Long before there was a Labour Day Carnival in Brooklyn, and even before Carnival revellers took to the streets of Harlem in the late 1940s and 1950s, Trinidad bandleader Gerald Clark was organising annual Dame Lorraine Dances.
These masquerade balls began in the winter of 1935, and rather amazingly, continued for over 20 years. They were one of the first major efforts to bring Trinidad-style Carnival to New York.
By the time he started promoting these Carnival dances, Gerald Clark was an established presence in the Harlem community. He led the backing band for the historic visit of the calypso masters Roaring Lion and Attila the Hun to New York shortly after the 1934 Trinidad Carnival.
For the next several years, Clark provided the primary backing band for calypso artists who came to New York to record and perform. But in addition to his recording career and his regular nightclub appearances, Clark played an essential role in organising annual Carnival dance celebrations.
There are only a few details that survive of the first dances. A brief note in the New York Amsterdam News gave a short summary of a dance in 1935:
“The Lido Ballroom, 160 West 146th Street, was transformed into a masquerade day in Trinidad when Mrs Rhoda Weeks presented her carnival ball there last Saturday night. Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders added to the tropical atmosphere by supplying appropriate music for the dancing.”
By 1937, the event was being described as Clark’s attempt to “Out-carnival even the traditional Trinidad Carnival itself” with “a colorful Carnival Day scene” and “a Calypso [Chantwells] competition.” In 1938 and 1939, the dances featured Wilmouth Houdini, the best known calypsonian based in New York.
Interestingly, in 1940, the band was listed not as Clark’s own group, but rather as “Victor Pacheco and his Royal Trinidadians and Gregory Felix,” popularly called the “Benny Goodman of the West Indies.” Both pianist Pacheco and clarinetist Felix for many years were members of Clark’s band.
In the early years, the normal site for the Dame Lorraine Dance was the Renaissance Casino at 138th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Built in the early 20s, it was a popular night-spot in Harlem. “From the start it was a setting for all of “Harlem’s most important parties,” recalled 97 year old, Isabelle Washington Powell, who reminisced, “all the best dances were at the Renaissance.”
By 1942, an ad for the Carnival dance noted that Clark was forced by the number of patrons to move it out of Harlem to “the more spacious Royal Windsor Ballroom on 66th Street east of Broadway.” There were prizes for costumes and “the best dressed bands”, and the music was by Clark’s own band, the Caribbean Serenaders, featuring a calypso battle between Houdini and MacBeth the Great. The event was billed as an “authentic duplication of what transpires that Sunday in Trinidad” and was in a “big time space” so that more supporters could see it. The New York Age trumpeted its success, “Harlemite and Broadway celebrities found joy in socialising with one another.”
Bill Chase, one of the regular columnists for the Amsterdam News, attended the 1943 affair:
“After all these years we finally attended the famed ‘Dame Lorraine’” the brilliant West Indian and Calypso Carnival which Gerald Clarke [sic] throws yearly at the Renaissance. The place was filled to capacity—all that without the benefit of advertising so imagine what it would have been like if the affair had been widely publicised. It was a colorful event and one which the guests seemed to enjoy more than the usual crowd enjoys the more exclusive formals. The costumes worn by the prize winners including the Clowns (Darling Club SC), The Indians, Red Riding Hood, the Coolie Woman, half man and bride, the donkey lady, the Martinique etc. were costly and colorful —but the prize money was good too.
By 1944, the dance was back at the Renaissance Casino featuring MacBeth the Great. Ads for the affair urged folks to “see the stupendous spectacle of Carnival Bands in competition. This is Harlem’s indoor Mardi Gras.” The event appeared to have generated other competing Carnival dances, since by 1946, the ad for the event declared: “Gerald Clark presents The One, The Only, The Original Gala Dame Lorraine and Twelfth Annual Carnival Dance.” Intriguingly, in the fine print the ad promised that the “Dame Lorraine will be presented at 12.30.” By 1948, the featured vocalists were Duke of Iron and Lord Invader.
A large photo spread in the Amsterdam News showed that wire or screen masks were featured at the festivities in 1949. A group of Pierrot Grenades won the individual competition while the “Barbados Gals” took first place in the group category. A similar photo spread the next year revealed the winning Carnival band was Balinese Ballerinas, followed by the Martinique Portese with bats in attendance. 1951 found the event in full form with Coty Dancing Girls, Bajan Gals, Neptune and his Mermaids, and the crew of the SS Calvary, presumably a sailor band. The individuals included bats, jamet-men, and an African Chief. The music was by two bands, MacBeth and Clark’s groups, and both Duke of Iron and MacBeth sang calypsos. The next year the event was briefly noted as having “Pirates, Coty Girls, Quacker Clowns, Juju Warriors, Harem Queens, Bat Men and Creole Belles.” But the regular newspaper coverage dropped off after that. The dances continued until at least 1956, but after that they appeared to cease in Harlem.
In a 1977 interview with anthropologist Don Hill, bandleader Daphne Weeks, speculated that it was failing health that finally forced Clark to stop organising the dances. But by the 1970s, Weeks herself was leading “Dame Lorraine” dances in Brooklyn. Though now forgotten, these dances were an important part of the history of carnival in New York at the time.
• Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. He is the co-producer of The Calypso Craze, a book/CD compilation released on Bear Family Records. Ray Allen is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is editor of Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music in New York, and is currently working on a book on the history of Carnival music in Brooklyn.