Savoy Ballroom 1939


This subtly hand-coloured photobooth image is so full of history it is hard to know where to begin. The beautiful serene face of the sitter is what attracted me to this picture but the story behind it is what makes it come alive. If I were able to travel through time to any old photobooth location, this one would be my first choice.

The Savoy Ballroom was a famous music venue in New York. It was owned by gangster Moe Paddon who, it is said, was working as a front for Chicago’s Al Capone. It opened its doors on December 14th, 1926 and closed in 1958. It spanned the whole block of 140th Street to 141st Street on Lenox Avenue in Uptown Harlem. 

There were different types of entertainment at the Savoy such as dancing professionals, dancing competitions and the famous “Battle Of The Bands” which pitted one band against the other. Usually Chick Webb‘s band would compete against another famous band, while the professional dancers would pick the winners. This usually brought the biggest crowds.

Many famous musicians and singers started out or performed regularly at the Savoy, amongst them, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Ella Fitzgerald won a singing contest at another venue in Harlem. When she got a job at the Savoy as a dancer, someone told Chick Webb about her wonderful voice. He auditioned her and signed her as his premier singer. After his death, Fitzgerald continued Webb’s band.

The Horace Henderson, mentioned at the top of the image, was an American jazz pianist, organist, arranger and bandleader. His band was known as the Horace Henderson Orchestra and then as the Dixie Stompers. He was a regular at The Savoy. I wonder if it was a tradition to put the bandleader of the night’s name on the backdrop of the in-house photobooth? The image in it is hard to figure out. Could it be radio towers, cranes from a building site or oil well rigs? Please let me know if you have any ideas what it might be.


  1. That’s a great photo, Katherine… and a great story. I love the pic of the Savoy. It made me think of a restaurant I liked in San Francisco’s North Beach called the Savoy Tivoli. I googled it to see it it was still there and it is… a little changed in 30 years a bit. There were some photos, and the first one had a photo booth inside! And another pic of the photo booth later. I’ll send them to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh god yes, do! The Savoy name reminds me of many things – cabbage of course, Gilbert and Sullivan for the Savoy Theatre that they established, and silver service dining, which I have only experienced once in my life, at the Savoy Hotel which is at the same location as the theatre.


      • Your collection is stunning itself 🙂 What a study of people!


        • I find this form of vernacular photography perfect for the study of faces and therefore people, Inese. I don’t know of any other form that focuses exclusively on head and shoulders, in isolation from most extraneous factors. I am addicted to them and am very pleased with my collection. I’m really glad you enjoy seeing some of it!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I do enjoy. Your blog is one of the most fascinating reads.


            • Thanks heaps, Inese! I have to admit that due to the limits my illness places on my ability to concentrate, I am more a look at the pictures blog peruser, rather than reader.

              Liked by 1 person

              • We all enjoy what we can. Putting yourself under pressure is not what you need to enjoy things 🙂 Not all my posts have such spectacular pictures, but hope you will love them anyway 🙂
                My best wishes of good health, peace and joy!

                Liked by 1 person

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