L.A. Nightclubs in the 1950's

L.A. Dance Venues 1950's,
I have had a few requests to describe the night clubs that were popular with dancers in the 1950's. As a Preamble, this commentary will help create the general ambiance of all the Swinging joints of that Golden Age of dancing. So when I follow up with 'stories' of a few of the other dance Venues, keep in mind the atmosphere was always similar with more or less CLASS depending if we're in a night spot like 'The Garden of Allah' in Hollywood or the 'Capri' in Beverly Hills. Just so you can appreciate the present day dance Venues, allow me to describe the conditions we Southern California Swing dancers of the 1950's had to endure:
The Tailspin in Hollywood was typical of the Swing Venues, and I made the rounds of night clubs for 12 years from Virginia's and the Casa Alvarado in downtown L.A. to the Luau and the Capri in Beverly Hills. To start with most, if not all, night clubs were owned by gangsters. A bouncer or two were the essential accouterments, because during the course of the evening some idiot would jump up on the bar, tear off his shirt and challenge any man to a fight. I was guilty of this type of altercation only once when I challenged Pat Eggers with every insult at my command, which the 6'2" dancer ignored. But back to the typical, 'Tailspin'.
Your I.D. was checked at the door by Lony, a notorious pimp, woman beater and for $50.00 he would kill anyone you named. He once personally offered to do the first hit free for me. At the time I was Netting $1,500 a week. If you came with a lady, Lony would not hesitate to proposition her in front of you. Lony was finally gunned down in a Las Vegas parking lot in the late 1960's by two other Hit Men who didn't like the competition.
Once inside the Tailspin, you needed a seeing eye dog to cut through the cigarette smoke that veiled the interior of the club which was perfumed with the aroma of stale cigarette butts simulating horse manure. Before you could get to a table, you passed the elongated bar which was ornamented with a few hookers and B Girls. The dance floors were adequate for about a dozen couples. And cutting in was a practice that often led to minor rumbles. After one down and dirty wrestling match on the dance floor with Laure' Hail's date, which was broken up only too soon; one of the local gangsters took me aside, showed me the gun in his shoulder holster beneath his jacket and offered to let me use it to snuff out Laure's date.
As for the sanitary dance Venues of today, give me the 'Good ol' Days' with manure smelling, smoked filled bars, hookers, pimps and hit men. And a 2X4 dance floor!

Continued in Part II: Dance Contest at the Tailspin.

