Seven Things You Should Know about Hellzapoppin'

The dance scene from Hellzapoppin' is arguably the most iconic lindy hop clip in history. Certainly millions of viewers have been inspired by this routine, that is still unmatched in dynamism, exuberance, and athleticism. Go ahead and watch it again here.

But how much do you know about this scene? Here are seven remarkable things about Hellzapoppin' every die-hard lindy hopper should be aware of.

A brief proviso: I am not a film historian, just a dancer who has done some digging and learned from other very smart people.

1. The Dancers

The dancers are all part of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe. Principal choreography was created by Frankie Manning, as he recounts in his autobiography Ambassador of Lindy Hop. The incredible dancers are, in order of appearance:

  • Frances “Mickey” Jones and William Downes

  • Norma Miller and Billy Ricker

  • Willamae Ricker and Al Minns

  • Ann Johnson and Frankie Manning

Originally Wilda Crawford and Thomas "Tops" Lee were part of the routine. But after missing a rehearsal and not providing any excuse, Frankie had them cut and replaced with Willa Mae Ricker and Al Minns. So the lesson for you all is don’t miss rehearsal.

2. The Music

The music that leads into the performance is performed by the wonderful band Slim and Slam, who were as famous for their on-stage antics as their musicianship. Here’s the lineup:

  • Slim Gaillard - piano, guitar

  • Slam Stewart - bass

  • Rex Stewart - cornet

  • Elmer Fane - clarinet

  • Jap Jones - trombone

  • C.P. Jonstone - drums

The song was composed specifically for the routine by musical director Charles Previn and recorded by a studio orchestra. Here’s how Frankie recalls the process:

[The music director’s] job was to create a composition for our number… As we went through the routine repeatedly, he started writing an original score that fit the choreography and really emphasized certain movements we did. Within a week, he had finished, and the studio band made a recording of his composition, which is what we rehearsed to from then on. We used that when we filmed the scene...

3. The Movie Hellzapoppin' is Very, Very Weird

Ole Olsen: Look, here, my friend, we are making a motion picture here.

Man calling for Mrs. Jones: That's a matter of opinion...

Hellzapoppin' is an absurdist, fourth-wall breaking musical comedy from 1941 created by the comedy duo Olsen and Johnson (Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.) It barely has a plot to hold together a series of comedic and musical bits. Here’s how IMDB summarizes it:

Ole and Chick are making a movie, but the director is not satisfied. So he brings them to a young writer, who outlines them an absurd story. They have to support Jeff and Kitty in setting up a musical revue in their garden and want to bring it up on Broadway. If Jeff is successful he can marry Kitty. But there is his rich friend Woody, who also loves Kitty, Chick's sister Betty, who's in love with a false Russian count, and detective Quimby. They all make the thing very complicated for Ole and Chick. After some mistakes they think that Kitty isn't the right girl for Jeff and they start sabotaging the show, but the Broadway producer is impressed and signs the contract. That's the story the writer tells them. For this he's sued by the director.

I know that makes absolutely no sense.

The comedy made fun of the very idea of making a movie. An early scene has the stars arguing with the projectionist in the booth, who is distracted by a theater employee he is wooing. Actors routinely speak directly to the audience, at one point telling one of them to go call his mother. Musical numbers are interrupted by animals, scenes are run backwards and restarted, a conversation takes place with the scriptwriter of the movie we are watching. It’s all so bizarre, even by 2018 standards.

If none of that dissuaded you, here’s the entire film:

The film did well enough that Olsen and Johnson were able to make four more films for Universal Studios, with similarly absurd subject matter.

4. The Stage Show Also Featured Lindy Hop

As strange as the movie is, it was tame in comparison to the stage production it was loosely based on. The stage show Hellzapoppin', also created by Olsen and Johnson, opened on September 10, 1938 in Boston. A loose pastiche of comedy and musical bits, it featured a host of fourth-wall breaking inventions including a delivery man wandering around the audience trying to deliver a plant, a confederate in the aisles selling tickets to a competing Broadway musical, and even seats that delivered electrical shocks!

