March 2, 2013

Sweets Ballroom ~ Jitterbugging in the Forties

I was writing about another topic, the memories I have of the year 1958 (link below). One of those memories, the ferries that trolled back and forth across the bay in the 1940's and the 1950's, came alive.        

My first recollection is a vague remembrance of my mother and father taking me down to the Ferry Building to catch the ferry to Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, California, late in 1945 just after the war. They were out celebrating it's end and we were all very excited, although at the time, I didn't really understand what we were excited about. All I knew was that we were going DANCING! The clear part of the memory is kneeling on the seat (I was always tiny for my age, whatever age I was) in front of a huge window on the ferry looking out at the city as it slowly slid away; so does the memory . . . 

  San Francisco Ferry building & ferry
photographer unknown

. . . the recollection fades back in to a jammed crowd of giants dancing madly in front of me. The "mad dancing" was couples doing the jitterbug (coined by Harry Alexander White in 1934) with the couples (including my mother and father) wildly gyrating on the dance floor . . .

 the Jitterbug 1938
photo by Alan Fisher
New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer

. . . as I jumped up and down at the foot of the bandstand in time to the music pounding loudly in my ears there in Sweets Ballroom. What a fantastic adventure for a five year old boy!

 The bandstand at Sweets Ballroom
photographer unknown

Sweets, called "The East Bay Home of the Big Bands," was where people went to enjoy dancing to swing music and Latin jazz. The night time was for the serious stuff but in the afternoons whole families would be there to dance. My folks took me there often and it's were I learned to dance. There were house photographers who took photos of the dancers, then sold the prints to them.  Somewhere (it got lost years ago) there is a photo of a five-year-old me dancing with a girl (she was taller than I was, of course).

photographer unknown

The ballroom was opened by William Sweet sometime in the 1920's at 1933 Broadway in Oakland, California.     

a Sweets ad

The Sweets Ballroom had a house band that played in the afternoon and in the evening when special gigs featuring famous bands were not being presented.

Sweets Ballroom House Band, 1939
left to right, back row: 
Squire Girsback, Gordon "Gramps" Edwards, Bob Scobey, 
Lu Watters, Bill Yeaman & Hiram "Hi" Gates
left to right, front row: 
Russ Bennett, Bob Helm, Henry Abrahamson 
& Ken "Buss" Greene.
photographer unknown

In the 1930s, the music of Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico (the precursor of Afro-Cuban and salsa music) were popular in New York and it spread to the rest of the country, including Oakland; there, Sweets showcased the best of the best.

 Sweets Poster with Count Basie

Duke Ellington appeared at Sweets

Xavier Cugat popularized Latin jazz for American audiences. He opened the door for a generation of Mambo Kings including Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Machito, Willy Bobo, and Cal Tjader; all of them played the Sweets at one time or another.

 Xavier Cugat and his orchestra perform at
Oakland's Sweets Ballroom. September 26, 1944
E.F. Joseph, photographer
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Charles Hector Carlos

some shots of the wild stuff

The Jitterbug
photographer unknown

Jitterbugging in a Negro juke joint
Saturday evening, Clarksdale, Mississippi
November 1939 
photo by Marion Post Wolcott
for the Farm Security Administration

 really gettin' down
photographer unknown

 Jitterbugging in Harlem - NY (1939)
photo by Sid Grossman

Sweets was abandoned at some point in the 1960's. There was a limp revival with the advent of disco in the late 1970's and some off-the-wall events after that.

 Fright Fest at the Sweets (2010)

°    Xavier Cugat can be heard on YouTube.
°    Perez Prado can be heard on YouTube.
°    Tito Puente can be heard on YouTube.
°    Machito can be heard on YouTube.
°    Willy Bobo can be heard on YouTube.
°    Cal Tjader can be heard on YouTube.
°    There's a wacky but fun instructional video, Groovie Movie (1944), on YouTube.
 °   Ferry boats in operation video on YouTube.

There are two great blogs about Sweet's Ballroom that are really terrific with some GREAT photos. Check them out:    
  No Pattern Required ~ My Grandmother's Glasses,
Oakland History Murals ~ A Bitter Sweet History

There are two other related Viewfinder articles: 
Juanita's Galley

I had a terrific time riding those old ferries and dancing at Sweets Ballroom when I was a little kid . . .

. . . and I've been dancing ever since!

Styrous ~ March 2, 2013

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