From the late 1920s through the 1950s The Pythian Temple, located between Wylie and Center Avenues in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, was one of the nation’s premiere venues for jazz. It was a must stop for touring jazz artists and “the” place in Pittsburgh to dance to the music of the big swing bands. Promoter Sellers McKee Hall, Pittsburgh’s first African American music promoter, brought the biggest names in jazz to Pittsburgh for his popular dances that drew crowds of 1,500 to 2,000. Sell Hall booked Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissie, Don Redman, Chick Web, Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, the Alabama Jungle Band and other swing bands to Pittsburgh for his all night dances. In a nationally broadcast radio performance from the Pythian Temple ballroom in 1930 Duke Ellington was crowned the “King of Jazz”. Promoter Harry Hendel took ownership of the Temple in 1937 turning the 1st floor into the New Granada movie Theater and renaming the ballroom to the New Savoy. A new generation of jazz artists performed at the ballroom during the late 1940s and 1950s. Top R&B acts performed there from the 1960s until the ballroom’s closure in the early 1970s. Hosting dances and concerts by national and Pittsburgh artists for over 40 years the Pythian earned its place in the annuals of jazz history.
Design by Louis Bellinger
The Black Knights of Pythias, the local chapter of a national fraternal order of African American construction workers, built The Pythian Temple in 1928 to serve as its headquarters and community social center. Louis Bellinger, the Temple’s designer, was one of only 63 African American architects in the entire U.S out of 22,000 American architects. The four-story brick structure, located at 2009 Centre Avenue, is highlighted with Art Deco trimmings and the Pythania Coat of Arms. Its first floor held a banquet and drill hall of 5,000 square feet with an entrance on Center Avenue. The second floor, with its entrance on Wylie Avenue was an auditorium that could hold 1,500 for concerts, stage productions, and basketball games. At the time of its building the Pythian was the largest dance venue in Pittsburgh. The third and fourth floor housed the office and meeting rooms of the Pythian lodge.
Grand Opening 1928
Construction began in June 1927 with architect Louis Bellinger serving as the construction manager. The building was completed and dedicated on March 25, 1928. To celebrate the grand opening the Pythians held parades over several days. Over 10,000 people attended the March 25th cornerstone dedication ceremony. The Temple quickly became a vital entertainment hub for African Americans and the entire Pittsburgh region. African Americans were barred from downtown Pittsburgh theaters and were not permitted to dance at popular venues such as West View and Olympia Parks. Only a small select few of the most popular African American were permitted to perform at the downtown theatres and ballrooms. The Pythian ballroom became the venue to see nationally known African American lead swing bands and rising Pittsburgh musical stars.
Sell Hall's Jazz Temple
The first nationally known acts to play the Temple ballroom dances in 1928 were the Fletcher Henderson and Benny Carter bands. Sellers McKee Hall, a dance and baseball team promoter, was hired to book and manage the ballroom in 1929. His first bookings in 1929 include the Jungalier Orchestra, Jelly Roll Morton, Miss Frances Hereford-Morton, and the Detroit Cotton Pickers. Bill Paige’s Syncopators and Lois Deppe and his Serenaders, which included pianist Earl Hines, were regular Pittsburgh based performers. Jazz fans came from Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and West Virginia to dance at the Pythian.
The largest event in the Temple’s history was held in January 1932. Almost 3,000 fans from across the country attended Duke Ellington’s coronation as the “King of Jazz” by the Pittsburgh Courier. Ellington’s concert was broadcast nationally from radio station WCAE (later known as WTAE). The Duke’s wife, sister, and mother attended to watch him receive the Courier’s “Loving Cup.”
Sell Hall also sponsored legendary “Battle of Music” shows pitting national acts like the Speed Webb Orchestra and the Eldrige Brothers against Pittsburgh’s Cotton Pickers, the Komedy Klub, Joy Cloud, the Royal Southerners, and other bands.
Under Sell Hall’s management the Pythian Temple offered food, drinks and all night dancing. A typical show would be a double bill like the 1933 show with Noble Sissie band playing until 2 AM followed by Fletcher Henderson’s band. Sell Hall held his dances at the Temple until 1935 when promoter Bob Ellis took over the Pythian Temple lease.
Bob Ellis and the Gold and Silver Ballroom
African American Bob Ellis took over management of the Pythian Temple in August of 1935. He closed the venue for a month to convert the first floor to a skating rink and to remodel the ballroom. Ellis gave Pittsburgh’s African Americans their first opportunity to enjoy a skating rink as they were barred from Pittsburgh white owned skating rinks. The ballroom, now outfitted with a large mirrored crystal ball and new draperies was renamed “The Gold and Silver Ballroom”. Jimmy Lunceford and his NBC Band launched the new ballroom on September 16, 1935.
The epic event produced by Ellis was a concert to aid the victims of the devastating March 1936 flood of Pittsburgh. Twenty two hundred fans came to the ballroom the hear Louis Armstrong. They sat in silent awe of Armstrong as he approached and went wild as he stepped to the stage. Satchmo donated his proceeds to the African American victims of the flood.
