Historic, but not famous

William Roche, Renaissance Ballroom
Renaissance Ballroom – 1920s and 2000s

William Roche was an African American Real Estate Agent that helped build the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. Constructed in 1921, the combination ballroom, casino and movie theatre was touted as the first non-segregated institution of its kind.

Mr. Roche (Roach) was an immigrant from Montserrat who became a major player in uptown real estate and a member of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. He owned a house cleaning business, but bought the northeast corner of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue, now known as Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. With Joseph H. Sweeney and Cleophus Charity, they built the Renaissance Theater there in 1921. They expanded on the block to include the Casino and Ballroom in 1923.  This, unlike most of Harlem, was an African-American built and owned business. The 900-seat theater first showed silent movies, often with stage acts, and was soon converted to talkies. The casino was used for public meetings, like a 1923 anti-lynching meeting held by the N.A.A.C.P., and it was the home court of the Harlem Renaissance Big-Five, the black professional basketball team known as the Harlem Rens.

Interior of the Ballroom

The ballroom closed in 1970. There was a campaign to have the building landmarked, but that failed and there are plans to tear it down and put up a condo complex.

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Historic, but not famous

Leonard Harper (April 9, 1899 – February 4, 1943, Harlem, New York) was a producer, stager, and choreographer in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. Harper’s works spanned the worlds of vaudeville, cabaret, burlesque and Broadway musical comedy.

As a dancer, choreographer and studio owner, he coached many of the country’s leading performers, including Ruby Keeler, Fred Astaire and the Marx Brothers.  He produced floor shows and theatrical revues both uptown in Harlem and downtown on Broadway’s Great White Way. He opened up the Cotton Club. He also produced Lindy Hop revues and an act called Harper’s Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom. From 1923–1924, Harper offered the Duke Ellington Orchestra the house band position at the speakeasies, Connie’s Inn in Harlem and the Kentucky Club in Times Square. By 1925, Harper owned a Times Square dance studio where black dancers taught their dances to white performers.

Harper was one of the leading figures who transformed Harlem into a cultural center during the 1920s. A street was named for Mr. Harper in 2015 in Harlen. “Leonard Harper Way” is located on 7th Avenue (also known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.) and 132nd Street.

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