On March 15, 1883, a party was held at McGlory's Armory Hall, a dance hall on Manhattan's Lower East Side owned by Billy McGlory, a former Five Points gang member turned flamboyant nightlife impresario. Actually, party is too mild a term for the pageant that unfolded. The New York Times described it more colorfully: "One of the wildest and most shameless revels which has ever disgraced the record of local occurrences." The so-called Grand Scarlet Ball was thronged, the paper reported, by "2,000 male and female debauchees," who were treated to an onslaught of sight and sound. There was a beauty contest and a masquerade; there was a showdown between rival drill squads; there were a series of boxing matches featuring both male and female pugilists; there were dance contests. The hall, a sprawling subterranean space beneath Hester Street, was hung with "bunting, streamers, banners, pictures ... coats of arms." The crowd was a motley mix: "all ages, sects, and creeds," according to the Times, including "young gentlemen who are used to better society" and "young women from the uptown dens of vice." Police detectives were there, too, but their presence did little to discourage the fun: "Decency was thrown to the winds and a most disorderly carnival was enacted." The evening's centerpiece was a lavish dance routine, propelled by cutting-edge music: 50 African-American dancers performing a cakewalk to the syncopated rhythms that would, in a few years time, be christened "ragtime."
Today, the McGlory's bacchanal may strike us as exotic and remote, a scene from a distant gaslit world. But it is also eerily familiar. The names have changed over the years, from Armory Hall to the Cotton Club to the Copa to Studio 54 to Danceteria to the Tunnel to 285 Kent. This morning's Times dispatch might be slightly less breathless. (Substitute "hipster rave" for "shameless revel.") But as a microcosm of New York City’s pop-music culture, it's hard to top the Grand Scarlet Ball.