Black Sheep http://web.archive.org/web/20111220200408/http://www.lindybylanza.com/
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Thursday nights was the Big Swing Contest at the Hollywood Tailspin, just a block north of the Sunset Strip. It was the most glamorous of all the Swing spots attracting many of the young film stars and starlets and Ladies of the Night and their Procurers. In my previous commentary, I described the ambiance of the typical L.A. Clubs. The Tailspin's ambiance was typical.
When Joe Lanza (The Black Sheep) arrived on the West Coast in 1948, Ballroom Dance Contests had been going on for over a decade, but by time he was proficient enough to compete in dancer contests, he had become a professional dance teacher, which he felt ethically precluded him from entering any of the local contests. However, there were three dance contests he was challenged to compete in; the first one was, 'The Valentino Tango Contest in 1951 held at the Hollywood Palladium (story told in a future commentary) and the last was a Swing contest in 1956 at the Tailspin. For the previous two years before this Swing contest, Joe's Hollywood Dance Club Studio was available, gratis after 10 pm for any swing dancers to practice in. This convenience was extended after Lanza found out that contest dancers for lack of studio fees practiced their dancing in parking lots being the clubs or on the sidewalks in front of the clubs; ergo the pseudonym, "Street Swing" for the Lindy Hop.
In 1952, Lanza had moved his studio from the notorious neighborhood of E. 6th Street and Alvarado (Casa Alvarado will be a future commentary) to the commercial Hollywood address at 139 No. Western Ave.The Hollywood Dance Club (HDC) as his studio came to be known, had an ideal room for aerials with a 15 foot ceiling and 750 square foot dance floor with mirrored walls seven feet high surrounding the room. The complete area of the studio was 50 feet wide and 150 feet long. The HDC was the only Saturday night 'Hot Spot' in Hollywood for Swing dancers and will be the subject of a future commentary.
The last contest that the Black Sheep entered was at the Tailspin and was the result of a challenge proffered by
one of the regular Swing contestants. One evening while hanging out at the Club Madelon, Tommy Smith Lenny Smith's younger brother confronted Joe, "You dance teachers think you're hot s--t, but you dance Swing like old ladies. You'd never make it in a Swing Contest." Tommy was a former horse racing jockey who was barred from racing because he road drugged thoroughbreds. The ex-jockey had the reputation of being a dirty fighter with a quick temper. Up until that moment, Joe had never exchanged any communications with the rude Swing contestant. Surprised at Tommy's verbiage, Joe surveyed Tommy's entourage of Swing dancers standing in a semi circle around him with their smirks glistening as they waited for Joe's response. "What makes you think I'm not good enough to compete in these contests?" "I've seen you dance Swing.You may be OK in those Latin dances, but when it comes to Swing, you s--k eggs!" "Tommy, maybe you're right! I never get in contests because I don't think a professional dance teacher should compete with amateurs. And besides, I don't even have a dance partner at this time." Tommy was quick with a reply, "You can use my partner Pepper; she's one of the best. How about getting in tonight's contest?"
Pepper was an attractive redhead with acrobatic ability. With only 45 minutes to 'Show Time', Joe ran through some Swing moves with Pepper on the sidewalk in front of the Madelon Night Club for about a half hour. What Tommy was not aware of that night, was that Joe had committed himself to perfecting his swing dancing for the past year and that ever since 1951 he had been using aerials in his other Ballroom dances. Once the techniques of lifting partners in aerials is learned, it becomes a simple matter to figure out the various configurations in any dance.
Precision routines side by side, the Shim Sham routines had already been taught to Joe by one of his teachers at his HDC, Dean Collins. The night of Joe's first Swing contest at the Madelon, Pat and Darleen came out First, Tommy and Pepper came out Second and of the remaining four contesting dance teams, Joe lanza and Pepper came in third.
When Darleen heard Joe had given his share of the prize money to Pepper, Darleen arranged to dance in next weeks Sing contest at the Tailspin with both her regular partner Pat and Joe in the same contest. Of course the word got around to the Swing crowd that Joe Lanza, the dance teacher was going to dance with two different partners, Darleen and Pepper in the same contest at the Tailspin against some of the best dance teams in Southern California. Joe had less than a week to rehearse for the next contest to be held at the Tailspin with two new girls he never danced with before.
Next: the Black Sheep prepares for the Big Contest at the Tailspin.

Black Sheep (d.lanza@netzero.net)
TAILSPIN (continued)
Joe began working out with both Pepper and Darleen at his studio. The Dancer knew he had to come up with new aerials and dance moves if he was going to make a good showing at the Tailspin this coming Thursday night. This was a good opportunity for him to use some of his high school acrobatic training and apply some stunts in his Swing routine.
There was one move that Lanza conjured up in his mind that would be spectacular if her could execute it safely. Could he lift the lady and throw her over his head in a free flight behind him? Joe's second stunt that he would try was a back summersault coming out of a flying Lindy whip turn?
The dangerous 'Overhead Throw' would be Joe's most impressive lift if he could accomplish it! Could the lady maintain her upright position during her free flight over his head? If she maintained her balance, would the fall from that height injure her legs? Joe decided to consult an authority on the Lindy Hop, Dean Collins who happened to be on his teaching staff and at that moment was rehearsing Gill and Nikkie Brady on the other side of the same Ballroom.
When Joe called Dean over to his corner of the room and explained the 'Overhead Throw' to him, Dean was not very encouraging, "I know every Swing aerial that has ever been done, and that one, I guarantee you, wont work. There is no way to control her balance once you pick her off the floor and throw her over your head; she will either fall over backwards or nose dive over your shoulders. Take my advice, forget it!" On that note, Dean turned around and returned across the room and continued working with his protégées, Gill and Nikki Brady.
Joe had been on the New York's Champion tumbling team from 1939-1941 at Lafayette H.S. in Brooklyn and after WW II had been trained for a two man hand balancing act in Miami Beach in 1946, and although Dean's Experience as a Swing dancer went back to 1936, Joe felt his acrobatic background gave him the techniques needed to perfect the 'Overhead Throw'. That same evening when Dean told him 'To Forget it!, Joe began to work out the kinks of the stunt. He called over two of his teachers, Al Learner who had been with him for a couple of years and Charlotte Cross, only three months out of his Teacher's Training Program'.
The Procedure: The Dancer started the aerial by getting down on his knees; while he placed his hands on the insides of Charlotte's thighs who was standing in front facing him. While Al held one of Charlotte's hands for balance, Charlotte easily hopped over as he helped ease her over his head. This was repeated a few times to get a coordinated rhythm with the hopping and the lifting, with Al continuing to hold her hand for support. This procedure was repeated with Joe rising a little higher from a squatted position until he was standing fully upright as he literally lifted the balanced Charlotte up into a free flight over his head without Al Lerner holding her hand. The whole procedure took less the 30 minutes. As luck would have it, one of the students seated nearby watched the whole exercise, and had the foresight to run down to his car, retrieve his flash camera and took that photo of Charlotte's maiden flight, without Joe's knowledge. A few days later the student came in with an 8X10 glossy of Charlotte in mid-flight; the photo, miraculously survived some 45 years of careless handling.
Incidentally, although Dean was still teaching his protégées when the aerial was successfully executed, he ignored the event and kept on teaching. Once Joe Lanza proved the 'Overhead Free Flight' was possible, many exhibition dancers around the world do the aerial which has become known as the 'Lanza Flip'.

