Picture Stories: Martha Graham & Doris Humphrey, Bennington School of Dance, 1940s
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    Auction Finds

    Picture Stories: Dance Carnival at Madison Square Garden, 1941

    The wonderful photos kept coming. For several weeks, black and white photos with a mix of people, events and celebrations turned up on the auction table. An auction-house staffer told me that a dealer brought them in each week. Most were historical photos, a few were portraits, and all were embedded with stories that I couldn’t wait to release.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of those old photos and the stories behind them in a series called “Picture Stories.”

    Dance Carnival, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1941

    A young couple dance at Madison Square Garden, 1941.

    A young couple dance at Madison Square Garden, 1941.

    This couple was likely dancing during the Monte Proser Dance Carnival sponsored by owner of the Copacabana nightclub in New York. The carnival opened in June 1941 and closed within a month, so the photo is likely from June or July. The photographer was not identified.

    Proser spent $100,000 to turn the dance hall at the old Garden site at Eight Avenue and 50th Street into a palm grove, along with a waterfall – behind which a woman stripped – and a starry ceiling. It also included striped banners as seen in the photo.

    Here’s how Proser’s new enterprise was described back then by a Pennsylvania newspaper:

    “Take enough room for a six-day bicycle race or a rodeo or a hockey game or a three-ring circus. Roll out a dance floor. Sprinkle with a 110-foot waterfall and several 70-foot giant palmettos. Add three ‘name’ bands and let them sizzle. This is the $100,000 dish which Monte Proser is just about to serve up as a 66-cent special in Madison Square Garden for three months this summer. … But Monte Proser himself is the first to admit that ‘it will either be the biggest success New York has seen for many a day – or the biggest flop.'”

    A young couple dance at Madison Square Garden, 1941.

    A young couple dance at Madison Square Garden, 1941.

    Proser rented the hall for 100 days at $1,000 a day. Along with the 66 cents during the week, he charged an admission fee of 88 cents on weekends and nothing at all to servicemen with female dates.

    When I first started researching the photo, I thought the couple was doing an impromptu dance at the annual Harvest Moon Amateur Dance Championships, held annually at the Garden. But the background in their photo resembled this photo inside the carnival. The Harvest Moon competition was held on a raised stage, with visitors seated around and below the dancers, not standing around.

    The Harvest Moon appeared to be the more interesting use of the Garden for dance. In 1941, the competition was held on Aug. 27, and 20,000 people attended. Couples who had made it past the semifinals at the Roseland or Savoy Ballrooms in New York participated in the finals. Through the years, dancers competed in such categories as the swing, Lindy Hop, fox trot, collegiate shag, polka, waltz, conga, tango and rhumba for fame and glory. They were told that they may be spotted by an agent.

    The Harvest Moon was said to be the largest couple dance competition in the country, and it ran from 1935 to 1984. Competitions were also held in other cities, including Chicago. It unofficially started in 1927 when the New York Daily News sponsored a dance contest in Central Park. So many people showed up – 75,000 – that the mayor would not allow subsequent dance events in the park. It was resurrected in 1935, and got bigger and bigger.

    A young couple dance at Madison Square Garden, 1941.

    A young couple dance at Madison Square Garden, 1941.

    The event drew such Hollywood stars as Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Mike Todd, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Norma Shearer, who came to enjoy the show. Entertainers for the event included Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, the Ink Spots and a number of other bands.

    The emcee was Ed Sullivan, who wrote a gossip column for the Daily News called “Little Old New York.” He began emceeing in 1936. When the Harvest Moon was broadcast on TV for the first time in 1947, Sullivan was catapulted into his long-running “Ed Sullivan Show.”

    One of the main attractions of the competition was Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, formed by Herbert White in the mid-1930s at the Savoy. They were said to have dominated the Lindy Hop competitions over the years. Whitey’s group appeared in the MGM movie “A Day at the Races” with the Marx Brothers in 1937, where they danced as farm hands and not as they did on the stage.

    Newsreels were made of the Lindy Hop dancers and other performers at the competition.

    Proser’s carnival consisted of a hall that had a dance floor that held 5,000 people and seated 4,000, along with a café that accommodated 1,500. He hired big bands to entertain them, starting with Benny Goodman. The performers were recorded for a Mutual Radio show.

    By the end of June, the carnival was losing money, with only 5,000 people showing up one Saturday night (Proser had been hoping for 10,500 each night). Proser would be seeking a commercial sponsor for a 12-week tour of the carnival to large cities across the country, reported one newspaper.

     

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