It’s late January and the line outside of 239 West 52nd St. stretches all the way down the block and disappears around the corner, continuing northward up Broadway. It has been steadily growing for close to two hours, filling with everyone from middle-aged, leather-jacket-clad music appreciators to bleach-blonde high schoolers in band tees. The guards at the door under the flickering red-lettered marquee are strict—they don’t let anyone through the glass doors until 7 p.m. sharp. When the doors finally open, the small, carpeted entryway is a madhouse, with folks filing through security to make their ways to the two available bars for pre-concert beers or straight to the front for the sold-out show.
The ballroom is composed of a large general admission floor and a VIP balcony that tonight is lined with candles and table lights built from old cassette tapes. The lights go down, and the crowd erupts for the first time in 2014—and for the millionth time in the history of the venue.
The place is Roseland Ballroom, the headlining act is the Black Keys, and the show is one of the last to hit the venue’s stage before it closes its doors for good this April after 95 years as a staple of New York’s music scene.
The now-landmark Roseland Ballroom was established in 1917 in Philadelphia, Pa., before its creator, Louis Brecker, moved the venue to its first New York City location in 1919. This since-demolished carriage factory at Broadway and 51st Street was home to Roseland Ballroom for 37 years, where it functioned briefly as a segregated “whites only” dance hall that touted its high-society orchestra groups and bore the epithet “the home of refined dancing” before flourishing as an integrated home for jazz musicians and marathon dance events throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
Roseland’s 51st Street stage was host to early-career performances by legends like Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as various staged antics organized by Brecker, including at least one public “jazz wedding” that a 1942 profile in the New Yorker theatrically described as having included an ordained minister, “20 pairs of bridesmaids and grooms, shaking their shoulders, ... 20 pirouetting flower girls,” and a shimmying cupid.
In 1956, New York’s original Roseland Ballroom was demolished and operations moved to the Ballroom’s current location on West 52nd Street. Until his death in 1977—at which point ownership of the ballroom was passed to his daughter, Nancy Brecker Leeds—Brecker maintained that the venue was first and foremost a ballroom and dance hall, banning increasingly popular music styles like rock ’n’ roll and disco from being featured on the Roseland stage.
In 1981, Brecker Leeds sold Roseland to a third owner, Albert Ginsberg. The venue underwent a notable shift in clientele, opening its doors to nightclub culture and the accompanying scene. This ushered in a decade during which Roseland was widely considered to be more dangerous than desired. In 1984, Staten Island teenager Robert Dudley was shot to death in the middle of Roseland’s dance floor. In 1990, Utah tourist Brian Watkins was murdered on the New York City subway. Four of the eight suspects in the case were arrested at Roseland, and according to at least one 1990 report in the New York Times, the murder was the result of a robbery in which the eight men held up the tourist’s family for money to use that night at the ballroom. As a result of its increasingly bad reputation, in the early 1990s, Roseland ceased the regularly scheduled clubbing hours and instead turned its sights primarily toward concerts and occasional special events.
The modern era of Roseland as a concert venue for music of all genres has been punctuated by career-making performances by now-famous musicians and colossal sold-out appearances by widely renowned artists. One show in the summer of 1984 featured a relatively unknown underground Los Angeles metal band as an opening act. A record label representative in the audience was impressed enough by these opening musicians, known collectively as Metallica, that the group was asked to sign its first major record label deal the next day.
Since then, just about anyone who is anyone across all genres in the music industry has played a show on Roseland Ballroom’s stage, from the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, and from Björk to Radiohead. Last spring, Vampire Weekend’s Roseland concert was broadcast live on YouTube and directed by Steve Buscemi, and on Halloween 2010, the venue played host to a party DJed by Deadmau5.
These big names have also come with notorious incidents. In 2000, eccentric singer-songwriter Fiona Apple suffered a very public breakdown in the middle of a Roseland Ballroom set. Onlookers said the singer began to cry while staring at the VIP balcony before eventually leaving the stage and bringing a premature end to the show only 40 minutes in. And in 2008, Madonna announced an unticketed concert event at Roseland that ran on a first-come, first-served basis. Fans were waiting faithfully outside of the ballroom for days leading up to the show, which lasted all of 30 minutes.
