July 27, 2001
Let's play "Remember When," using that as an excuse for a fond backward look at some of the things we used to see and do in our daily life here in Perry, Oklahoma. Today's topic deals with the dance halls that provided recreation for several generations of local residents.
Lawrence Welk and his "Champagne" music-makers scaled unbelievable heights of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s through his weekly hour on a national TV network. But did you know that some years ago they also appeared in Noble county? Many younger people are becoming familiar with the Welk organization through the OETA (Oklahoma Educational Television Association) which provides a weekly one-hour show made up of remarks by some of excerpts from the old show with a few introductory remarks by some of the performers.
My friend Ernie Voise tells me that Mr. Welk and his orchestra once played for a dance in Bohemian Hall, north of Perry on old U.S. 77. The time period would have been prior to World War II, when all kinds of dance music were popular. Mr. Welk offered dancers a selection of musical styles, with a strong accent on polkas. Bohemian Hall also was the meeting place for many organizations in that community, including the Foster lodge of the Anti-Thief Association. The ATA once was a large and popular group, thanks largely to the efforts of Ralph Vance. He had been a national treasurer of the ATA, which began in the early days as "the Anti-Horse Thief Association." The old wooden building is still there but with a different name and, as far as I know, no dances. But I digress.
Another major dance palace in this area was located a short distance east of Perry on U.S. 64, and it was known as "Tom's Hall." The owner-operator, as I recall, was the late Tom Meshek. The venue also provided live bands playing a wide variety of styles. Saturday night dances at Tom's Hall were immensely popular. The building was a large one-story frame structure, sitting perhaps 50 yards off the highway. That space provided a parking area for cars and pickups, and quite a few folks who parked there but didn't want to dance just rolled down the windows and watched and listened. That was pretty entertaining and it didn't cost a nickel. Eventually the building burned down and it was never rebuilt. And who can forget the 77 Drive-In dance floor in the Cain Hotel, operated by Daisy Cain? A nickelodeon provided the music and corn starch kept the floor slick.
Several more like Tom's Hall were scattered around the Perry area. Simmons Barn, south of town, had a large and very well-patronized dance floor. The music was largely country and Western, even before those styles captivated the fancy of other regions. Among others, Merl (Salathiel) Lindsay's band played there, and that was one of the most popular bands performing in this state, along with Bob Wills - and his Texas Playboys, including Johnny Lee Wills and guitarist Leon ("Take It Away Leon") McAuliffe. Those name bands always drew crowds of dancers and just plain lookers. Some of them also played for public dances at the armory.
At Lake Laird, a dreamy little pond that delighted swimmers and sun-bathers in the daylight hours, a wooden pavilion covered with tar paper also became a dance hall on Saturday nights and on special occasions. A series of nationally known musical stars was just beginning when the building burned down in the early 1940s, never to rise again from the ashes. Last I heard, the original Ink Spots were booked there for a weekend show, but that never happened. Liquor was still illegal in Oklahoma and there was talk that a few local prohibitionists torched the place because they believed some of the couples were brown-bagging containers of the demon rum into the place. Remember the Cottonwood Club, nestled in a grove of cottonwoods just off the curve at the east edge of town? Wasn't George Dixon the operator there? And who can forget Eve's Tavern, operated by Eve Stanislav at the U.S. 77 curve on the northeast edge of town?
Ivan Kennedy had a roller rink at 623 Elm street and it became a dance hall on weekends when the Merl Lindsay or Bob Wills bands were available.
It was popular with skaters during the week and with dancers on weekends. A few years later Mr. Kennedy moved his roller rink/dance hall to the middle of the block on Seventh street between Delaware and Elm. It was right across the street from the Kennedy Tire Shop building of earlier years. Those are some of the places that attracted dancers back in the era of slow dancing and jitterbugging. Those styles and the music that accompanied them eventually fell from favor and the old dance halls were converted to other uses. Looking back from this perspective, it seems like a pity. Even for those who didn't care to dance, it was a time to see friends you didn't run into every day.