Visiting era of big bands and dance halls
Life has been crazy this week, so here’s the column that ran in the Oct. 7, 2010, issue of the Hastings Tribune.
Why don’t people dance anymore? Wedding dances don’t count. After the cake is gone and the guests head home, there’s a good chance the newlyweds won’t step foot on another dance floor until their friends get married. I find that sad.
I’d like you to think of big band swing music. I’m partial to Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, or Harry James, but anything with a clarinet, a horn section, and a good beat will do. Let’s check out the 1940s, a time you either lived through, or like me, read about or saw in the movies.
Even in a decade that finished a Second World War, and saw the country change in ways we could never imagine, America seemed a simpler, slower place. Cars were enormous, women wore dresses, men wore suits, and dance halls were the place to be on a Saturday night.
One of these halls sits on a brick paved main street in St. Paul, Nebraska. The American Legion Club is a nothing-special building from the outside, but inside is a different story indeed. Step in the front door and you’re met with a landing and a decision to make; downstairs to a small restaurant that serves up killer fried chicken and mashed potatoes, or upstairs to a lounge, a dance floor and a dose of magic.
My in-laws, Gus and Jean, know this building well. “There used to be dances with live bands every Saturday night from 9 to 1 in the morning,” said Jean, “sometimes Sunday nights, too. It’s what people did back then, and it was always a packed house.”
A bank of black-and-white portraits on the restaurant wall honors a string of Post 119 Legion Commanders and Women’s Auxiliary presidents. Gus and Jean are among them; him looking dashing in his suit and Legion cap, and her flashing an all-business expression and a beehive hairdo. The picture frames are screwed tight to the wall, and for good reason. The restaurant sits directly beneath the dance floor, and the whole place shakes like an earthquake when the band kicks up.
I asked Jean what it was like growing up in the big band era. She told me about being a teenager, and going with girlfriends to dances at the Glovera Ballroom in Grand Island, Riverside Inn in Central City, the basement of the St. Libory Church, and even in the hayloft of a barn in Dannebrog.
She described the Opera House in Palmer, where the second-floor ballroom was located right over the doctor’s office. The place had a balcony with a fire escape to the street that came in handy when unwanted dance partners headed your way. Across the street was a gas station where Jean and her friends kept their girdle powder. “We wore awful Playtex girdles that you had to powder before you pulled them on,” she said, “or you’d poke your finger through the elastic, and then part of you would bulge through the hole. Years later my kids used them as slingshots.”
For as long as I’ve known him, Gus has always been a waltz and polka fiend, and I wondered if he asked Jean to dance when they began courting in ’47. “Nope,” she said, “he asked me to go to St. Paul for a sandwich.” They ate sandwiches for two years before getting hitched, eating cake in the church basement, and heading home. “Wedding dances were rare,” said Jean. “Shivarees were the big thing then.” That involved a bunch of hooligans following newlyweds home, making a lot of noise, and drinking beer out of tin cans.
Jean blames television for the death of the great dance halls. “Now everyone sits at home and watches someone else dance,” she said, “and that’s a crying shame. There were some great old places back then.” She’s right. The boob tube gave us the world, yet killed the desire to explore it for ourselves. It gave us a false sense of romance, and robbed us of the real thing. The Glovera Ballroom burned to the ground in ’56, and the Opera House in Palmer is a vacant lot. Dances still take place at the St. Paul Legion Club, but they’re few and far between, and the music is usually courtesy of a DJ with a laptop and a set of speakers. If you’re ever in town, I’d encourage you to check out the fried chicken, and imagine yourself back in a time when it was normal to hear the sounds of feet shushing on a freshly dusted dance floor to the tunes of a lively big band. Cue up “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller.