstand had a painted backdrop of a cloudy blue sky. This period is the least documented photographically, so I only currently have one photograph capturing the bandstand in the early 1930s. It is unfortunately not a very clear or wide angle image.

c.1930 - Dancers at the Savoy Ballroom with Chick Webb & His Orchestra on the bandstand. Circa 1930. Source: photograph by Berenice Abbott, Getty Images.
c.1930 – Dancers at the Savoy Ballroom with Chick Webb & His Orchestra on the bandstand. Source: photograph by Berenice Abbott, Getty Images.

This painting by English painter Edward Burra, who visited Harlem in the early 1930s, shows the coloured blue sky backdrop behind the band in the upper right corner. The painting is dated 1934.

“Savoy Ballroom Harlem” by English painter Edward John Burra (watercolour and gouache), signed and dated 1934. It might delight you to know this painting sold at Sotheby’s for £542,500 British Pounds in 2013.

And this painting by Reginald Marsh from 1931 also shows the scalloped outline of the bandstand and the suggestion of a blue sky backdrop:

Savoy Ballroom by Reginald Marsh (1931)
“Savoy Ballroom” by American painter Reginald Marsh (1931), tempera on masonite. Held at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

This is how the ballroom would have appeared when Frankie Manning first visited the Savoy in 1933.

There is some indication that there may have been one or two more renovations of the Savoy between 1930 and 1936. This is based on the New York Age’s assertion in 1948 that the 1948 renovation was the “6th major renovation” the Savoy had undergone. But unfortunately we have little photographic evidence for this period. Any renovations in the late 1930s might have been only a renovation of the dance floor, as opposed to redecoration of the ballroom and bandstand.

The Striped Bandstand: 1936 – circa 1941

The Savoy underwent another major renovation and redecoration in 1936, re-opening  on Saturday 12th September 1936. As reported in the New York Amsterdam News:

1936 New York Amsterdam News Saturday, September 19, 1936

“Savoy in New Togs: Brand New Dance Floor “Tops”. The Savoy was jumping last Saturday night at the grand opening of the “Home of Happy Feet.” The ballroom in new full dress was a revelation. Swinging couples danced with satisfaction to the management’s new improvements. The famous dance hall has copper walls, new rugs, a grand terrace which surrounds the windowed side of the ballroom and indirect lighting. The prize in Manager Charles Buchanan’s estimation is the brand new dance floor, and intriguing furnishings which carried the owners into thousands of dollars.” – New York Amsterdam News, Saturday 19th September 1936. Read the full article here.

Marshall Stearns wrote in his book Jazz Dance that “the estimated cost of renovation reached $50,000, which included an overhaul of the interior with a full replacement of the dance floor” (p321).

This renovation included the metal clamshell bandstand that has become legendary. Though it is only subtle in black & white photographs, we can see that the stripes are alternating between a lighter and darker colour, confirmed by the below Savoy Ballroom postcard. The canopy appears to be lined with velvet or suede.

Savoy Ballroom Postcard c.1941
Savoy Ballroom Postcard c.1941

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. And of course, this was how the Savoy looked at the time of Chick Webb’s death in 1939.

The Wallpaper Bandstand: circa 1941 – 1948

Another redecoration occurred in the early 1940s, bringing in the elaborate wallpaper that many of us associate with the Savoy. Though I haven’t found any newspaper coverage of this redecoration, the change can be seen in photographs and I believe it must have been sometime in 1941. The canopy of the bandstand looks like this in photographs through to mid-1948. That is a long stretch between redecorations, by Savoy standards, and indeed you can see a fair amount of wear and tear on the decor in 1948 photographs, confirming that the decor remained the same for this entire period.  The Savoy Ballroom was temporarily shut down by authorities from 22nd April 1943 to October 1943, so perhaps that financial downturn was the reason the Savoy went so long without redecoration.

The Ruched Bandstand: 1948 – 1958

The Savoy underwent its sixth (and I believe final) redecoration in 1948, reopening on 3rd June. It was also the ballrooms most extensive (and expensive) renovation, drastically changing and modernising the look of the ballroom. The bandstand was redecorated with ruched gold fabric and built-in lights.

This article from the New York Age mentions that the bandstand was made larger with this renovation, the entire ceiling and all the columns were replaced, the ceiling decorated with gold drapery, and new carpeting put in (it was gold, brown and red).

The New York Age - Sat 5 Jun 1948, p6

Savoy Ballroom Spends $109,000 to Capture the ‘New Look’
“Last fall the Savoy – “House of Happy Feet” spent $109,000 to obtain that stylish “new look” in ballroom fashion so fascinating to the most discriminating interior decorator. When one compares the Savoy of 1948 with the internationally famous dance hall of a scant seven months ago it’s almost impossible to remember what the Savoy of yesteryears looks like. Although the Savoy has been redecorated five times since its opening in 1926 its present renovation surpasses all previous ventures. 
The once drab and inconspicuous exterior of the ballroom now features huge glass doors on the main floor costing $3,000. Keeping harmonious pace with the building’s front is the ultra-modernistic interior. The checkroom located in the basement, which formerly had accommodations for 5,000 coats, hats, and other wearing apparel, has been enlarged and a television set has been installed.

The dance hall itself has been transformed into a breathtaking and picturesque scene of color and splendor. There are stainless steel columns supporting the new ceiling, indirect lighting, 1500 yards of magnificent plush carpeting of gold, brown, and red designs which cost nearly $18,000. The artistry of the ceilings is a fascinating sight. Gold tapestries and glass fibre cloth of gold hang in rippling waves of color. The walls are handworked with chartreuse leather inset with numerous miniature mirrors, which cost $12,000. The carpentry work clicked the cash register at $28,000. The boxes encircling the dancefloor, and the bandstand have been made more spacious.” -The New York Age, Saturday 5th June 1948, p6. Read the full article here.

We know the dance floor was again replaced in July 1953, thanks to this mention in Jet Magazine: “New wood floor installed at The Savoy: When Haitian president Paul Magloire visited the Savoy Ballroom a few years ago he told manager Charles Buchanan that his country grew the best timber for dance floors. Last week Buchanan installed a new $24,000 floor at the Savoy – imported from Haiti.” (Jet Magazine, 6th August 1953, p63).

I have not yet found any evidence to suggest there was another major redecoration of the Savoy before its closure in 1958. Here is a photograph taken on the day the Savoy Ballroom closed, 3rd October 1958, in which we get a glimpse of a corner of the bandstand still looking the same.

People dance a final impromptu jitterbug session at the Savoy Ballroom in the Harlem section of New York before the close of the landmark dance hall on Oct. 3, 1958