The Blue Whale & the Tea Dance Est. 1966

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The Classic Blue Whale dance floor where many memories were made…

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This historic bar/restaurant that witnessed the birth of the tea dance, back in 1966, and the Invasion in 1976.

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The original Blue Whale sign that hung above the bar throughout 1970’s-1990’s.

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Originally owned by former Ziegfeld girl Peggy Fears and named Pines Yacht Club throughout the 1950’s she sold it initially to model John Whyte and partners. He then bought them all out in 1964. Destroyed in a fire in 1959 the club and Botel were then rebuilt to what is existing today.

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10479229_727721743954629_4865959350175687120_o (1)peggy fears new yacht club BW 1959 after the fire

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Upon the purchase in 1964 owner John Whyte creates the Blue Whale bar and drink the Blue Whale. The drink made with gin and Blue Curacao becomes a trademark as it makes your tongue blue giving away your attendance at the club. The Pines becomes the largest purchaser in the world of Blue Curacao.

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1966. Chief bartender Tom Sweeney serves up the variety of cocktails served at the Blue Whale including:

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L to R. Thief, Moby Dick,White Whale, Mortgages Due,Harlow, Russian Lullaby, Swinger, $2 worth of Happiness,Pink Stinger and Blue Whale.

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Singer Jimmie Daniels is hired as the entertainment in the Blue Whale in the 1960’s.

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Jimmie Daniels was a well known entertainer who performed at clubs like the Bon Soir in NYC.

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A fresh-faced teenager, Jimmie Daniels arrived in Harlem sometime during the mid-1920’s. He was lithe, delicate, and had an engaging, infectious smile that he would soon learn to use to his advantage. Singer Alberta Hunter, a lifelong friend, remembered the time well.  “This one was just a little one” she said.  “Handsome?  Oh, was he handsome!  He had hair as red as fire, and his folks had money.” Dare anyone have said that they thought the young, refined singer with the impeccable style, grace and proper enunciation was just a little snobbish and affectatious, too?

It wouldn’t have mattered!  It certainly would not have stopped the young, attractive Daniels from enjoying the ride of his youth, and becoming one of the most popular cafe singers and masters of ceremonies of the Harlem Renaissance. In demand from New York to Paris, these accomplishments were but stepping stones toward bigger and better things.  Fortunately, the journey was documented by some of the leading photographers and artists of the time like George Platt Lynes, Carl Van Vechten and Richmond Barthe.  And having several high profile, rich white boyfriends didn’t hurt him not one bit!

By the end of the 1930’s, the ambitious Daniels owned his own supper club in Harlem. It would be the first of many. He could not always go downtown and be black and fabulous but he did learn how to bring downtown uptown and cash in during the process.  Jimmie’s clubs catered to the downtown trade out for a night of slumming while searching for the exotique in Harlem.  Everybody got what they wanted!

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Jimmie Daniels, Singer at Le Ruban Bleu, 1933 by George Platt Lynes

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According to some reports, Jimmie started out at Lenox Avenue’s Bronze Studio Catering Hall, but certainly opened his first club on Lenox Avenue at 116th Street in the Bernheimer Building around 1938.  Condescendingly, The New Yorker described it as a model of dignity and respectability …. by Harlem standards!  He moved to 114 E. 125th Street in 1941.  Just a few years earlier, he had been the host with the most at other people’s clubs like Jean Cocteau’s le Boeuf sur le Toit in Paris.  But some ten years later, Daniels was thriving as the host of the Bon Soir on West 8th Street, a very popular spot with a loyal clientel interested in crossing the often debilitating lines of race, sex and sexual orientation. Photo is probably of Jimmie’s establishment on 125th St in Harlem.

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(Top) Kenneth Macpherson & Jimmie Daniels posing with Richmond Barthe’s unfinished carving of Daniels, 1938.  (Bottom) The finished product that was once known as Barthe’s signature piece.

Richmond Barthe was known as one of the best portraitists and sculpters in New York! Although he later switched almost exclusively to bronze works, he showed extraordinary skill at whatever he put his hand to, fully capturing Daniels’s exuberant spirit and mischievous expression.  In fact, Barthe said he chose Daniels as his subject because of his dazzling smile, but it was actually Scottish filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson’s wealthy wife, Winifred Ellerman (whom Americans knew as the poet, Bryher) who commissioned the bust.  Kenneth Macpherson was Jimmie Daniels’ lover!  His wife was a lesbian!  Their marriage was one of convenience!  Ellerman heavily supported her husband, who in turn heavily supported Jimmie, thus affording him a high-class life in a Greenwich Village apartment for several years. In an impressive effort, they all conspired to help the black, gay and handsome Barthe, who was quite down on his luck at the time and needed the work and cash. 

