Reisenweber’s played an important role in American popular culture during the second decade of the last century. Today, it is mostly remembered as the place where jazz was introduced to a wider audience in 1917. However, Reisenweber’s already made history five years earlier when the dance craze took New York by storm. It was the first restaurant to provide its patrons with space to dance and kept the party going through a steady stream of promotions. The energy and spirit of this early period of rapid social change is conveyed in an audio slideshow showing over ninety invitations, admission tickets, advertising cards, special notices, beverage lists and menus from 1912 to 1915. Although this chronology of ephemera primarily reflects the main location on Eighth Avenue at Columbus Circle, some pieces come from the properties it managed on Coney Island—the Brighton Beach Casino and the Shelburne Hotel—and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, which it catered. Even at the Follies, the theater-goers tangoed and turkey-trotted before and after performances and during intermission.
The dance mania was fueled by a large number of themed events. One concept that proved to be particularly successful was the “tango tea” or “thé dansant.” (Reisenweber’s claimed to have imported the idea from Paris.) Since male dancing partners were provided by the establishment, these afternoon tea dances became popular with women whose husbands and fathers were at work and none the wiser. Reisenweber’s hosted the city’s first such dance in January 1913, a seminal event documented by one of the cards shown below. Other themes appear only once, such as a baby contest designed to lure young mothers out of their nearby apartments on the Upper West Side.
Reisenweber’s utilized four stories of its ornate building for its dining and entertainment operations. The complex included seven dance floors, a stew of frenzied activity that gave rise to the cabaret in the United States. Indeed, it was the first restaurant to present a show with more than one act. The format was soon adopted at places like Rector’s in the theater district on Broadway. And when Reisenweber’s and the other cabarets closed in the 1920s due to Prohibition, the festivities continued at the speakeasies where advertising was done by word of mouth.
1. Soon after the Original Dixieland Jass (sic) Band made its acclaimed debut at Reisenweber’s 400 Room, it released the first jazz recording in February 1917, a turning point in popular culture that ignited the Jazz Age.
2. Austrian-born Louis Fischer took over the management of the well-established restaurant from his father-in-law, John Reisenweber, in the early 1900s. After expanding in 1910, Fischer took the business in new directions.
3. New York Hotel Record, Vol. 12, No. 10, 3 February 1914.
4. New York Times, 10 August 1931.