Savoy Ballroom

4733 South Martin Luther King Drive
Opened 1927, closed 1954

Built as part of a large commercial real estate development project that included the South Center department store and famous Regal Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, 4733 South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), opened in November 1927. Throughout its existence, the ballroom served the predominately African-American neighborhoods between 23rd and 63rd Streets and helped anchor the 47th and South Parkway bright-light district, or what was sometimes referred to as the “Harlem of Chicago.” The Savoy secured its reputation as one of the city’s top night spots by showcasing the nation’s hottest jazz bands in a refined setting that appealed to upwardly mobile black Chicagoans.

Plans for the construction of a large, $1 million ballroom near the southeast corner 47th Street and South Parkway were announced in 1926 by a syndicate headed up by real estate developers Harry M. and Louis Englestein. Having already acquired several properties on the site, they planned to replace the existing structures with an expansive three-story structure that would include space for a theater, ballroom, department store, drug store, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, offices, and as many as fifty smaller stores. Construction on the project began toward the end of 1926, with the ballroom slated to be the first part of the project completed.

To operate the ballroom, the developers partnered with nationally renowned ballroom owner and dance promoter I. Jay Faggen. Among Faggen’s most successful ballrooms were New York City’s Roseland and Blue Bird Ballrooms, Brooklyn’s Rosemont Ballroom, and Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Chicago’s Cinderella Ballroom, located on the far west side at Madison and Central Streets, was also a Faggen venture.

The Savoy Ballroom opened for business on Thanksgiving Eve, 23 November 1927. With more than a half-acre of dancing space, the Savoy had a capacity of over four thousand persons. The ballroom’s name recalled the enormously popular and highly regarded dance palace of the same name in New York’s Harlem, which had opened a little more than a year earlier. Opening night featured a gala ball that attracted hundreds of community leaders, theater celebrities, star musicians, and their most ardent followers. On stage for the festivities were Sammy Stewart, Charles Elgar, and Clarence Black and their orchestras. Comedians Moss and Frye also performed.

In its review of the Savoy, the Defender, Chicago’s leading black newspaper, extolled the modern features of the new ballroom: “Never before have Chicagoans seen anything quite as lavish as the Savoy ballroom. Famous artists have transformed the building into a veritable paradise, each section more beautiful than the other. The feeling of luxury and comfort one gets upon entering is quite ideal and homelike, and the desire to stay and dance and look on is generated with each moment of your visit. Every modern convenience is provided. In addition to a house physician and a professional nurse for illness or accident, there is an ideal lounging room for ladies and gentlemen, luxuriously furnished, a boudoir room for milady’s makeup convenience, an ultra modern checking room which accommodates 6,000 hats and cotas individually hung so that if one comes in with his or her coat crushed or wrinkled it is in better condition when leaving.” Such modern amenities not only lent an “atmosphere of refinement” to the ballroom that reflected the class pretensions of upwardly mobile black Chicagoans, but also decreased the likelihood that the Savoy would draw fire from those advocating the closure of disorderly dance establishments. An adjacent 1,000-space parking lot also likely appealed to more prosperous black Chicagoans.

The newspaper also praised the Savoy management for its fair hiring policies. At a time when most of the city’s ballrooms, theaters, and department stores excluded African Americans from positions involving contact or interaction with customers, the ballroom’s managers drew no such color line, albeit with the expectation that most of the Savoy’s customers would themselves be black. “In operating this smart ballroom,” the Defender reported, “more than 150 will be employed. Not only will all of the help be Race people, but wherever it is possible for the management to distribute money by means of purchases it will be among our people.”

Savoy Ballroom, orchestra, April 1941

Savoy Ballroom, orchestra, April 1941

Under Faggen’s management, the Savoy hosted a wide variety of jazz bands and other entertainers, some black, some white, some from Chicago, some making their Chicago debut. In 1928, the popular all-white orchestra of Paul Ash, famous for its performances at the predominantly white McVickers and Oriental Theaters in Chicago’s Loop, played a stint at the ballroom. But the majority of bands to appear at the Savoy were black, beginning with Charles Elgar and Clarence Black’s orchestras in 1927. Among the black jazz greats that appeared at the Savoy during the late 1920s and 1930s were Louis Armstrong and Dave Peyton, whose orchestra dueled that of Erskine Tate in a “battle of the bands” promotion at the ballroom in 1930. In July 1930, when Duke Ellington returned to Chicago for his first appearance in five years, he made the Savoy the first stop on his tour. The Walter Barnes Orchestra set up shop at the Savoy in 1930. Cab Calloway and Benny Moten’s orchestras made appearances there in 1931.

Savoy Ballroom, roller skaters, April 1941

Savoy Ballroom, roller skaters, April 1941

The music never stopped at the Savoy. From 1927 until 1940, two bands were engaged every night to permit continuous dancing. When one band took a break, another was on hand to play on. During these years, the Savoy was open seven days a week, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Although most of the Savoy’s patrons were black, growing numbers of white Chicagoans visited the Savoy to hear and dance to the great jazz bands of the day.

The Savoy, however, was more than just a ballroom. It doubled as a community center and spectator sports venue for black Chicago. The South Side Chamber of Commerce and the board of directors of the black-owned Binga State Bank held banquets there during the late 1920s. The ballroom hosted the Defender benefit ball in 1928 and a celebration of black achivement in 1931. Other events during the ballroom’s early years included community mass meetings to discuss pressing political issues, boxing matches, and roller-skating parties.

Basketball became a part of the Savoy’s offerings in 1927, when the management, looking to looking to increase ballroom attendance, began hosting semi-professional basketball matches two nights a week. To put together a team to play as the home side, they turned to local sports promoter Abe Saperstein. Saperstein selected five of the best black basketball players from the south side to play on the ballroom’s team, which became known as the “Savoy Big Five.” After a short stint at the Savoy, Saperstein took his team on the road, where they played local basketball teams in highly publicized matches. To drum up local enthusiasm for the matches, he dropped the “Savoy Big Five” and renamed his team the “Harlem Globetrotters.”

The Savoy Ballroom was demolished as part of the city’s massive land clearance and urban renewal program in the early 1970s. For more than two decades, the site of the ballroom remained vacant. During the 1990s, local alderwoman Dorothy Tillman spearheaded plans to redevelop the site with a performing arts and community center. In 1998, after many delays, construction on the $4.2 million Harold Washington Cultural Center began.

Sources: Chicago Defender, 29 October 1927, pt. 1, pg. 13; 19 November 1927, pt. 1, pg. 8; 26 November 1927, pt. 1, pg. 10; 26 July 1930, 6; 18 April 1931, 6; 8 August 1931, 7; 19 September 1931, 6; 21 October 1933, 5; 16 December 1933, 4; see also, William Howland Kenney, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 162-164.

Image sources: Lee, Russell, “The Band at the Savoy Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois,” photograph, April 1941, America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USF34-038795-D; Lee, Russell, “”Rollerskating on Saturday Night, Chicago, Illinois,” photograph, April 1941, America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USF34-038559-D.