The colorful history of dancing in McCook

Monday, July 9, 2018

One of McCook’s favorite leisure time activities over the years has been dancing.

On the 4th of July, 1882, when McCook had been incorporated as a town for only two months, Grand Balls were held at H.C. Rider’s store building and at the Russell & Colvin Hotel to wrap up a full day of festivities in the town. It was not reported who provided the music for these events.

Dances, both formal and informal, are mentioned frequently in reports from the old newspapers from that day in 1882 on, to the present date, though the nature of those dances has certainly changed over the years. In those very early days folks were so hungry for social contact that they would travel miles for a dance at someone’s home — music provided oftentimes with just a harmonica. Dancing would continue till midnight, break for lunch, then resume until almost dawn, everyone just hoping to get home in time for the morning chores.

Barn dances were common in rural neighborhoods in the early years of the last century. Local musicians usually provided the music for these events. An accordion, a violin, and a drum were often the instruments used, with the addition of a guitar, banjo, sax, and/or cornet from time to time. These dances were well attended, not only by the dancers, but also by whole families, because it was a great place for people to get together, for fun and conversation. Boys and girls learned to dance at an early age, and those too young to dance played until they were exhausted, then curled up on the hay bales, using coats for blankets, until it was time to head for home.

For the most part, barn dances were rather small and informal events, but there were exceptions. In rural Plainview, Neb., during the ‘20s, ‘30 and into World War II, George Dufek’s barn was the place for dances attended by hundreds of folks each Saturday night during the season. The barn was huge, and George had covered the rough floor in the haymow with a beautiful oak dance floor. There were colored balls of light that revolved and tables around the edge of the floor. In one corner was even a small lunch counter. Sometimes, on a busy night they would run out of hamburger buns and I would go with my Dad to deliver more from our bakery. All in all, it was a very pleasant place for couples to spend a summer Saturday night.

Well-known area bands played at Dufek’s Barn on a regular basis. One of the favorite bands was The Lawrence Welk Orchestra. Welk had not attained the great popularity that came later, but his was the house band for pioneer radio WNAX, at nearby Yankton S.D., and he was a big attraction in that part of the state.

Not long before her death, I visited George’s Dufek’s daughter, Barbara Bessmer, who was living at the nursing home in Plainview. Among the pictures she showed me was an autographed picture of Lawrence and his band. Barbara’s eyes glowed and for a moment it was 1926 and she was a girl again, as she recalled, “We had such fun in those days! You know, Lawrence Welk taught me to Polka.”

Every town and village had one or more dance halls. In McCook, there was no shortage of places to dance. Until the great flood of 1935, the Pastime Park, south of the Republican River, and Ravenswood Dance Pavilion, north of the river, were home to local bands, as well as name bands traveling through our area. Russ Dowling told of selling tickets, 10 cents a dance, at the Pastime in the early ’30s. Both the Pastime and the Ravenswood Pavilion were swept away in the 1935 flood.

In downtown McCook, The Menard Opera House at Norris and B. St.) and The Diamond (on West B Street) were popular spots in the early days. After the Morrison building was built in the early ’30s, The Garden (3rd floor of the building), was popular until it was converted into wartime apartments in 1943, when the Army Air Base came in.

Rutt’s Hall (on West B Street), the 6 & 34 Club (later, the Magrath Co.), the American Legion (above Farrell Drug), The Eagles’ Club (on West B Street), The Elks Club (on Norris Ave.), Fleischman Park, the Elks summer home at Perry, The Keystone Hotel, on Norris Ave., as well as the city auditorium, were all popular dance spots.

In the 1940s, just after World War II, Jim Corcoran erected the Gay Way Dance Hall (later, the Bureau of Reclamation). In the waning days of the big bands, this was a favorite stop for big name orchestras traveling through the country.

These bands attracted huge crowds from a wide area around McCook for a time, but unfortunately, as the big band era gave way to smaller units, the Gay Way’s success waned as well, and its life as a dance hall was for only a few years.

Over the years McCook has produced some very fine musicians who provided music for dancing. Most of these musicians retained their day jobs, as salesmen, railroaders, music teachers, bankers, painters, farmers, and the like.

A good example of a dedicated musician was Burdell Thurston, of McCook, who played in numerous area bands for many years. His first job, in 1936, was as a saxophone player with “Don Ruby and His Nebraskans, The Midwest’s Fastest Little Dance Band.” He was 13 years old at the time, and in the seventh grade. His Mother had her doubts about letting him travel with a band at such an early age, but since Don Ruby’s wife was Mrs. Thurston’s sister, and she traveled with the band, he was finally given permission. Burdell, himself, had his own doubts about traveling with the band when he found out that the band’s transportation to gigs was in a slightly modified (very spooky) hearse.

Over the years Burdell played with many, probably most, of the area bands. He had his own band, and filled in with name bands when they were in need of an extra sax or clarinet. He told of deciding to try to make the jump to one of the big time, name bands. The year was 1942. He answered an ad for a sax player in one of the well-known bands, and arranged for an audition in Council Bluffs. Things went well, and he accepted a position in the band, then went home to pack his instrument and bags for a tour. Upon arriving in McCook he opened a letter from the draft board. He had been drafted, putting any musical aspirations on hold. When the war was over and he received his discharge, he found out that home and family were more important than traveling full time with a big name band. He was content in the years since World War II playing for weekend dances in a 200-mile area of McCook, and more recently, being a part of the area Shrine group, “The Maverick Band.”

Ballroom Dancing has changed over the years, as the taste in music by young people has changed.

Schools in the early days resisted ballroom dancing, as immoral. Later, McCook encouraged dancing in the school.

High school musicians gained experience by playing in Swing Bands for Sock Hops (to protect the gym floor) at the school gym and at the YMCA.

Through the 1960s, dancing at the clubs or at the auditorium was very popular, and quite formal. Men wore suits, with white shirts and ties. Women wore nice dresses. Band members were sharply dressed in tuxedos. (McCook even supported TWO successful dance clubs.)

At the Elk’s Club there was a great crowd every Saturday night to dance to one of the popular regional dance bands, and on New Year’s Eve two bands were hired (one in the upstairs ballroom, one at the downstairs improvised ballroom). It was so crowded (and smoky) that everyone moved in unison around the floor in one direction. On Sundays, at outdoor clothes lines around town, it was common to see a man’s suit and a woman’s party dress, airing out the smoke from Saturday night’s dance.

There are probably a number of reasons for the demise of Ballroom Dancing. (Probably the purest form of Dancing today is preserved in the southern Western Swing Dance Palaces.)

The phonograph and radio had helped popularize dancing. New tunes were introduced via radio, and jukeboxes turned cafes into little dancehalls. Bands playing at big city hotels had programs on network radio. After the 10 o’clock news, a couple could put the kids to bed and dance to leading orchestras in their own living room. TV, on the other hand, probably diminished dancing. Early TV had an alluring array of programs on Saturday night and people stayed home to watch, rather than going out to dance. Also, traveling bands became very expensive to keep on the road. And then, The Beatles came along and began the change in music that continues to the present day. No doubt music will keep evolving. No one can say what will come next. Some keep hoping for a comeback of the Big Bands and a resurgence of Ball Room Dancing. Maybe it will happen, maybe not. But for those of us who lived through that era, we have our memories. And it sure was fun while it lasted.

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