Thursday, March 08, 2007

Wilson's Dancing Studio

"1923: Fell in love with June Edith Smith while she worked in a Broadway dance palace."
[Henry Miller, My Life And Times]
"Broadway dance palace." "Dance hall." These are the generic terms that Henry Miller used in interviews to describe where he'd met June, late one summer's night in 1923. While doing some prep work for a future posting about the night Henry met June--who was working as a taxi dancer--, I became preoccupied with the actual identity of this dance hall. Every Miller biography I've seen has identified it as "Wilson's Dance Hall" yet I'd never seen a primary source in which Miller himself has explicitly stated this (no surprise, really; it's not like I've seen every Miller record out there). I thought for a while that maybe it was really the Arcadia Dance Hall. In the end, the evidence is overwhelming: it really must be Wilson's.

This post is not about the night Henry met June, but about establishing the location and description of Wilson's Dancing Studio a.k.a Wilson's Dance Hall.

First off, the address. This NY Times news item from 1921 reports on a raid at Wilson's Dancing Studio. It identifies it as being on the "north-west corner of Forty-Sixth Street" [at Broadway]. Next, I searched the amazing on-line digital archive of the New York Public Library. It took a bit of time to browse, scan and zoom into the vintage photographs of the intersection of Broadway & 46th, but I was eventually excited to find this:

At left of this photo is Wilson's Dancing Studio, located above a clothing store (Park Taylor Clothes). It was shot in 1920 by the Hellmich Brothers. On the website, you can zoom right into the photograph, which almost has the effect of bypassing time and space barriers by allowing you to "approach" the building for closer inspection. Here are some close-up images:
In this close-up, you can see mannequins in the windows and can clearly read the Wilson's signs.

Wilson's Dancing Studio later became the Orpheum Dance Palace. The address here was 1551 Broadway.

Miller's Sexus opens: "It must have been a Thursday night when I met her for the first time--at the dance hall." He returns to the hall on a Saturday night. He mentions that he "mounts the steps" (7) to reach it, placing it on an above-ground floor ("I decided to go upstiars," 185). (In Nexus (169), he very briefly reflects on the night he met June, and describes the "steep rickety stairs" of Wilson's). In Sexus, he describes a "grand ballroom" (7) and makes reference to musicians (8). It appears to be managed by a Greek man. (8; 55) Later, he describes a "flimsy iron rail" of a balcony, from which he can see a "sea of faces" below from a "low height" (51).

On page 50, Miller describes the directions to the hall: onto Broadway, north past 34th Street, elbow your way past the crowds at 42nd street, then "soon" you'll arrive. A big clue to the location follows: "At the Palace opposite." The Palace Theatre [seen circa 1920, at left] opened in 1913 and still does business at 1564 Broadway. The address confirms that it was opposite (though not directly) from Wilson's. From the Palace Theatre the next night, Miller proceeded to "rush across the street and bound up the steps to the dance hall" (54)

Another clue in Sexus in on page 261: Chin Lee's. Miller explicitly states that after he met June, he waited for her "on the street, on Broadway" then proceeded to eat at Chin Lee's. Chin Lee's (opened 1924) was located at Broadway and 49th, only a couple of blocks away from Wilson's. Later, in Nexus (64), Henry and June return to Chin Lee's, to the same booth they occupied that first night they met. [NOTE: See my post about Nexus, page 64, for more details about Chin Lee's, including exact address].

This postcard showing Chin Lee's, circa 1928, locates the address at 49th and Broadway.

In Miller's Paris notebooks, under the heading "Tropic of Capricorn, few memorable scenes," he lists "Wilson's dance hall -- Chin Lee's," which is the only incidence I've seen where Miller mentions Wilson's by name. (Paris notebooks, Book 3, p 126).

In Tropic Of Capricorn, Miller reflects on meeting June at Wilson's, only he refers to it as the "Amarillo Dance Hall." (208). In a short passage, he describes putting his hand on the "brass rail of the revovling door" to enter and leave the hall. At the end of Capricorn, Miller describes it in greater detail:

"The dance hall was just opposite the side entrance of the theatre where I used to sit in the afternoons instead of looking for work ..." (339). "It was Broadway ..." (339). "Sitting on the steps of the theatre I used to stare at the dance hall opposite, at the string of red lanterns which even in the summer afternoon were lit up. In ever window there was a spinning ventilator which seemed to waft the music into the street, where it was broken by the jangled din of traffic." (339-340). "Opposite the other side of the dance hall was a comfort station ..." (340). "Above the comfort station, on the street level, was a kiosk with foreign papers and magazines ..." (340). "I climbed the stairs to the dance hall, went directly to the little window of the booth where Nick, the Greek, sat with a roll of tickets in front of him" (340).

On page 343, he mentions a "chinese restaurant" they ate at that first night, which he says is "across the way" from the dance hall.

Less than two years after meeting June, Miller wrote his series of mezzotints, which June helped to sell. One of these single-page prose poems was titled Dance Hall. Though Wilson's was not the only dance hall in New York (i.e. the Roseland), there's a chance this was at least partly about Wilson's. "On a low dais, with heavy drapes, five perspiring automatons belabor their instruments, producing jazz" ... "Jazz babies with haggard eyes keep up a fierce, relentless pace under signs reading: /'No improper dancing.' "

In Kenneth Dick's interview with June Mansfield in Colossus Of One, he states that June started working at the "Orpheum Dance Palace on Broadway and 46th Street" two years before she met Henry. Wilson's had opened in 1917, but became the Orpheum by the early 1930s. A history of the hall can be found in this New York Press article (Last Dance at the Orpheum), which also explains the taxi-dancing culture.

The Orphuem shut down in March 1964. "Today what remains of the Orpheum sits inside a peeling three-story building awaiting the wrecker's ball," states the article. In 1959, the Times Square Howard Johnson's opened up beneath the former Wilson's and became a New York landmark until closing in 2005, followed by the demolition crews. Below are two photographs of the place where Henry met June, not long before it was pummeled to make way for modern, boutique retail space:

Two views of the remnants of Wilson's Dancing Studio, photographed by Christina Wilkinson and found on the forgotten-ny website (visit it to see more photos).


Anonymous Kreg said...

As a follow-up, in Sexus, Miller describes taking June out for their first 'date' to a speakeasy in Greenwich Village known as "Jimmy Kelly's Place":

"'Let's go to Jimmy Kelly's Place,' she said, coming to my rescue. She took me by the arm and walked me to the curb where a cab was waiting for us." (Sexus 12)

At Jimmy Kelly's, they run up a bill that Miller doesn't have enough money to pay. So, he calls his telegraph office and has a messenger sent with a fifty dollar bill to bail him out.

Jimmy Kelly's Place was located at 181 Sullivan Street. The building is still there and, according to this site (image included), has recently been turned into condominiums.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

It was great to see this in print. Keep it up, RC.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Oliver Fox said...

I've been reading through the blog backwards, rather obsessively. This piece is a masterpiece of literary blogging and blogging in toto. Those shots of Wilson's in the 20's from the rain-slicked Broadway streets are absolutely mesmerizing. This truly brings Miller alive again.


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