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Daniels and Macpherson out on the town in Harlem with their friend, Lloyd Thomas (actress Edna Thomas’ husband).

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Macpherson, Daniels and the much admired Blanche Dunn, whom Bruce Nugent called a “harmless” gold digger, early 40’s.

Phillip johnsonBefore Kenneth Macpherson, there was the famed architect, Phillip Johnson (r).  They met around 1934 when Jimmie was first starting to get some real recognition as an entertainer.  Daniels personified everything Johnson looked for during his late night excursions to Harlem – brown-skinned exoticism and good times!  Johnson had everything Daniels seemed to desire for himself – money and status, plus he was adventuresome, too.

At first glance, it would seem that they would have been made for each other but that was not the case.  There were no cute apartments in Greenwich Village, and the young singer only saw Johnson at the slightly older man’s convenience.  Six decades later, Johnson looked back with an odd mix of fond recall and regret.  Referring to Daniels as “the first Mrs. Johnson” he said “I was the envy of all downtown.  It was so chic – it was what one did if one was really up to date.  Those were the days when you just automatically went to Harlem.”

At the time, Jimmie lived as a border at 1890 Seventh Avenue on the north-west corner of 115th Street in a cooperative unit owned by the actress Edna Thomas.  Thomas’s husband Lloyd also lived there as did her white lesbian lover. “We went to the house of an English lady who lived with a black actress – lesbians! “So it was comfortable and familial.  There was also a husband around.  I’d spend the night there.  I tried having him downtown; it didn’t work so well.  They’d say ‘I’m sorry we’re full tonight (at a totall empty dining room).’  “But I was naughty” Johnson revealed.  “I went to Europe and I would never THINK of taking Jimmie along.  I had rather an upper-lower class feeling about him … terrible way to treat anybody” he confessed to his credit.  Indeed, after a year of foolishness, Jimmie Daniels very swiftly cashed in for Kenneth Macpherson!  “A terrible man stole him away – who had better sex with him, I gather” Johnson later quipped.

By October of 1942, Jimmie was training in bootcamp during WWII.  That must have been extremely interesting but true to form, he ended up entertaining the troops throughout Europe.  He continued to host and perform throughout the 50’s, and intermittently for the rest of his life.

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In the early 80’s, Jimmie often lived with his oldest, dearest friend, the legendary Alberta Hunter and took care of her in her waning years.  He was still rather well set up and secure by the time he preceeded her in death at the age of 76, in 1984.  This shot is from Ms. Hunter’s 83rd birthday celebration.  Left to right, Eubie Blake, bassist Al Hall, Alberta, Bobby Short, Jimmie Daniels, writer Chris Albertson, and friend.

Jimmie Daniels, forever young ……

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(Both images shot by Carl Van Vechten, early 30’s)

 

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Jimmie with Maria Bruce & Jimmy Wright, early 40’s.

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An early shot of Jimmie with his downtown friends, including illustrator Prentiss Taylor (standing, center) and actor Tonio Selwart and Donald Angus, March 1932.

Info by Corey Jarrell.

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Jimmy performs “Pretty eyed Pussycat” and more, and in between sets the jukebox is played with the latest in music. Much of it being the growing trend of soul music. People get up and dance during these breaks beginning a trend that continues to grow larger.

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Owner John Whyte makes a crucial decision. He lets Jimmy Daniels know that things need to change. Jimmy and John agree to part ways. Leaving the dance floor at the Blue Whale to the Wurlitzer Jukebox. Filled with the soul music of the 60’s the beat was all about the dance. However the men of the Pines were not allowed to dance together by law. The only way it could happen was in a group. The Line dance was born. The “Madison” and “Hully Gully” allowed men to dance together as long as there was at least one woman was involved. It became the rage in the Pines. Dancing was monitored, and if two men became too close a light was shined on them.

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Raids by the Suffolk County Police Department were a common occurrence. The men of the Pines were often rounded up like cattle and chained to poles in order for them to get their quota. Their identities revealed in the press. Owner John Whyte and longtime resident Jack Lichtenstein would help in the bailing out of many.

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1970. The advent of the live DJ brings a new life to the Tea Dance. Disco music is born, and the Tea Dance takes on new importance in the Fire Island world.

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 And with that the Tea Dance becomes a happening all over Fire Island…

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The iconic sign that educated all about where the Tea Dance began hung for years in one form or another in the Blue Whale.

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The Yacht “Barbara” owned by the Ross family of the Bicycle company was a fixture in front of the Blue Whale throughout most of the 80’s. Barbara Ross herself reigned over the Tea Dance from the Yacht where dinner was ordered and delivered from the restaurant nightly.

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Barbara Ross on yacht 1982web

The History of Tea Dance by Will Kohler.

