Roseland Ballrom, the iconic dancing and concert hall set in what was once the cultural center of the Universe (i.e. Times Square), is set to close April 7.
Roseland did not play a large part in my New York experience, not directly anyway. I have been, in fact, to Roseland a grand total of once. The occasion was an opening night party for a Broadway show opening. I danced. I can say I actually danced at Roseland.
Still, like so many New York landmarks that we take for granted, it did play a kind of contextual role. I often walked by it and thought to myself, yes, I live in a city that contains Roseland, a legendary dance hall and music venue, and has contained it for decades. Thoughts like that, however fleeting, are often what keep you going in New York. As E.B. White repeated often in his famous essay "This Is New York," I "did not attend." But I could have.
I passed by Roseland—a working, breathing Roseland—for the final time on Wednesday night. I was headed to dinner as a place across the street from it on W. 52nd Street. So I was able to witness the happy throngs line around the block for one of the many concerts Lady Gaga is giving on this farewell weekend for the venue. It's good Roseland should go out with a bang. Her final show will be on April 7.
Roseland—like Colony Records, which went down before it—was a reminder that Times Square, which we not generally associate only with theatre, was once the center of all variety of entertainment worlds: music, theatre, dance, comedy, revue, etc. 52nd Street was lined with jazz clubs. The Brill Building brimmed with songwriters plunking away. And world class venues like the Paramount, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Latin Quarter and Roseland dotted the midtown landscape.
Roseland has only been at its current location since 1958. ("Only"!) It first opened in New York in 1919 not far away, at 51st and Broadway, but it was founded in Philadelphia in 1917 by Louis Brecker, who was armed with money from Frank Yuengling of the beer Yuenglings. Brecker fled Philly to be rid of the city's restrictive blue laws.
Roseland began as a whites-only club. And, indeed, as the joint's name indicates, posh ballroom dancing dominated. But the '20s came along soon after, and jazz with it. Roseland wised up. Soon, the place became the famous home of the equally famous and influential Fletcher Henderson band. They were succeeded by the bands of Louis Armstrong, Count Basic and Chick Webb. Benny Goodman, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, of course—they all performed here. The place was also notorious for dance marathons, until they were banned. And it had a reputation as the location where a lot of future marrieds met for the first time. This was all at the 51st Street location.
The first building was torn down in 1956, so Brecker moved into another building he ran, a space that used to be an ice-skating rink before Brecker turned it into a roller-skating rink. (Jesus, you could do anything in Times Square once!) Brecker didn't like rock 'n' roll, and tried to keep it out as long as he could. (Armstrong found a way to play at Roseland 2.0 as well.)
Brecker died in 1977. His daughter was not averse to disco, and the hall soon became the home of hundreds of dancing fools every night. Eventually Nancy Brecker Leeds sold the building to Albert Ginsberg in 1981. Thereafter ensued a period where Roseland got a bad reputation as the preferred hangout of criminals, thugs and other ne'er-do-wells. Larry Ginsberg currently owns it. He's the man who swung the ax on the historic address. I hope it makes him rich. I wonder how it must feel to know that the first line in your obituary is going to say that you were responsible for snuffing out something great.
Concert attractions of recent vintage haven't quite been up to the Sinatra level. EMF, Grace Jones, Madonna, Bjork. But also Sting, Beck and Rolling Stones. So there has been some class acts. Nice to know, too, that very New York rap act, The Beasties Boys, got to perform here as well.
I don't go to concerts much anymore. It's impossible to get tickets, and the admission price is so high. And I like Lady Gaga only so-so. But, gosh, I'd happily go see her just to see the inside of Roseland just one more time. That is, for the second time.