Dancing Fools

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

Brannon is reluctant to discuss any specifics about the Casa Loma's financial health, though he does concede that the ballroom has had "some pretty lean times" during his tenure. It's no secret, for instance, that low turnouts doomed the Wednesday Swing Nights. Attendance at the ballroom's stalwart event, the Friday-night Big Band Dance, fluctuates wildly. Some weeks hundreds of dancers show up; others, it's more like dozens.

Ballrooms around the country have moved their big-band dances to Sunday afternoons, a move that would presumably help the older set here feel more comfortable coming to Cherokee and Iowa. "We'll probably have to look at that somewhere down the line," Brannon says. "But the Midwest is unique: We're usually five years behind the times."

Ticket window veteran Louise Brinkmann is 91. Either that or she is 101.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ticket window veteran Louise Brinkmann is 91. Either that or she is 101.
A wintertime fire devastated the Casa Loma at the height of the big band era. Later that year it was back running and was soon as popular as ever.
Courtesy of Nan Riddle
A wintertime fire devastated the Casa Loma at the height of the big band era. Later that year it was back running and was soon as popular as ever.

Photographs of the Casa Loma's original façade are hard to find. But it's a safe bet that its look was similar to that of the Cinderella Building across the street. Also built in 1927, the Cinderella still features a richly decorated beaux-arts-style architecture.

In 1940, a fire started in one of the stores below the ballroom. Hundreds watched from the street as flames consumed the entire building. In the months following the blaze, the building was rebuilt practically from scratch. The architects added new steel frames. For its rebirth, says local preservation historian Esley Hamilton, the architects wanted a more modern look.

"There's nothing that's more subject to rapid changes of taste than ballroom dancing," Hamilton explains. "There's constantly a new step coming in. You don't want to be left behind or people won't come there anymore."

In an attempt to be creative on a meager, post-Depression budget, the architects employed a "stripped" classical style for the outside of the pale brick building. The columns that ring the building are vaguely Greek Ionic, but less ornate. This was considered a modern look for the time, and the same sentiment informed the inside of the building. This explains the painted black horizontal lines along the balcony. These, say Hamilton, are intended to convey an image of speed, "almost like racing stripes."

The room itself was built for non-amplified sound, and twenty-piece orchestras used to play with just a microphone for the singer. On either side of the stage you can see the now-nonfunctional "banana speakers" -- long, thin devices used to amplify the vocalist -- that used to shoot sound down to the dance floor.

Despite the building's classic flourishes, Brannon has resisted applying for historical landmark or not-for-profit status. He says he doesn't want to deal with the bureaucratic red tape. He gives as an example the use of the ballroom for a wedding scene in last year's filming of The Game of Their Lives: "We would have had to go through a whole committee in Washington, D.C. to allow the walls to be painted," he says.

But the fixtures at the Casa Loma aren't just architectural. There's also Louise Brinkmann. If you've bought a ticket to the Friday Big Band Dance any time in the past 35 years, you probably bought it from her.

The affable, white-haired south-city native looks younger than her years. The only problem is, she's not quite sure how many of those years there are. She says she's 101 but also insists that she graduated from high school in 1929, which would put her closer to 91.

Brinkmann has a much better memory of matters concerning the Casa Loma. She started working there five years after her husband, Oliver, died in 1963. It was at the tail end of her career in advertising. She started out in the cloak room, but that was only for a year, and ever since she's been selling tickets at the front counter.

This has provided her a bird's-eye view of the Casa Loma's shifting clientele: "Now people come in couples on some nights and some nights stag. Years ago, it used to be all stags. People come in more to dance these days than to meet people." She's also seen the way in which the neighborhood's decline has deterred dancers. One of her acquaintances, in fact, wouldn't let her teenage daughter come to the Casa Loma for dance lessons, because she was concerned for her safety.

Many ballroom regulars see nothing to be concerned about. Marvin Mertz has been coming to the Casa Loma since he was eighteen. On Friday nights the 66-year-old can often be found roaming the floor, looking for new dance partners. He wears a wool German military outfit -- "the uniform of the Bavarian Alpine units," he explains -- that is black and white with a puffed-out, checkered tie. He says he doesn't get too hot as long as there is sufficient air circulation in the room.

Mertz has been married three times. His current wife won't come with him to the Friday dance because she's a Seventh Day Adventist and won't go out on the Sabbath. But he tries not to miss it.

"The Friday-night music is probably the best part of our culture that exists today [in St. Louis], except maybe the symphony or something of that caliber. It even compares to that, where you have quality musicians playing good music."

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