ECU

Pitch a Boogie Woogie and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers

About 11 years ago when I was an undergraduate at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, I took a film class that had a research component, where we had to research a topic and write a paper on that topic. At the time (well, and even now) I was over the moon about swing dancing and wanted to do my research on something swing dance and film related. My friend Dave Fillmore once told me about a documentary he saw on a film made in Greenville in the 1940’s that featured some of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and I knew that I wanted to dig into this topic and find out more.

How did a couple of Harlem Lindy Hoppers end up in a film made in a tobacco town in the 1940’s? Of course there’s a story. 🙂

In the years building up to the making of the film, Greenville saw a number of touring jazz musicians, who would hold big band dances in the tobacco warehouses nearby, including Louis Jordan, Lucky Millinder, Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, and Earl Hines. In addition to these national touring bands, there were local and regional big bands that would play dances – it seems that just about every larger town in North Carolina had their own band for dances: Jimmy Gunn from Charlotte, The Carolina Stompers from Wilson, the Blackhawks from Kinston, the Mud (if I noted this correctly) Stompers from Elizabeth City, the Rhythm Vets from Greensboro, and I’m sure there were others. There were other entertainers who traveled this circuit, including minstrel and variety shows. A favorite was Irving Miller’s Brown Skin Models from Harlem. All of this to say that Greenville had its share of jazz, dancing, and entertainment in the 1940’s.

The film is called “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” and it was made in 1947 by a man named John Warner who owned The Plaza Theater. The Plaza was located in the hub of the African-American community in Greenville, NC, an area called The Block. Warner, though a white man, was a part of the community around The Block, and fancied himself a filmmaker. He would shoot footage of people on The Block, local talent shows, and other local events, and would show these films at The Plaza Theater. It was a brilliant idea that kept people coming back to the theater, to see if they had made it into some of the local footage Warner shot.

Warner had bigger ideas about his filmmaking so he formed a corporation, Lord Warner Pictures, with his brother, William Lord, who worked on Broadway as a songwriter. Their first endeavor was a 30 minute documentary called “Greenville on Parade,” which was followed by the 1947 featurette, “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.”

“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” had a mostly local, all-African-American cast, including the stars of the film, Tom Foreman and Herman Forbes (incidentally, Herman Forbes went on to become the NC Teacher of the Year for 1975). Warner brought in a few ringers for his production, to round out the entertainment for his “backstage musical,” including some of Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels, chorus girl dancers, actress Evelyn Whorton, tap dancer Cleophus Lines, and a couple of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers named The Count and Harriet. The Count got his name because he loved to play Count Basie on the piano.

There is no direct information about how The Count and Harriet ended up in this film. The other performers had a connection and were specifically mentioned as performing as part of troupes that had performed in Greenville before. Did Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers come through Greenville to perform in earlier years? Or did other Harlem performers who had been through town recommend them? Did the theater patrons see films like Hellzapoppin and want something like that in their film? Or did William Lord know of them through his connections in New York? There are definitely still gaps in my research, but I like to think about the possibilities.

Also of note in this film is footage of local Greenville residents social dancing – you see some Lindy Hop and some solo dancing.

The soundtrack was written by William Lord and originally performed by Don Dunning’s Orchestra, but the original soundtrack had too many issues and was later overdubbed by the Rhythm Vets from Greensboro. I find it interesting that there were so many soundtrack issues, especially with Lindy Hop clips (Hellzapoppin’, A Day at the Races) – members of the Rhythm Vets noted that it was difficult to try to fit the music to the dancing in “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” post-production.

“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” premiered on January 28, 1948 at The Plaza Theater in Greenville, NC. It was a huge local and regional success, but never saw distribution outside of the South. Shortly after the premiere, Warner got into a disagreement with distributors and was blacklisted. Then, the African-American community boycotted the theater following an incident at The Plaza where the police arrested a disorderly patron, who was taken to the police station and beaten.

The Block faded, The Plaza closed, another theater named The Roxy opened and closed near The Block, and in 1975 some people using The Roxy building discovered one of the remaining reels for “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” The nitrate film was restored by the American Film Institute, and the film re-premiered in Greenville on February 8, 1986 with the living members of the cast and the Rhythm Vets in attendance. In 1988, the UNC Center for Public Television put together a documentary of the making of the film and the rediscovery of the film called “Boogie in Black and White.”

It has taken me a long time to get this information and video posted. I still had my research paper, but the copy of “Boogie in Black and White” I used belonged to ECU’s Joyner Library. A few years after I graduated I decided I wanted a copy of “Boogie in Black and White” and wrote to UNC-TV to try to obtain a copy. They wrote back that they could not locate any archived material on this program, but to call a number and speak with someone else. I called the UNC-TV number given to me and the person I spoke with said they had no idea what I was talking about.

I gave up on trying to obtain a copy until last year, when I thought about all the great Lindy Hop clips on YouTube and thought I’d search the Interwebs to see if any clips or information would come up on The Count and Harriet. The only hit was the Joyner Library archives at ECU. It was important to me that these clips survive because of my research, my love of dancing, and that this footage came from my home state and my mother’s home town.

