Dancing to the big bands

Baltimore Glimpses

January 19, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

THE dancers crowd the floor, lost in the enveloping music. mirrored ball, revolving slowly high above, sends flashes of light coruscating across the floor like a waterfall running sideways . . .

It was the dream of Louis Shecter that if he built it, they would come -- a "Roseland" ballroom in Baltimore, a place where guys and girls who grew up in Baltimore in the 1940s would come to dance cheek-to-cheek. He dreamed that these couples holding tight and dancing to slow music would make the place a Baltimore institution, celebrating in three-quarters time the joys of ballroom dancing. He called his ballroom the "Famous," and for a while, through the 1950s, the dream unfolded as sweetly as a Guy Lombardo waltz. But as it always must, the music died.

The Famous Ballroom opened in 1947 at 1717 N. Charles St. in what had been a bowling alley and the showroom of Martin J. Barry Lincoln-Mercury. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon as many as 600 couples would dance to the music of Sammy Kaye, Billy Butterfield and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was all happening the way Shecter had hoped it would.

Then, in the mid-1960s, Shecter made a decision: The enterprise had gotten too big for him to handle, and so he leased it to Bernie Allen, also an impresario but one with his own band. Allen decided that his would be the one band that would play the Famous. At the same time, to sweeten his take he decided to sublease the hall. The formula -- Bernie Allen and ballroom dancing -- continued to work. The crowds came, and they danced. And there were renters. Among them in 1966 was the Left Bank Jazz Society.

Something else happened: Without attracting a whole lot of attention, the crowds that took in the society's Sunday afternoon concerts became quite racially mixed, jazz buffs being naturally color-blind. A special kind of camaraderie took shape at the concerts, at a time when many Baltimoreans did not look kindly on the mixing of races in any setting. The Sunday afternoon concerts grew not only into large and memorable events, but into historic ones, too. For 18 years, from 1966 to 1984, on Sunday afternoon from 5 to 8, the Left Bank entertained with the biggest names in the business: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Count Basie (who arrived during the 1968 riots and whose bus was stopped by the police) and the great Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Earl (Fatha) Hines.

"The place strikes us as a cross between a concert hall, a night club and a church circle. After all, how often can one find first-rate music, barbecue and beer and a well-dressed audience, all under one starry roof?" read one newspaper review. And the Famous did have a ceiling painted with stars and clouds, a mirrored ball suspended from the ceiling.

But attendance waned. Television, the fear of downtown crime and other factors weighed heavily. As did big-band ballroom dancing before it, jazz at the Left Bank declined. The Famous closed, then reopened as Godfrey's, featuring a kind of black music the new manager hoped would attract both whites and blacks. It did not.

That was in the late 1980s. These days the Famous is empty, melancholy -- a cavernous sepulcher. But generations of Baltimoreans who through the years danced in the Famous Ballroom to whatever music fit their times and their hearts' desire -- they cannot pass without remembering it.

Especially, the flashes of mirrored light coruscating over the floor, like a waterfall running sideways.

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