Black Sheep (d.lanza@netzero.net)

A 5x7 complimentary copy of Charlotte's maiden free flight dubbed 'The Lanza Flip' will be scanned to you on request.
Once Joe Lanza proved the 'Overhead Free Flight' was possible, many exhibition dancers around the world now do this aerial with bravado; the impossible aerial which has become known as the 'Lanza Flip'.
Swing Contest at the TAILSPIN:
Thursday night came and the Tailspin was jammed with patrons to the high rafters with Nino Tempo's sextet backing up his concerto for alto sax as he fell to his knees with his honking ax tilted up to the ceiling as if trying to blow the roof off the building. "Show time!, show time!", Lou Southern, the amiable Master of Ceremonies' voice rang out over the loud speakers as Nino stopped honking and the dim lit dance floor was suddenly flooded with a spot light on Lou, dragging his microphone stand with him in one hand and a page of names in his other. Always humorous and glib, he welcomed a few of the celebrities present, named the judges, and promised the audience an exciting contest with some of the world's best dancers ready to compete. Lou then dragged the mike off to one side of the band stand as Nino began playing Charlie Barnets, "Cherokee".
Lou called the couples out one at a time for their complete routines: Joe and Pepper were called out first with their smooth, conservative dancing with a few traditional aerials, a short precision routine and flying Lindy moves, ending the dance with Joe carrying Pepper holding her ankle with her one leg slung over his shoulder as she leaned backward waving upside down to the audience. Lou called out the next couple with the Nino Sextet playing Artie Shaw's, "Begin the Begine". Jack Cary and his wife Lorraine started their exciting routine and ending it with their signature 'Flying Dutchman" aerial with Lorraine going into a into a handstand on his shoulders and dropping with her legs around Jack's waist and leaning back hanging on Jack with one hand and waving goodbye to the audience as Jack walked backward off stage; Then Lou called out the next couple: Joe and Darleen came on from opposite sides of the dance floor with their jazz steps traveling toward each other; from the Whip turn Joe did a double spin and went into his back summersault, the routine ending with Darleen in the 'Overhead Throw' with Darleen slapping the fifteen foot rafter crossing overhead. This move became Darleen's signature stunt when ever she dance at the Tailspin in her future contests. Next came Gill Brady and Nikki Faustino, specialists with the Leonard Reed Shim Sham routine taught to them by Dean Collins at Lanza's HDC. Rick Hanna and Kay Smith, Lenny's former dance partner, followed by Pat Eggers and Darleen Greminger, and then Pepper and Tommy Smith, followed by the Sax Twins in succession with their partners. Ending the contest was George Christopherson and Freda Wycoff, always comedic with George doing his tumblingh antics while big, blond, beautiful Freda did the muscleman's part spotting his stunts and supporting his bulk when he did his pratt falls.
The contest was over and while Lou went around to pick up the Judges' decision, Mickey Trill sang a Frank Sinatra song, and Penny sang her signature song, "Pennies From Heaven". Some 45 years later Joe would run into a night spot in time to catch Penny once again singing, " Pennies From Heaven". I was the only song he ever heard her sing.
` Lou Southern finally returned center stage dragging his mike stand in one hand and a small sheaf of slips in his other. As Lou bent his head away from the overhead lights, he began to tally the Judges' ballots with his tiny golfers pencil, scribbling under the spot light adding up the numerical figures for each dance team, while an awesome silence hung over the crowd like a heavy cloud dampening even the occasional smoker's cough. The contestants were all well trained and with the exception of the Black Sheep, had been dancing with the same partners in dozens of these Swing Contests over the years. Joe would be satisfied if he could come in third. He had little hope however, with dance teams like Pat and Darleen, Jack and Lorraine, Gill and Nikki, Pepper and Tommy and Rick and Kay, all the top Swing dancers in the country competing against him. *
Finally, Lou raised his head to announce the results: "Pat and Darleen take THIRD PLACE! Then suddenly Lou's voice rises with excitement, "By unanimous decision, SECOND PLACE goes to Joe Lanza and Pepper". But before the applause ended, Lou's voice came over the loud speakers with even more exuberance than before, "And again by unanimous decision, FIRST PLACE goes to Joe Lanza and Darleen Greminger!"
NEXT: Rude repercussions of Swing Contest.