I thought to email ECU professor Alex Albright, who was one of the people I interviewed for my paper, who was also a driving force behind the “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” restoration, conducted much of the research for the documentary, and wrote most of the content for the UNC-TV documentary. He was not surprised at UNC-TV’s response to my request and was as disappointed as I was at the possibility that this film might be forgotten. The only right he retained to the documentary was the right to make VHS copies of the documentary for a small fee. I was elated that I could finally, after 10 years, get my hands on a copy of this film. Dr. Albright also told me that Tom Whiteside, a technician at Duke University, still has a film copy of “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” so there’s still hope for the film beyond the VHS copies.

I hope you enjoy the clips I have posted and this bit of background information. I’d like to give special thanks to Alex Albright for his initial research, assistance with my research, and for the VHS tape of the film. Additional thanks to Chris Owens for converting the VHS tape to digital format. I’d also like to thank Bobby White for suggesting that there should be a post on this topic and for offering to do a story on this for his Swungover blog. I believe that there are many things already on his plate, so I decided to play swing archivist for the day.

(Edited to add that Norma Miller has identified that these are not Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers; however, Peter Loggins and Harri Heinilä have posed possible theories that could place them as Whitey’s. I suppose we shall stay tuned to find out the answer to the question – who are The Count and Harriet? To tune into the discussion visit the Jassdancer Facebook page)

(Edited again to add that Harri Heinilä found verification that The Count and Harriet were members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, or were at least trained by Herbert “Whitey” White: “Count & Harriet were former members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers according to Willie Jones, who was possibly one of the oldest members of the group…you can find that from Robert Crease’s Willie Jones interview, which was published in New York Swing Dance Society’s Footnotes in Spring 1990.” Both Peter and Harri are checking their sources for information on Southern tours that might place them in or near Greenville, NC)

***The sources listed below are from my research paper, which focused more on the local theaters and the climate that gave rise to the film, but are also relevant to the information in my post.

Sources:

Albright, Alex. Personal interview, December 4, 2001.

Boogie in Black and White. Written by Alex Albright and directed by Susan Massengale. Videotape. UNC Center for Public Television, 1988.

John Warner Papers. East Carolina University Manuscript Collection. East Carolina University.

Kammerer, Roger. “The Movie Houses of Greenville: Part II.” Greenville Times, January 5-18, 1994.

McLawhorn, Melvin. Personal interview, December 7, 2001.

Pierce, Candace. Personal interview, November 30, 2001.

Shiver, Charles. Personal interview, December 9, 2001.

Windley, Gayle. Telephone interview, December 9, 2001.

Reminiscing About Swing: How I Started Swing Dancing

I occasionally get asked the question, “How did you start swing dancing? What’s your story?” Everyone has a story about how they came to this subculture and, if you’ve been dancing for over a decade, that story must be like ancient history to the new generation of dancers. Prompted by both the Wandering and Pondering and ‘Taint What You Do blogs, I’ve put my story into words.

My story begins with a love affair with jazz music. In 1996/1997 I was in the 10th grade at Davie County High School, the only high school in a very rural North Carolina county. I was heavily influenced by the music on an alternative rock radio station based out of Winston-Salem, NC, but I can’t remember the call letters and I’m not sure they even exist anymore. I would listen to their music getting ready for school in the morning and it was through this radio station that I was exposed to North Carolina’s own Squirrel Nut Zippers. I loved the sound, bought the CD, immersed myself in it, and shared it with others. I developed a curiosity for this music and began to seek out other artists in this vein, but this was before widespread internet use so my resources were limited. At the end of 11th grade I did a project for my U.S. History class on my grandfather’s adventures as a Merchant Mariner during WWII and used SNZ’s “Good Enough for Grandad” as the background music for my video montage of photos. My grandfather would frequently talk about jazz and musicians from the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as play music from this era on his turntables, and I slowly began putting all the pieces together in a historical context, where SNZ got their inspiration. This was just before all hell broke loose.

I remember riding around the next summer in my 1990 Honda Civic DX with my best friend Caroline, squealing whenever we heard the Brian Setzer Orchestra or Cherry Poppin’ Daddies on the radio – “Turn it up! We have to get this CD!” Somewhere in this time frame of 1998, the GAP debuted its “Khakis Swing” commercial and I was completely smitten, bitten, and infected with the jitterbug. There was a dance I could learn that went with all this great music? I had to do it, right then. But how? I was 17, living in rural North Carolina with overprotective parents, where was I going to find someone to teach me?

The ever resourceful Caroline had the idea that we would host our own swing dance at our high school. After a little digging, we discovered that we could use the gym after a football game for about an hour and that the high school band director did ballroom dancing with his wife and would be willing to teach an East Coast Swing lesson. We befriended the A/V guys who put together mini-commercials for the dance that aired during morning announcements, using dance clips from A League of Their Own and Swingers. I put together a set of my swing music (my first DJ gig!) and with a boom box we were set. Caroline and I donned our GAP khakis, took the basic lesson, did dangerous aerials with our friends, and left with a feeling of accomplishment – we learned how to swing dance!