The Very Gay History of the Almost Lost Tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance

Many gay men under the age of 30 are totally clueless of almost lost tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance. (A tradition that really must be brought back.) So here’s a little history primer on the tradition of the “Sunday T-dance” and how and why we embraced it in the LGBT culture.

Historically, tea was served in the afternoon, either with snacks (“low tea”) or with a full meal (“high tea” or “meat tea”). High Tea eventually moved earlier in the day, sometimes replacing the midday “luncheon” and settled around 11 o’clock, becoming the forerunner of what we know as “brunch”.

From the late 1800s to well into the pre-WWI era in both America and England, late afternoon (low) tea service became the highlight of society life. As dance crazes swept both countries, tea dances became increasingly popular as places where single women and their gentlemen friends could meet — the singles scene of the age.

While tea dances enjoyed a revival in America after the Great War, The Great Depression of the 30s wiped them out. Tea consumption was in steady decline in America anyways and by the 50s, tea was largely thought of as something “your grandmother drinks”. Also, nightlife was moving later and younger. Working men and women were too busy building the American Dream to socialize so it was left to their teenaged children in the age of sockhops and the jukebox diner. Rock and roll was dark and dangerous — something you sneaked out for after dinner, not took part in before dinner.

Gay people, of course, were still largely underground in the 50s, but it was in these discreet speakeasies that social (nonpartnered) dancing was evolving. It was illegal for men to dance with men, or for women to dance with women. In the event of a raid, gay men and lesbian women would quickly change partners to mixed-couples. Eventually, this led to everyone sort of dancing on their own.

By the late 60s, gay men had established the Fire Island Cherry Grove and also the more subdued and “closeted” Pines (off of Long Island, in New York) as a summer resort of sorts. It was illegal at that time for bars to ‘knowingly sell alcohol to homosexuals’ and besides many of the venues there were not licensed as ‘night clubs’ or to sell alcohol. To avoid attracting attention, afternoon tea dances were promoted. Holding them in the afternoon also allowed those who needed to catch the last ferry back to the mainland to attend.

The proscription against same-sex dancing was still in effect, so organizers were forced to institute ‘no touching’ rules. Since there were no lesbians around to change partners with, gay men developed the “dancing apart” style that clubgoers everywhere now take for granted.

June 28, 1969…the Stonewall Riots mark the fiery birth of the so-called “modern gay rights movement”. Following (and in part perhaps inspired by) the death of gay icon Judy Garland, (as the urban legend goes)  patrons of the Greenwich Village watering hole The Stonewall Inn  fought back against another in a very long line of violent police raids, eventually barricading the police inside the bar and setting off three nights of rioting. The “snapped stiletto heel heard around the world”as some call it is commemorated today with Gay Pride celebrations held around the end of June.

Post-Stonewall, the tea dance moved from the Fire Island Pines to Greenwich Village. A newly-energized gay community around Christopher Street embraced the social dancing craze started on Fire Island. While the Fire Island gays tended to be rich upper-class preppies, the downtown gays of Christopher Street and the Village were working-class and they tended to party at night. As in the straight community, tea dances gradually moved later until they became subsumed into the night club scene.

Through the 70s, gay men championed the uniform of the working class — t-shirts and denim — as fashion aesthetic. In part because they were affordable, and in part because it projected an appealing hypermasculinity associated with the working class. Gays in the post-Stonewall era were consciously rebelling against the effete stereotypes associated with the manicured, sweater-wearing, tea-drinking gays of the Fire Island set. Real men wore t-shirts and drank beer. Gay men still had afternoon/early evening dances — usually on Sundays, in order to make the most of one’s weekend while still being able to get up for Monday morning’s work.

The downtown gays rejected the term tea dance as being too effete and opted for the supposedly butcher t-dance, and promoted “t-shirts and denim” as the costume of choice. By the mid 70s, the “Christopher Street Clone” look (short cropped hair, mustache, plaid shirt over a tight white t-shirt, faded denim jeans that showed off your ass) had made the trans-continental trip from New York City to Los Angeles (gays in Hollywood) and, of course, to San Francisco (follow the Yellow Brick Road and it leads to Castro). It brought with it the tea dance phenomenon, which is slowly dying out and is nothing of its former self and in may places is all but gone.

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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TEADANCE

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                      Owner John Whyte was very active in running his empire.

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Tom Finn was John Whyte’s right hand man as the manager of both the Blue Whale and the Cultured Elephant.

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In 1989 after touring Europe and seeing the latest fashion colors John Whyte decides to change the long time colors of the red and blue awning and Botel canvases to Blue and green.

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1990's Blue Whale.

 

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During the 90’s The Tea Dance suffers as the population of straight people daytrippers attending grows, and becomes unruly. By 2000 the red and blue were being revived as well as the Tea Dance. It was back…

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