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 August 02, 2004
“Big Apple” in the 1930s (Two clubs, plus song and dance)
The activities of the mid-late 1930s did not coin "the Big Apple" as New York's nickname, but they helped to popularize the term "Big Apple."

In 1934, the Big Apple night club opened in Harlem at the the northwest corner of West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. The club was run by sportsmen who surely read the Morning Telegraph. I read 1935 accounts of the club in The Amsterdam News that stated that it was run by "sportsmen" and was highly visited by people listening on radio to blow-by-blow descriptions of Joe Louis's fights. I spoke with a Harlem resident who said that the Big Apple was a numbers joint.

"Apple" and "Big Apple" quickly entered the famous slang lexicon of Harlem in the 1930s. Cab Calloway's Hi De Ho (1938), pg. 16: "Apple: the big town, the main stem, Harlem.

In 1936, a place called the Big Apple Night Club -- two years after the opening of the Harlem club of the same name -- opened in Columbia, South Carolina. White students from the University of South Carolina observed the blacks at this club performing a new dance. It would be called the "Big Apple," and it started a national dance craze in the fall of 1937. The following articles are a small, representative sample.

7 July 1934, New York (NY) Amsterdam News, pg. 9, col. 1:
"This Hectic Harlem" by Roi Ottley
(...)
The Big Apple has arrived and is worth your time.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
29 October 1934, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, "Reverting to Type" by Art Arthur, pg. 9, col. 6:
Up on Lenox Ave. there's a restaurant called "The Big Apple," the explanation being that "the big apple" is Harlem slang for "the main stem," which is Broadway slang for the main dino.

26 July 1937, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, pg. 5:
Columbia, S. C., July 25. - (AP) - Now it's the "big apple" on Dixie dance floors.

From the mountains to the seacoast nimble footed southerners are "appling." The dance is a combination of the old fashioned square dance and the modern "swing."

From four to twenty persons gather in a circle on the floor as the music begins in medium tempo. Then they go through a series of fancy wiggles and rhythm steps to the call of the leader. Individuals and couple step to the circle's center and "shine."

The steps are a hodge-podge of the almost forgotten Charleston, drags, swing steps and Harlem's "truckin" toned down now and then with the formal dignity of the Virginia reel.

University of South Carolina students got the idea for the dance from the gallery of a colored night club here when they watched the dusky dancers circle in finger snapping abandon to the rhythm of a phonograph. They copied the dance, called it the "big apple" after the name of the night club.

7 August 1937, The State (Columbia, SC), pg. 3, cols. 6-7:
THE BIG APPLE; HOW IT GOT THE NAME; WHERE ORIGINATED
Fred Sams, Owner of Night Club Converted From Synagog, Says Business Double Since Dance Became Popular -- White Visitors Nightly, Three Hundred
BY JOHN A. MONTGOMERY
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."

18 August 1937, New York (NY) Times, pg. 18:
New York has yet to assemble a big apple but it is believed to be on its way. The big apple is a form of dance entertainment which has been sweeping the South and East in a rhythmic plague and experts declare it is bound to turn up here.

This dance arrangement, which requires a group of ten or twleve, is not exactly new and seems to combine the worst features of the Charleston, the black bottom, truckin', the Suzi-Q, the shag, the Virginia reel, the Paul Jones, and the schottische. It sprang into popularity about four months ago when a crowd of university boys and girls in CHarleston, S. C., dropped into a night club called The Big Apple and observed the gyrations in full blast. They dragged the dance right home and fave ita college education. Since then it has been rippling its way across State after State, animated by the bluest of swing music.

The chief attraction of the dance is that individual couples can take the floor and show off their fancy steps, retreating into the circle of spectator-participants as others replace them. In other words, everybody can cut a slice of the big apple.

19 November 1937, New York (NY) Times, pg. 27:
... the Original Big Apple Dancers, featuring Billy Spivey; ...

4-10 July 1984, The Coastal Times, pg. 15:
The "Big Apple" Fell From the Palmetto State
by Nick Monday
(...)
Built in 1907, the Big Apple night club was originally known as the House of Peace and served as a center for Orthodox Jews.

The building itself is a stunning example of Eastern Orthodox Jewish architecture.

In 1935 the congregation moved to a new brick facility on Marion Street.

The House of Peace was sold to H. S. Des Portes for $900.00. He in turn rented it to a man named Fred "Fat" Sams. It was "Fat" Sams and Big Apple piano player "Big Elliot Wright who turned the old synagogue into a monument to the genius of black dance.

Of the two, Elliot Wright is generally given credit for the creation of the Big Apple by Columbians familiar with the club and owners. (...)

In a 1937 news article "Fat" Sams described how the club got its name. "There was a drinking party," he said. "A crowd of us was there and we had some apple brandy. We had a whole gallon, I guess. After a while somebody spilled an apple out of the jar of brandy. And somebody else yelled, grab the big apple.

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

...White students from the University of South Carolina, drawn to the Big Apple by the soulful strands of music permeating the night air, flocked to the club also.

"USC was a small college in 1937 and word about the Big Apple club soon spread among the students" wrote Wendy Oglesby in an essay entitled "Big Bands and Applemania."

"After that, the Big and Little Apple dances were standard fare at USC parties," Wrote Oglesby. "The little apple featured several couples dancing together in a circle, while the big apple was for a couple. They were derived directly from what the students had seen at the Big Apple club." (...)

"We just sort of got it up among ourselves," said "Fat" Sams, describing the origin of the dance in the 1937 news account. "It started with a straight two step. Then we added the swing and the sugarfoot. We didn't have a name for it until the white folks picked it up and called it the Big Apple...."

These two 1937 "Big Apple" songs became popularly associated with the dance. From ASCAP.com:

1. BIG APPLE (Title Code: 320044831)
Writers:
BERNIER BUDDY
EMMERICH ROBERT D

Performers:
DORSEY T ORCH

Variations:
BIG APPLE,THE

Publishers/Administrators:
BERNIER PUBLISHING
% THE SONGWRITERS GUILD
1500 HARBOR BLVD
WEEHAWKEN , NJ, 07087
Tel. (201) 867-7603

DE SYLVA BROWN HENDERSON
% CHAPPELL & CO INC
% WARNER CHAPPELL MUSIC INC
10585 SANTA MONICA BLVD
LOS ANGELES , CA, 90025
Tel. (310) 441-8600

2. BIG APPLE (Title Code: 320044840)
Writers:
DAVID LEE
REDMOND JOHN

Performers:
(none found)

Variations:
(none found)

Publishers/Administrators:
EMI MILLS MUSIC INC/OLD ACCT
C/O EMI MUSIC PUBL
ATT: JENNIFER INSOGNA
810 SEVENTH AVENUE
36TH FLOOR
NEW YORK , NY, 10019
Tel. (212) 830-2036

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.

History
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)
HISTORIC VENUE
Birthplace of "The Big Apple Dance"
Built in 1915 as the House of Peace

Flashbak
Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: A Guide To The Language Of Jive (1938)
Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary
(1938) is an introduction to the slang of musicians working in New York’s Harlem. As lexicographer Jonathan Green notes, slang is a “counter-language” used primarily by the poor.
(...)
Apple (n.): the big town, the main stem, Harlem.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1930s: Jazzing the Big Apple • Monday, August 02, 2004 • Permalink


Nice site. I thought you might enjoy this magazine article from 1937 about the ladies ‘dressing rooms’ at the Twenty-One Club, Rainbow Room and El Morocco:

http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/article.php?Article_Summary=2513

Posted by Matt Jacobsen  on  12/05  at  01:48 PM

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