Winston-Salem's Millennium Center, the site of my first real swing dance

I forget how the word trickled down to me, but a few weeks later I learned that the Millennium Center in Winston-Salem had swing dances. I rounded up a group of my friends to head into “the city” to attend a Supermurgatroid Productions dance at this wonderful venue, an old post office converted into an event space with miles of wood floors. I took another beginner lesson, this time with Joel Domoe and Salima Owen, and I was bursting with excitement. I’d get to dance with REAL swing dancers, not just the boys at my high school. I was in heaven. After the lesson, my friends were not as into it as I was and I remember leaving the dance earlier than I wanted, but I did manage to sneak in a few dances with more experienced dancers.

I continued to watch the swing craze play itself out over television, catching broadcasts of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and other neo-swing bands that may have appeared on shows (see video above from 1998 MTV Music Awards, dancers enter around 5:20 – do you know any of the dancers? Do they still dance?) and on late night TV. I remember seeing dancers in these productions, with brightly colored outfits, flipping and turning with gusto. I remember reading articles about the swing dance and vintage culture in Los Angeles, California, seeing photographs of men in zoot suits or three piece suits and women in beautiful vintage dresses and accessories. I watched Swing Kids and started collecting a few traditional swing and jazz CDs, in addition to neo-swing.

I didn’t return to swing dancing until after golf season and a bout with mono, but as I headed to my freshman year of college at East Carolina University, I sought out swing dance lessons on campus and discovered that the campus Methodist minister taught weekly lessons at the Methodist student center. The response for these lessons was overwhelming and we all packed into the tiny auditorium at the student center to get our weekly dose of East Coast Swing. There were only a handful of actual social dances at the student center, in spite of the amazing turnout, and some of us wanted more. Two Air Force pilots from Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro who commuted to the weekly swing dance lessons at ECU told some of the dancers about a weekly dance in Raleigh they had been commuting to, where all the best dancers in the state would come and dance every week. It was at a place called The Warehouse. I’d only been to Raleigh a handful of times in my life and I was dying to see people dance like the GAP ads. I was in.

Lindy Shopper storytelling shopping detour: I couldn’t show up to a big dance in Raleigh wearing just anything, especially after seeing the L.A. women in their beautiful dresses. Surely, the sophisticated dancers in Raleigh would all be wearing vintage! On a trip home to visit my parents, my mother took me to Winston-Salem to a vintage store called, I believe, Hello Betty. I had no idea what to look for, but my mother did, thanks to her sewing experience, her penchant for historical costumes, and her childhood during the 1950’s. Looking back, we actually found two really great dresses – the first was a pale pink late 1940’s rayon dress with mother of pearl buttons on the the bodice and black stitching detail (lost to moths a few years ago, tears ensued); the second was an early 1960’s black cocktail dress from Montaldo’s, which we later discovered (after ripping out the lining to tailor the dress) was a Ferdinando Sarmi design.

When we made it to the Warehouse, late on a school night, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. It wasn’t the GAP ad, but, in my opinion at the time, it was real swing dancing. Being around these dancers was intimidating, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the dance floor. I danced with the guys who came with us and maybe one other person, but kept to the side of the dance floor. I think one person commented on my vintage dress. I was the only person wearing vintage and stuck out like a sore thumb. Some things never change around here. 😉 I went to the Warehouse one other time before the flyboys were transferred to another Air Force base.

Guzzo and I at our GAP khakis best

During the second semester of my sophomore year of college, the campus Methodist minister started teaching us Lindy Hop, based on the Frankie Manning videos. A small group of us struggled to get the steps right, and it slowly began to make sense. At the end of the semester the minister sat us down and told us he had taught us everything he knew and that he wouldn’t be able to teach next year because of his duties. Would a couple of us be willing to take over the lessons? Somehow, the torch was handed to me and my dorm-mate of the past two years, Mike Guzzo, to take over the East Coast Swing lessons.

Mike and I started the semester with that same packed auditorium, but by the end of the semester it had dwindled down to a core group that would eventually become the ECU Swing Dance Club. It was about this time that I met Dave Fillmore at a local dance, who had a profound influence on my Lindy Hop. Dave spent a few months out of every year living in San Francisco, dancing and taking lessons from Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe (who, ironically, now live in the same town as I do). Dave took me under his wing, taught me some proper technique, turned me on to what the national DJs were playing at the time, and, most importantly, got me traveling to dance. We would ride together to the weekly dances in Raleigh, which had moved to a restaurant/brewery called Greenshields, and I slowly overcame my awe of the dancing there and joined in. We’d commute to the Triangle Swing Dance Society dances at the Durham Armory. In 2003, I attended my first Lindy exchange, DCLX. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2005, I moved from Greenville to the Triangle and I’ve been an active member of the swing dance community here for years and continue to travel to swing dance events all over the United States.

An early photo, with Dave Fillmore at right, from the rained out U.S.S. North Carolina swing dance in Wilmington, circa 2001/2002. Sharpie tattoos courtesy of my neighbors, Cape Fear Tattoo.