Black Sheep (www.lindybylanza.com)

* Most of these contestants are still alive and well in Southern California.
Rude Repercussions of Swing Contest.
"By unanimous decision, SECOND PLACE goes to Joe Lanza and Pepper". But before the applause ended, Lou's voice came over the loud speakers with even more exuberance than before, "And again by unanimous decision, FIRST PLACE goes to Joe Lanza and Darleen Greminger".
The Black Sheep of the Swing crowd had beaten the best Swing dancers, after only one weeks rehearsal in an unprecedented event of taking 1st and 2nd prize in the same contest with two different partners. As the applause diminished and Lou replaced the microphone back on the bandstand, the spot light was killed and the patrons drifted onto the darkened dance floor and began gently swaying to the jukebox music playing Glenn Miller's, 'Moonlight Serenade.
As soon as Lou finished doling out the prize money to the winners, he took Joe aside. "Joe, there's a bimbo that's dying to meet you. Ruby was one of the judges." But before Joe had a chance to check out Ruby, her was confronted by tough Tommy Smith who was backed by an entourage of Rick Hanna, the Sax twins and a few other Swing dancers. Jack Cary and Gill Brady were also losers in the contests, but they did not join in the group of protesting contestants. Blocking Joe's way, Tommy addressed him in a not too friendly tone squeezing out his words with his lips twisted awry, "Hey Lanza, we don't like what happened tonight. You shouldn't aught to get in these contests." Joe slowly shook his head in disbelief, " Tommy, you are the guy who challenged me to get in the contest. What's the problem now?" "No problem. We figure we help you get students for your studio, now you take money out for our pockets. That ain't right!" "I never take any money. I gave my share to Pepper and Darleen, you know that." " Yeah!, well we're telling you in a nice way, we don't want you in no contests no more."
Joe sensed Tommy's anger and he could feel the tension in the group. Rick Hanna had once showed him the lugar he always carried stuck in the small of his back tucked under his belt; the Sax twins had their own duet modus operandi for fighting with stones in their fists. These boys had a sort of monopoly on these contests, and they weren't about to allow any outsider like the Black Sheep cut into their revenues. Joe felt he made his point by handily beating all of the best Swing dancers so he responded benignly, "Sure guys, I get it, and I agree with you. Professional dance teachers shouldn't compete against non professional Swing dancers in contests. But don't forget Tommy, you even offered me your partner to dance with when I told you I didn't have a partner." Tommy shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably and then twisted his mouth with a slightly harsh tone emanating from deep down his throat, " Well, we're not asking, we're telling you, no more contests! You got that straight Lanza?" "Sure Tommy. I gotta go and thank the judges." That was the summer of 1956.
The Black Sheep never entered another contest, but instead trained two of his teachers, Al Learner and Ronnie Hawks in a contest dance routine with aerials and a Shim, Sham routine, and they ended up consistently beating Tommy Smith in any Hollywood Tailspin Swing contest he competed in.

NEXT: Waltzing with ROCK HUDSON

Black Sheep http://web.archive.org/web/20111220200408/http://www.lindybylanza.com/
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