New Granada Theatre
Hit with financial problems by the Depression, the Knights of Pythias sold the Pythian Temple to Harry Hendel in 1937. Hendel, a Jewish American, owned the Roosevelt Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Granada movie theater. Wanting a larger movie Hendel converted the first floor of the Pythian Temple to a 1,025 seat movie theatre. Closing the original Granada Theater he renamed the Pythian to the “New Granada Theatre. It opened in May of 1937 with a gleaming new a “Moderne” art deco sheet metal enameled porcelain exterior colored with pastel green, bright red, blue, and yellow tiles. The movie theatre was a quick success running shows all day.
Hill City Theatre
Harry Hendel reopened the ballroom in 1941 as the Hill City Auditorium. Operated by the social service group Hill City, it was redecorated with indirect lighting, colorful drapes and blinds, wall murals and the revolving crystal ball. The grand opening was held on Easter Monday April 14, 1941 featuring the Earl Hines Orchestra with vocalist Billy Eckstine, Madeline Green, the “Sweethearts”. Proceeds from the Hill City events went to helping underprivileged children of the Hill. Hill City brought Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, King Perry, Sol Albright, Charlie Barnet, Tiny Bradshaw, Carl Brown, Leroy Brown, Art Farrar, Jimmie Lunceford, Lil Green, Joe Westray the Sweethearts of Rhythm, tThe Cats and the Fiddle” and Art Blakey and his Rhythm Maniacs to the ballroom during the early 1940s.
New Savoy Ballroom
In January of 1945, Harry Hendel closed his original Savoy Ballroom that was previously located near Center and Kirkpatrick, to the Pythian Temple ballroom. Following in the tradition of Sell Hall, Hendel continued to bring the top names in jazz to the New Savoy Ballroom. A new generation of modern jazz artists appeared including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nat “King” Cole and Miles Davis. Hendel’s first big concert was the Cavalcade of Jazz in 1946 starring Charlie Ventura, Ben Webster, Big Sid Catlett, Dinah Washington and Pittsburgher Mary Lou Williams. Jazz based dances and concerts continued into the 1950s. Walt Harper and his band were mainstays at the ballroom.
1960s R&B at the Savoy
During the early 1960s the New Savoy Ballroom presented national and Pittsburgh based R&B acts. Johnny Adams, an Italian American music promoter who grew up on the Lower Hill, reopened the Savoy in 1960. Responding to an advertisement by Harry Hendel, Adams got the ballroom rent free for a year in exchange for renovations and upkeep. Adams refinished the floor, fixed the seats, and installed new draperies. He rented the ballroom to community groups who put on their own events. Adams hired dancer Rudy Moss to book R&B and soul artists for young adult dances. Stations WAMO and WZUM promoted the shows. DJ Mary Dee, Sir Walter, and Porky Chedwick were emcees.
The Savoy ballroom was filled to capacity to hear James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, the OJays, Peaches and Herb, and organist Wild Bill Davis. Local Pittsburgh artists George Benson, the Altairs, Chuck Edwards, and Stanley Turrentine also sold out the house. The dances were open to 18 to 21 year men who were required to wear sports jackets and women who had to wear dresses. Adults who attended sat in the balcony. Adams booked the popular R&B shows until Hendel asked him for $2,000 a month rent. Given that he was paying artists $6,000 to $10,000 performance fees along with security, staff, and utility costs Adams felt this risk of losses would be high. He discontinued the R&B dances in 1964. The ballroom continued to be rented out for community meetings during the late 1960s.
Final Years of the New Granada and the Savoy
Associated Theatres took over the New Granada from Harry Hendel sometime in the mid 1960s. With the destruction of the Lower Hill to build the Civic Arena, there a 8,000 person loss in population in the Hill District. Attendance at the New Granada and the ballroom dwindled over time. Movies ran only three days a week on Saturdays through Mondays. The movie theater closed in 1965. Count Basie gave one of the last performances at the New Savoy Ballroom in 1973 or 1974.
During the 1970s the building was still in use as office space for social and cultural organizations. The ballroom was rented out for storage of classic cars. (It suffered the same fate of becoming a garage for the rich as the Graffiti Lounge in North Oakland). Eventually Pythian Temple building was abandoned. The roof collapsed from neglect and water damaged the building’s interior. Only a ruined shell remained for several decades.
Restoration Efforts and Historic Designation
The Hill Community Development Corporation, with a $99,000 loan from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, purchased the remains in 1995. An funding raising campaign to save and restore the building began in 2008. The roof was replaced and damaged masonry was restored with $1.1 million in funds from the Heinz Endowments and several government organizations, Lacking additional funds the building still sits as an empty shell awaiting a full restoration as an historic site. Due to its national and local significance as a major jazz venue and a major work of Pittsburgh’s first African-American architect the Pythian Temple/New Granada was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 27, 2010.
“The Crossroads of the World”: A Social and Cultural History of Jazz in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1920-1970 by Colter Harper 2011
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