Dancing Fools

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

Mertz is always on the lookout for skilled dancers to take on his arm. But when considering a potential partner, he says, it's also important that she looks good.

"I prefer that they dress pretty nice. The outfit should be enhancing your appearance and not look sloppy," he says. "If they would pass a rule at the Casa Loma permitting only formal wear, I would like that."

Alvin Bettale celebrates his 77th birthday with dance partner Madeline Rusche
Jennifer Silverberg
Alvin Bettale celebrates his 77th birthday with dance partner Madeline Rusche

Saturday nights are on a rotating schedule at the Casa Loma and are often a crapshoot attendance-wise. These events -- which include rock & roll oldies nights, fund-raisers, proms and ethnic dances -- have almost nothing in common, other than that they usually don't feature any brass instruments.

Some events are wildly successful, such as the annual H.O.G. "Leather and Lace" Bikers Ball. Journalists aren't allowed to attend the event, which sells out in a couple of hours and features a risqué 'Best in Leather/Best in Lace' competition (the Casa Loma's Web site features some very salacious photos of this year's event at www.casalomaballroom.com/lace.html). The highlight of the night is the moment when a Harley is driven around the dance floor as a cover band plays "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf.

But other fads die quickly, and the Casa Loma is often -- for better or for worse -- a bellwether for the city's musical trends. In the '80s, the owners of the Vintage Vinyl record shops began booking reggae and new wave acts at the Casa Loma. "There was nothing really going on in that room at the time. It was a good, cheap, cool room," says Lew Prince, one of Vintage Vinyl's co-owners. He notes that the Khorassan Ballroom at the Chase -- roughly the same size -- was two or three times more expensive.

In the '90s, annual ska nights filled the place with kids "skanking," the preferred method of dancing to ska. Things really got hopping with the resurgence of swing near the end of the decade. The Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were all over the radio, and it seemed every girl in her late teens wanted to be picked up and twirled. "They took the big band sound, sped it up a little, and suddenly kids realized they had plenty of room to dance at the Casa Loma," Brannon reminisces.

But swing's second demise did not surprise him at all. "I've learned over my thirteen years here that the comings and goings of different types of music dictate our crowds. We've seen country be real hot and then drop off the face of the earth. Latin got big here for a while, and we've had tango clubs come in. We've always had bands that play a variety."

Nowadays the Casa Loma survives largely on its ethnic nights. Its patrons reflect south city's recently immigrated mixture of white and brown.

The venue is often nearly sold out for Bosnian nights. The bands featured, flown in from Bosnia, play mostly European rock, with a few American tunes, and lyrics in Bosnian.

But the most common ethnic nights are the monthly Mexican Dances. They feature none of the typical Casa Loma cast of characters. No Brinkmann. No Strahan. And, on a recent Saturday, no live band, just someone calling himself "DJ Wild Horse" who spins slow cumbias and Latin pop. The dance floor is crowded with young women, dancing fiercely with each other while their more self-conscious halves stay off to the side, sucking on cans of Bud Light and bottles of Bacardi Silver. Toddlers run around with bottles hanging out of their mouths. The ceiling lights are permanently stuck on an eerie, iridescent red.

Spanish is everywhere, from advertisements hanging from the balcony promoting Mexican newspapers to signs warning that drinkers must wear bracelets. Four security guards stand at the entrance.

It's a vastly different scene from the Saturday nights at the Casa Loma of 50 years ago, or even of 10 years ago. But for the girls yipping and hopping, and the guys chilling in spiffy cowboy hats and collared shirts, the venue suits them just fine.

It's a Friday Big Band Dance night in late November, and Strahan's fairly impressed with the turnout.

"We must have 200. We need it." He says the average Friday-night attendance is about 100 to 125, which is -- depending on the band -- about what's needed to break even. "We literally have to dip into our savings on bad nights."

The eighteen-piece brass band Ambassadors of Swing is at the helm. Although the crowd is almost entirely white, their age diversity could hardly be greater. Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and seniors are foxtrotting to "Tenderly" and cha-cha-chaing to "Livin' la Vida Loca."

The key to the Friday-night bands' success, says Strahan, is playing to the crowd.

"We've got a lot of kids tonight, so they're playing more swing. Otherwise they would play more waltzes and foxtrots for the old folks. They get pissed off if it's too fast." He smiles and takes a pair of tickets from a middle-aged couple entering.

"Old people get very set in their ways," he goes on. "If you bring a foreign band, they won't come."

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