Given Roseland Ballroom’s level of importance in the New York music scene, the announcement that it was slated to close came rather abruptly in October 2013, arriving without explanation or formal statement from the Ginsberg family. Several directors currently working for Roseland Ballroom did not respond to requests for comment. The aura of uncertainty in the air over the future of Roseland brings with it a kind of sadness for those who loved it and perhaps a hint of frustration over what the site may become, in addition to spurring an outpouring of fond Roseland-related memories. “It’s a cliché to describe a moment like this as the end of an era, but damn it, it sure feels like one,” Simon Vozick-Levinson, senior editor and contributor at Rolling Stone, said in an email.
Vozick-Levinson, a lifelong New Yorker, noted that the impact of Roseland Ballroom’s closing can be felt personally as well, as the venue symbolized his youth growing up in New York.
“I’ve seen more great shows at Roseland than I can count,” he said. “Seeing Radiohead play ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ there in 2011 is one of my all-time favorite live memories.”
He also speculated about what the not-yet-officially-addressed plans for the future of 239 West 52nd St. may be. “I hear they’re replacing it with some kind of retail complex. Great, just what Midtown needs.”
Lisa Pinney-Keusch, who served as Roseland Ballroom’s special events director from 1995 to 2004, agreed that the venue’s closing would be an unfortunate loss for the city.
“It’s going to be a sad day, that’s for sure,” she said, adding that the venue “is one of the last of a dying breed. It’s too bad. It’s just an incredible place with so much history.”
Pinney-Keusch, who helped plan events at Roseland ranging from a Jennifer Lopez album release party to a Recording Industry Association of America awards ceremony, added that people forget the many purposes the ballroom has served.
“Most people think of music when they think of Roseland but ... we had all kinds of events and premieres and launches and parties,” she said. “We did a lot of charity events. So as much as it’s a music venue, there were so many other incredible things that happened there.”
But it’s the concerts—and the variety of acts—that seem to stand out most in the memories of Roseland Ballroom attendees.
“I went to Roseland for the first time when I was about 16 years old,” Patrick Raftery, GS ’14 and a native New Yorker, said. “It was the Offspring and two other opening bands. There was always at least three bands for about 20 dollars. It was great to be able to go that close to the stage—it was just very intimate.”
Raftery, who was primarily a fan of what he calls “crusty punk rock shows,” praised the venue for the wide variety of music it accommodated over the years.
“Roseland had perfect breathing room where you could have a huge circle pit in the middle, and you could have people at the front screaming for the sing-alongs, and you could have people in the crowd going nuts,” he said. “Everyone had their spot to do what they wanted, and they were happy: People at the back getting loaded at the bar, people at the front getting pushed into the gates but loving every minute of it, and then you had the VIP section where you could reach your hand up and touch Iggy Pop and say hey or climb up and ask for autographs.”
In its last months, Roseland Ballroom has been hosting its last lineup of concerts, including acts such as Danzig, the Black Keys, Fitz and the Tantrums, Panic! At The Disco, and Lorde. The final artist to grace the Roseland stage will be a New York City native: pop superstar Lady Gaga, who will perform seven sold-out nights at the venue between March 28 and April 7.
The energy in Roseland Ballroom is palpable when the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach power through their distinctly garage-turned-arena-rock hits, and the audience roars with enthusiasm in response. The ballroom floor is packed and hot, and Auerbach wipes sweat from his face with his forearm before walking up to the mic to recall what Roseland Ballroom has meant to the band.
“The last time we were here, we opened for a great band called Sleater-Kinney 11 years ago. Blonde Redhead was also on the bill,” he says to the crowd, which hoots and applauds in reply even though it’s uncertain how many, with their ringing concert ears, actually understand a word. He looks out over the crowd for a moment before finishing. “This place brings back a lot of memories.”