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And the Casa Loma was thesingles joint of its day. The proof is in the cavalcade of couples who met at the ballroom back in the day and return to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries.
Not that the Casa Loma was the only spot in town. Eight other grand ballrooms were doing business in St. Louis, all within ten miles of the hotspot. Nonetheless, the Casa Loma regularly drew more than a thousand dancers a night, five nights a week. Top talent didn't hurt, but what set the joint apart was a favorable location. Local buses turned around at Cherokee and California, bringing merchant marines from Riverview Gardens in the north and Jefferson Barracks soldiers from the south. Those coming from west of the city could transfer to the Grand bus from Delmar.
During Prohibition, the Casa Loma couldn't sell any booze, so thoughtful gents would bring their "sets," small suitcases full of their preferred liquor, along with their own glasses. They would purchase mixers from the bar. Some even brought their own tablecloths.
Film fans might find the Casa Loma's campy-yet-hip retro stylings reminiscent of a David Lynch movie. To many old-timers, however, the joint calls to mind the old Admiral riverboat, which became the President Casino in the late '90s. The two dance halls supplemented each other throughout the year. Because the Casa Loma had no air-conditioning, people headed downtown in the summertime, to dance under the stars on the riverboat.
The rise of movies, television and other dance fads brought the big-band era to an end. The Casa Loma is the last surviving local relic of those dance-hall days, an era memorialized by no less a figure than Tennessee Williams. The playwright reportedly lived across the street from the Casa Loma, which inspired this passage from his Glass Menagerie:
"On evenings in spring the windows and doors were open and the music came outdoors. Sometimes the lights were turned out except for a large glass sphere that hung from the ceiling. It would turn slowly about and filter the dusk with delicate rainbow colors. Then the orchestra played a waltz or a tango, something that had a slow and sensuous rhythm. Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ash-pits and telephone poles. This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure."
Pat Brannon has owned the Casa Loma since 1990. He's 52 but looks younger, and he has a youthful manner that probably helps when booking gigs. He deals regularly with everyone from teenagers scheduling proms to seniors scheduling swing nights.
Getting to Brannon's office requires twisting around corners and heading down a dark hallway behind the stage, past a torn paper sign that reads "Band Members & Office Personnel ONLY" and the old dressing room where Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis all primped over the years. The actual office is one of those rooms so big that entire junk piles go untouched for years. Abandoned computer monitors, packages of mouse traps, Mardi Gras beads, snapshots of muscle cars and MGD St. Patrick's Day neon signs all sit, calmly collecting dust.
Brannon seems to spend nearly every minute during business hours on his office phone, negotiating beneath a tube-light fixture encased by a Budweiser advertisement, the kind that normally hangs above pool tables. As busy as he is, it's hard to believe that eulogies had already been written about the ballroom when he took it over thirteen years ago.
"When the last light went out in the Casa Loma Ballroom Saturday night, it went out on us too," read the first line from a July 18, 1990 Riverfront Times article lamenting the apparent demise of the ballroom. "[R]egulars of the famed Casa Loma stopped by Saturday for one last look at a ballroom that has become part of the city's folklore," the Post-Dispatchreported a month later, when memorabilia was put up for sale.
But rumors, death, exaggerated; you get the picture. To hear Brannon tell it, the local press screwed up because they only talked to Ellen Reichert, who, with her husband, ran the Casa Loma before Brannon.
In fact, the chilly relations between Reichert and Brannon froze over one night that summer. Reichert brought in crowd-favorite Sh-Boom for what was supposed to be the ballroom's swan song. She didn't know that Brannon had negotiated privately with the building's owner and had arranged to take over the room's lease.
A packed house rocked to the oldies band's first set. After a break, the all-male group -- clad in pink evening gowns and wigs for a set of songs by the Supremes -- called Brannon onstage. He announced that the place would reopen at the end of the summer.
Reichert was furious. She felt she should be compensated for improvements made to the hall during her tenure. So she cut the band's power. A confused silence descended on the room. Only after the crowd began to get angry did Reichert turn the lights and mics back on.
Brannon now owns the building outright. He also owns five other properties along the Cherokee corridor, including the building across the street, which formerly housed the Cinderella Theater. The theater was retrofitted years ago, and the building now boasts full occupancy. The businesses that pay Brannon rent, however -- a juvenile probation and parole office, a "checks cashed" outlet and a Mexican restaurant -- aren't exactly conducive to generating the cash-carrying foot traffic that could help revive the neighborhood.