The stage production featured a very popular lindy hop number, as recounted by Norma Miller in her biography Swingin at the Savoy. According to the NY Daily News:

“Olsen and Johnson wisely showcased current entertainment styles, including a show-stopping turn by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. The Lindy Hop had been around for almost 10 years by then, but it was still the rage at dance contests, and seeing it performed by Norma Miller and Whitey's ensemble was a highlight for many patrons.”

American Century Review:

“Lastly, and most famously, were Whitey’s Steppers, popularly known as “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.” Almost all of the major songs in the original show were accompanied by dance routines, but the Lindy Hop routine (performed to the song “Jumping at the Woodside”) was by far the most famous. Astounding in its accuracy and athleticism, it took the audience’s breath away every night.”

A runaway success, Hellzapoppin' was the longest running show in Broadway history at that time, with 1,404 performances. It is still in the top 100 most popular broadway shows of all time.

5. Choreographed to “Jumpin at the Woodside”

We don’t know much about the choreography of the stage production, other than it was done to “Jumpin at  the Woodside” by Count Basie. Frankie Manning recounts that he choreographed the routine for the film to the same song, working hard to match the dancing and the air steps to the music.

The song was not included in the film so that the studio didn’t have to secure the rights from Count Basie. Here’s how it might have looked with music it was choreographed to, as edited by Louise B.

6. What’s Up with Those Outfits?

In other films that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performed in, they are typically dressed stylishly and in a coordinated fashion -- the gentlemen in slacks, the ladies in dresses or skirts. Not so, in Hellzapoppin'.

In the plot of the film, delivery men are bringing over a set of instruments for a stage production. As they set them up backstage, one of them starts to play the piano. Others soon join in. Meanwhile, domestic workers and laborers nearby hear the music and come together backstage and start to dance.

The dancers are dressed as cooks, maids, a butler or waiter, a driver, and a handyman or laborer. In the United States in the 1940s, those would be the kinds of jobs that African Americans could get, and thus the kinds of roles that white Americans would be accustomed to seeing them in. Still it must have been galling for the professional performers to appear in this way.

7. Not Shown to All Audiences because of Racism

The dance scene is completely superfluous to the rest of the film. The dancers appear in no other scenes. In fact there is only one tiny sequence where a Black person and white person appear in the same shot, for a throwaway joke about the standing bass.

only shot of white and black performers together.png

That segregation is intentional and was common practice in Hollywood at that time. Black people performing or speaking in scenes was still controversial or even scandalous to certain white audiences, particularly in the American south. So those scenes were shot in such a way that they could easily be omitted in certain theaters.

This is particularly upsetting since this was clearly the standout dance number of the entire movie, which is about putting on a stage production. And yet, this routine is not included in the actual show. Here’s what two of the main characters say right after they witness this performance:

Jeff: Wow! Too bad they’re not in the show.
Chick: Put them in the next one.

Interestingly, there is a small image of lindy hoppers in a poster for Hellzapoppin'. But the dancers appear to be white.

Conclusion

Hopefully this helped give you more appreciation of this famous lindy hop clip. Hellzapoppin' is one of the most iconic dance sequences ever to be put on film. It’s also a product of its time, including the racism of that era, which we should never forget.

I think of Frankie and his teammates and what they must have known when they came together to shoot this scene – how they were going to be depicted in the film, how it might never be shown in parts of America. And yet they decided it was worth it to get their art out to the wider world. That makes me appreciate this scene even more. 

Watch this scene again and see if you feel the same.

Special thanks to Cynthia Millman who helped immensely with this post.

Did you enjoy this feature? What other famous dance clips would you like us to dig deeper into? Let us know in the comments or by emailing rik@yehoodi.com.