Palladium Mambo, Palladium Era Mambo Dancers - Keeping the History Alive
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Palladium Ballroom

Palladium BallroomKnown as “the home of the mambo,” the Palladium Ballroom was America’s most important venue for the development of Latin music and dance throughout the 1950s. Mambo music and dance were co-created at the Palladium where Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Italian, Jewish, Irish, and African American patrons danced nightly to music of the “Big Three” Latin orchestras—Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and Machito. The Palladium Ballroom began programming Latin music on Sundays in 1947, and soon expanded to an all-Latin format, hosting live Latin music Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Wednesday nights featured the weekly amateur dance contest and professional mambo show. Palladium owner Maxwell Hyman selected contestants for the competitions and acts for the show, both hosted by emcee “Killer Joe” Piro who taught a dance lesson from 9–10pm. Located on the second floor at 1698 Broadway on the corner of 53rd St., the Palladium was the most famous Latin dance hall of the era because of its location in midtown Manhattan where it drew patrons of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and social classes. From celebrities to dishwashers, everyone was welcome at the Palladium where patrons were judged based on their dancing ability rather than the color of their skin.

Many factors contributed to the unique atmosphere at the Palladium. Most notable was the diversity of patrons, especially on Wednesday nights when no ethnic group formed a majority and celebrities (such as Marlon Brando who loved to sit in and play bongos with the bands) were frequently in attendance. Everyone regardless of their social status outside of the Palladium was dressed in their finest, fashion being of utmost importance in showcasing ones dancing skills. The ballroom was frequently packed well beyond the official 750 capacity. Many patrons recall an invisible line that divided the dance floor. Professional dancers stayed to the left of the bandstand so that they could show off for the celebrities who sat at the nearby tables; amateurs danced to the right of the bandstand. Elite amateur dancers, however, often contend that the better dancing was in the right corner of the ballroom.

Adding to the excitement of such unprecedented social mixing were the Palladium’s larger-than-life personalities. There was Killer Joe whose enthusiastic exclamation “vaya means go” billowed throughout the ballroom. Promoter Federico Pagani attracted new clientele with gimmicks such as a shortest skirt contest. Mafia and drug bosses were commonly in attendance. Many people recall a purple haze hanging in the air from all the marijuana smoked in the ballroom, which along with heroine and cocaine, was a choice drug of many regulars. Order was maintained by three bouncers—Tony, Vic, and Yumpy—who unceremoniously tossed troublemakers down the back staircase. Photographer A. Harry Fine, an amateur dancer himself, regularly slid across the ballroom on his knees to close in on a good shot. These characters all played second string to the real stars of the Palladium—the bandleaders and their musicians. Two orchestras were featured each night, cooking up some of the hottest music New York had ever heard. Many Latin bands played the Palladium, although house favorites were Machito and his Afrocubans, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. Dancers too were stars of the Palladium, although they were dependent on the inspiration they received from the live music to which they always performed. Several dancers achieved such fame that their performances could rival the fame of the orchestras (witness Augie and Margo’s name on the Marquis under Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez).

The Palladium lost its liquor license as the result of a drug raid in 1961. This crippling event coupled with waning interest in partnered dancing eventually led to its closing in 1966. Although the loss of this iconic venue signaled the end of the mambo era, the music and dance fostered at the Palladium became the backbone of a new music that emerged in the 1970s and a new dance craze that blossomed in the 1990s—salsa.

© Juliet McMains 2012

For more information on the Palladium Ballroom, see:

Boggs, Vernon. “The Palladium Ballroom and Other Venues: Showcases for Latin Music in N.Y.C.” In Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City, 127–131. New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Company, 1992.

Goldman, Danielle. “Mambo’s Open Shines: Causing Circles at the Palladium.” In I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom, 28–54. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Hamer-Hodges, Christine. Act: The Love Story of Augie and Margo Rodriguez. 2006.

Johnston, Richard J.H. “13 Arrested Here in Ballroom Raid: Narcotics, Pistol and Razor Found Amount the 800 Dancers.” The New York Times, April 9, 1961.

Rondón, César Miguel. “Salsa Zero: the 1950s.” Chapter 1 in The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City. Trans. Frances R. Aparicio with Jackie White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Salazar, Max. “The Palladium.” Chapter 13 in Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York, New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2002.

Thompson, Robert Farris. “Teaching the People to Triumph over Times: Notes from the World of Mambo.” In Caribbean Dance from Abakua to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity, edited by Susanna Sloat, 336–344. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

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Header photos: Mambo Aces (Aníbal Vázquez and Mike Vázquez) and Jackie Danois Website Design: Wren McMains, Additional Credits