A Grand Harlem Ballroom Is Empty Again in Coronavirus Pandemic

Alhambra Ballroom, revived as an events space, is vacant after management company seeks bankruptcy liquidation

The Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, one of many few historic Black music venues in New York nonetheless in its authentic form, sat vacant for many years, then started a revival as an occasions venue in 2003. The coronavirus pandemic put a finish to the events, leaving the ballroom’s operator in chapter7 and the jaw-dropping house empty once more.

The ballroom—added within the late 1920s to a 1905 constructing also called the Alhambra—performed an important hall within the New York jazz scene of the 1930s and ’40s, internet hosting legends akin to Billie Vacation, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.

Its destiny highlights the rise and fall of Harlem’s grand ballrooms. Some, such as the Savoy, have been demolished. Others have been reworked: The Audubon, the place Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, now serves as a memorial and middle school , whereas the Renaissance was demolished and became condos.

“The times of the ballrooms sadly are over,” stated Gordon Polatnick, proprietor of the tour firm Massive Apple Jazz, which affords journeys to jazz venues in Harlem and Greenwich Village.

The Alhambra, on the corner of West 126th Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, was a vaudeville theater with greater than 1,600 seats, then a movie theater. The ballroom was added to the seven-story constructing’s prime two flooring; like many different grand areas in Harlem, it declined and fell into disrepair within the 1960s.

Celedonia “Cal” Jones, 90 years olds, remembers a visit he made as an 8-year-old to the Alhambra within the late 1930s, when it was a movie show; he and his oldest sister, Elizabeth, discovered a change purse with a couple of {dollars} in it and bought tickets to a Western. Mr. Jones was in awe of the intricate structure, grandiose stage, balconies and theater containers.

“We have been poor,” stated Mr. Jones, the Manhattan borough historian emeritus. “We didn’t go to the flicks that usually.”

Mr. Jones stated his mom, Edith, a Black lady, informed him about seeing a vaudeville present on the Alhambra across the 1910s and having to go in by way of a facet entrance and as much as a segregated space within the balcony, whereas the remainder of the theater was reserved for white individuals.

Segregation was widespread at Harlem theaters at the time, despite the fact that the world was ultimately reworked from a largely white neighborhood to a Black cultural middle after World War I. When Mr. Jones noticed the film as a baby, the Alhambra was built-in.

After the ballroom house was added, the Alhambra turned a necessary venue for Black performers.

“The Alhambra was very very important to Billie Holiday’s profession early on,” stated saxophonist and pianist Loren Schoenberg, founding director and senior scholar of the Nationwide Jazz Museum in Harlem. “She made the development from a small little night time spot to a type of intermediate-sized place just like the Alhambra, after which ultimately she wound up at the Apollo.”

The general public danced to the tunes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie at the Alhambra. It remained a number one efficiency house for Harlem into the mid-1940s.

After sitting empty for many years, the ballroom was transformed and reopened in 2003 as a venue for weddings, receptions and different occasions below the enterprise title Alhambra Ballroom Inc. However the revival was reduce quick when the enterprise house owners, a mom and daughter, sought chapter 7 safety in August in U.S. Chapter Court docket in White Plains, N.Y.

“The Alhambra Ballroom suffered a drastic lower in revenues in 2020” because of the pandemic, stated Michael A. Koplen of Koplen Legislation Agency in New Metropolis, N.Y., which represents the ballroom’s administration. His purchasers declined to remark.

The ballroom operator had grossed $900,000 yearly in 2018 and 2019, however solely $10,000 this 12 months, in line with the case’s chapter 7 trustee, Mark S. Tulis. “The one purpose they filed for chapter is to eliminate the lease,” stated Mr. Tulis, of regulation agency Tulis Wilkes Huff & Geiger LLP in Tarrytown, N.Y.

In courtroom papers, the corporate listed complete debt of $485,000. Its largest creditor was its landlord, Jem Realty Administration Inc., with $320,000 owed in the lease for 12 months. What would possibly occur to the ballroom now is unclear; the keys have been turned over to the owner. Jem, which acquired the constructing in 2014 for $21.5 million, declined to remark.

“We’re dropping one thing good in Harlem,” stated Susan “Bunny” Southwell-Dais, the founder of Harlem Honors, who organized 4 awards exhibits within the ballroom to acknowledge the neighborhood’s most influential individuals. “The Alhambra will probably be missed.”


Harlem’s historic Alhambra Ballroom, by way of the years.

  • 1905: The Alhambra constructing is accomplished and opens as a vaudeville theater, later transformed right into a movie show.
  • Late 1920s: The Alhambra Ballroom opens within the constructing’s prime two flooring, ultimately internet hosting jazz legends together with Billie Vacation.
  • 1960s: The ballroom falls into disrepair and remained largely vacant in 2003:
  • The ballroom is remodels and reopens as an occasions venue.
  • 2006: Harlem Lanes bowling alley opens within the Alhambra constructing on the third and fourth flooring and closes in 2012.
  • 2019: Store Truthful Grocery store opens a 20,000-square-foot retailer on the primary ground.
  • 2020: Ballroom operator information for chapter 7 chapter liquidation in August.

Sharon Joseph and her enterprise associate, Gail Richards, operated a bowling alley on the third and fourth floors of the Alhambra construction, a part of the outdated vaudeville theater house, for six years till it closed in 2012. She stated she is aware of too effectively the struggles small-business house owners face. She closed the bowling alley after the 2007-09 recession led prospects, together with company purchasers, to spend much less on leisure, she stated.

“What individuals don’t notice is that it’s so laborious to run a enterprise,” stated Ms. Joseph, who now works as a monetary guide. “I give [the mother-daughter team behind the ballroom] respect as a household coming in there, changing that house and making an attempt to get the highest quality that they may.”

Regardless of its historical past, the Alhambra ballroom isn’t a landmark, a spokeswoman for the New York Metropolis Landmarks Preservation commission stated.

Nonetheless, the constructing has not too long ago undergone a restoration of its beaux-arts façade, together with the reinstallation of cornices and becoming of glass storefronts, which houses a grocery store.

“They have been these grand constructions and that’s why it is vital that these locations are landmarked—to have an actual sense of historical past of what got here earlier,” stated Keith Wright, who represented Harlem within the New York State Meeting and now works at regulation and lobbying agency Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP. “It is necessary that there will not be just a few condominiums put there, moderately that there needs to be some type of historic preservation.”