Inside Greenwich Village’s Savannah Club, once located at 68 West 3rd Street (just east of LaGuardia Place), there was glamour and glitter, trumpets blaring and jazz blazing, movie stars throwing back shots, and New York’s best chorus girls tapping and dancing the night away. While jazz or burlesque clubs were nothing new or unique in Greenwich Village, this cabaret-style burlesque show was for much of its existence in the 1950s through 1963 the only all-black performance venue south of Harlem.
The club’s mixture of a rocking jazz band, sex, comedy, and song and dance attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, and some of the best performers whose options were otherwise in some cases quite limited.
The club was able to bring in a packed house on a nightly basis due in part to the various talented and unorthodox acts it showcased. While other burlesque style clubs of the times were sticking to traditional formulas, the Savannah Club brought had innovative and crowd-pleasing performers and numbers. The acts incorporated various styles of dance and entertainment such as traditional ballet, tap dancing, riff singing, and good old-fashion striptease, all while accompanied by a live jazz band. The tiny stage would be filled with as many as 25 of New York’s best African American performers of the time.
Harriet Browne, showcased in her later years in the video above, was an American tap-dance legend who rose to fame at the Savannah Club. She choreographed and danced numbers with the likes of Flip Wilson, Betty Carter, and Dinah Washington. She became widely known as the best in the dance field of sanding. Sanding is a dance technique created by sprinkling a thin layer of sand over a wooden surface. The sand enhances and softens the sounds created by tap shoes. After her career at Savannah Club, she went on to form her own dance company, Aristaccato Tap Company, where she taught jazz and tap dance to underprivileged youth in the Bronx.
Due to the prejudices and biases of the time, Harriet and other African American performers found it hard to find decent work even with their immense talents. Luckily they were able to find work at the Savannah Club, frequented by tourists and movie stars like Esther Williams and Marlon Brando where black dancers, musicians, acrobats, and exotic dancers could find steady work in the entertainment industry. Even with a limited budget, the club was able to attract top performers of the time, like Billy Daniels and Teddy Hale.
Betty “China Doll” Dickerson, one of Savannah Club’s most well-known performers, went on to gain national spotlight from her time spent at the local Greenwich Village establishment. At the Savannah, she was known for interpreting jazz music with her body, inspiring a new trend of eurythmics to night-club audiences. Her most memorable number at Savannah Club was a burlesque number in which she came upon stage covered in balloons. During her set, she would pop the balloons one by one until she exited the stage completely naked. After her career at Savannah Club, she moved to Los Angeles and signed with Capitol Records under the name Zabethe Wilde. Her hit single “What a Feeling” was released in 1961.
Italian-American Joe Schiavone owned the Savannah Club which was located on 3rd Street in the Greenwich Village. Like many nightclubs of the time, they operated on a not-so-legal basis. Schiavone and the club were in deep with the Genovese family, who happened to operate a good many establishments in the Greenwich Village at the time. The Genovese family also operated Stonewall and many gay bars of the time, as it was illegal for a gay bar to operate at the time. You can read more about the mob’s history with Stonewall here.
The establishment suffered a fire in 1963 and was forced to close its doors. While the club no longer survives, the building which housed it does, thanks in part to the landmark designation we secured for the area in 2013 as part of the new South Village Historic District. If you are interested in learning more about African American history in the village click here to take our interactive tour.