A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 12, 2004
Big Apple dance craze (1937)
The Big Apple dance craze of 1937 popularized the "Big Apple" term, but didn't originate it.

New York (NY) Morning Telegraph track writer John J. Fitz Gerald (1893-1963) had been calling the New York racetracks (and New York City, by extension) the "Big Apple" in his newspaper columns since 1921. A nightclub called "Big Apple" opened in Harlem in 1934, at the northwest corner of West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard). The nightclub, opposite the popular Smalls Paradise, spread the "Big Apple" term to Harlem in the 1930s.

The 1934 "Big Apple" night club in Harlem probably inspired the name of the 1936 "Big Apple Night Club" in Columbia, South Carolina -- where the "Big Apple" dance originated. The August 1937 article (below) provides a different origin of the Columbia night club's name, but it is very difficult to believe that Columbia wasn't heavily influenced by the Harlem night club of the same name.

Wikipedia: Big Apple (dance)
The Big Apple is both a partner dance and a circle dance that originated in the Afro-American community of the United States in the beginning of the 20th century.

Origin (1860–1936)

The exact origin of the Big Apple is unclear but one author suggests that the dance originated from the "ring shout", a group dance associated with religious observances that was founded before 1860 by African Americans on plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. The ring shout is described as a dance with "counterclockwise circling and high arm gestures" that resembled the Big Apple. It is still practiced today in small populations of the southern United States.

The dance that eventually became known as the Big Apple is speculated to have been created in the early 1930s by African-American youth dancing at the Big Apple Club, which was at the former House of Peace Synagogue on Park Street in Columbia, South Carolina. The synagogue was converted into a black juke joint called the "Big Apple Night Club".

In 1936, three white students from the University of South Carolina – Billy Spivey, Donald Davis, and Harold "Goo-Goo" Wiles – heard the music coming from the juke joint as they were driving by.[3] Even though it was very unusual for whites to go into a black club, the three asked the club's owner, Frank "Fat Sam" Boyd, if they could enter.

Big Apple (1000 Hampton St. Columbia, SC 29201)
Birthplace of "The Big Apple Dance"
Built in 1915 as the House of Peace

7 August 1937, The State (Columbia, SC), pg. 3, cols. 6-7:
Fred Sams, Owner of Night Club Converted From Synagog, Says Business Double Since Dance Became Popular -- White Visitors Nightly, Three Hundred
You go down to the middle ot the 1300 block of Park street near where it becomes an extension of Gates street. On one side is a frame building with steeple and glass-stained windows. It was once used as a synagog, but one look shows that it is no longer used for religious services.

Signs advertising beer are displayed prominently on the front, almost overshadowing the red letters informing the public this is the Big Apple Night club.

It is 10 o'clock at night. You approach the place and find a rotund Negro doorkeeper who weighs around 300 pounds. His name is Elliott Wright.

Place for White Folks.
"Have you a place reserved for white people?"

"Yas, suh right upstairs to the left."

And as you go back for the rest of your party Elliott yells "Clear the way! White folks is coming."

A lanky Negro, about the size of Stepin Fetchit, stands at the foot of the narrow winding stairway leading up to the gallery once used to care for overflow congregations.

The gallery is small and there are no seats, but you can lean against the four-foot railing and watch below. Immediately under you, in one amen corner, is the bar where beer, soft drinks, cigarets, candy and the like are sold. In the other amen corner is a billiard table. Walls and windows are plastered with beer, cigaret and candy advertisements.

You face the front and center and there you see what was once a pulpit. Now taking up most of its space on the rostrum is an automatic phonograph. Before the evening is over the music will stop and the lanky Negro boy with the hat -- the one you met at the foot of the stairs -- will come around and ask for more nickels. "We haven't got any more in the piccolo," he says.

Why Called "Piccolo."
The phonograph is called a piccolo because one can PICK one's selections before inserting a nickel, dime or quarter into the slot.

Pews are no longer evident. That space is now reserved for dancing. It is there that the popular dance now sweeping the country and known as the Big Apple originated. The story has been told that collegians attending a German at the University of South Carolina dropped in out of curiosity, learned a new dance in the Negro night club, made innovations and introduced it during the summer vacation at various beaches.

As you go into the Big Apple you find couples dancing. The function is neither a card dance nor a cut-in. Between music selections the boys and the girls mingle. As the music starts a boy picks a girl. Or maybe he just "gets the rhythm" and a girl, a few steps away, sings into time with him. Thus partners are selected. After the dance the partners go their separate ways.

Before the Apple.
There is no cheek-to-cheek dancing or slow weaving, but you see lots of strutting, which you hear is sugar-footing, and swinging and swirling that appear so graceful, rhythmic and fast you would never expect to see the like of it outside ballet.

Tandem spins, single partner spins, counter spins and figure 8 spins, all are executed with the deftness of an Astaire, a Rogers or a Bill Robinson. You find the movements too swift for the eye to follow.

The two lights of the rostrum go off. A big fellow steps out on the floor. He is wearing a brown felt hat cocked on one side of his head. His white shirt is open down to his waist, revealing a round-neck undershirt.

Dancers move back against the wall revealing a space on the floor where six or seven couples line up, boys facing girls. You learn that the master of ceremonies is Fred Sams. He runs the place.

The double line, boys facing girls, is ready. The "piccolo" starts playing a peppy fox trot. Fred calls a figure. Boys and girls step forward, touch hands and move back into a circle moving counter-clockwise. The Big Apple is under way.

Owner, Originator Comments.
At midnight you return to the night club that was built for a synagog. The dancers have left. Fred Sams and his employes are checking over the day's receipts.

Fred has been in the night club business all his life, he tells you. Before he opened the Big Apple he was proprietor of the Streamline, a club on Assembly street.

Has the popularity of the Big Apple increased business?

"Yes, it's doubled 100 per cent."

Do you have any white customers?

"About 300 a night. We don't charge them anything -- just take up a collection at the door. Some don't give anything. Most of them drop between 15 cents and a quarter into the hat. Every now and then one gives a dollar. Whether they pay or not usually depends on the type of white folks they are."

Why the Name?
Why did you name your night club the Big Apple? (That's something you and lots of others have been wondering. You've never read an account of the naming of the Big Apple anywhere.)

"That's a long story," says Fred, but he boils it down to this:

"There was a drinking party. A crowd of us was there and we had some apple brandy. We had a whole gallon, I guess. After a while someone spilled an apple out of the jar of brandy. And somebody yelled, "Grab the big apple!"

"'That's a good name for your place,' one of those in the crowd said to me right there.

"So when one of the beer salesmen came around and wanted to paint a sign on the place, I told him to go ahead. And the name I gave him was Big Apple night club."

Then how did the dance, the Big Apple, originate?

"We just sort of got it up among ourselves. It started with just a straight two-step. Then we added the swings and the sugarfoot. We didn't have a name for it until the white folks picked it up and called it the Big Apple."
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1970s-present: False Etymologies • Monday, July 12, 2004 • Permalink

My uncle, Kenneth Clarke was one of the original Big Apple dancers!  I have some photos that have been published in “Hit Parade” magazine in the 1930s’!  He left SC and went to NYC and really introduced the dance.  It originated in Myrtle Beach, SC!  He eventually made his way to broadway and was very successful!  Patterson Clarke

Posted by Patterson Clarke  on  03/01  at  12:57 PM

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