Dancing Fools

Waltz down to the Casa Loma, the ballroom that refuses to die

It all started with some Brylcreem and a little bit of Butch Wax.

Seventeen-year-old Terry Strahan primped himself thoroughly before heading down to the Casa Loma Ballroom. The occasion was the weekly filming of the St. Louis Hop, a local version of American Bandstand that showcased squeaky-clean teens dancing for the cameras. The year was 1964 and television -- or at least being on television -- was still a novelty.

"My hair was real long, it went across the top of my ears, and it combed together in the middle at the back," explains Strahan, who, at 56, now serves as manager of the Casa Loma. The style, called a duck's ass, was borrowed from the character Kookie on the hit TV show 77 Sunset Strip.

Jennifer Silverberg
Zack Kohler and Jessica Krusemark avail themselves of the Casa Loma's legendary "floating" dance floor
Jennifer Silverberg
Zack Kohler and Jessica Krusemark avail themselves of the Casa Loma's legendary "floating" dance floor

His hair slicked into place, Strahan threw on dress pants, a white collared shirt and a pair of loafers. He jumped into his '56 Ford, picked up a couple of his friends and roared into south city to try out for the show. Cherokee Street was one of the busiest shopping areas in St. Louis at the time. After winding through the crowd, Strahan and his friends waited in line to get into the Casa Loma.

"You had to be selected," Strahan notes. "They'd make sure you weren't a klutz out there. They wanted to depict a certain quality of kid."

He and his pals passed muster, despite not being the world's greatest dancers.

"We just dabbled in it," he confesses. "It was mostly to meet the girls."

Did he?

"I suppose I did. You'd just say hello, though. There were no romances going on."

The main problem was Russ Carter, the show's host. "His big deal was he would shout orders to the dancers," Strahan explains. "'No dirty dancing. No touching. No doing anything you're not supposed to. No making faces or doing the old rabbit ears thing.' Then about that time they'd say, 'You're on,' and he'd say, 'Hi! This is Russ Carter!' like he was really nice."

The Casa Loma, with its 28-foot ceiling, was built for orchestras, not for tinny rock & roll records. But the big-band craze that had brought hundreds of thousands of dancers through its doors in the '30s and '40s had come and gone, and the ballroom was going through the first of many reinventions.

The girls, for their part, were going along with this one full tilt. They were dressed in poodle skirts, their hair teased up. Alas, Strahan never landed one. He says the ladies kept their distance -- from his hair, at least:

"A girl didn't dare touch your hair. No one touched your hair. On a hot summer day the wax in the Butch Wax would melt, and it would always run down your face and the next morning you'd have a little trail of zits from all the grease."

Could that explain his failure to put the mack down?

"Could have been," says Strahan, as if considering the idea for the first time. "You never know."

The Casa Loma is St. Louis' last grand ballroom. It is one of only a couple that survive in the Midwest, having weathered the Great Depression, a massive fire and more musical fads than you can shake a tailfeather at. The centerpiece of the once-thriving Cherokee Street corridor, the Casa Loma occupies the second and third floors of a three-story building just off Cherokee on Iowa Avenue that used to house a Walgreens.

The neighborhood's national chains are long gone. In their place are probation and parole offices, taquerias and check-cashing outlets. Abandoned red brick buildings sit down the block in a neighborhood largely made up of poor black and Latino families. These days the neighborhood is notorious for its criminal underbelly. Dealers hawk crack just blocks away from the Casa Loma, which has been forced to employ off-duty police officers to provide security for patrons' cars.

But somehow the Casa Loma still swings. Why do people still come? For the full brass orchestras and the room's perfect acoustics. For the huge, sweeping balcony that looms over the dance floor. For the elegantly old-fashioned way of conducting business (you can still make a reservation to go dancing and have your name on a card guarding your table when you arrive). For the giant powder room next to the ladies' room. But, perhaps more than anything else, for the wood, the 5,000-foot "floating" honey-maple tongue-and-groove dance floor. Why floating? Because it sits above an inch of gentle-on-the-knees rubber.

That's how dance floors were made back when this "poor man's country club" opened as the Cinderella Ballroom in 1927. Seven years later, new owner Art Kawell settled on the name Casa Loma, because he liked the name of Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra.

That band never played there, but just about everybody else did, from Frank Sinatra to Benny Goodman to Bill Haley & His Comets. In the '30s and '40s, dancing was the height of American entertainment, and big band was by far the most popular genre. Folks went out for a night of dancing not just to dance, but to see and be seen, to meet and be met.

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