Dancing Fools

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

If Strahan sounds sure of his generalizations, he has the right to be. His three-year-old son recently became his family's fourth generation to have visited the Casa Loma. Strahan and his wife, Mary, brought little Brendan in on a recent Friday, and a dancer became so enraptured with him that she picked him up and brought him out to the dance floor for a number or two.

Strahan's grandfather, a south-city native, was a drummer in a local band that played the Casa Loma. Strahan himself can be seen posing with his high school band, the Apollos, in the photo exhibit along the ballroom's north wall. He's the one holding his prized '58 Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop.

In a sense, Strahan owes his very existence to the Casa Loma. His parents met at the ballroom. "At a table right over there," he says, pointing to a spot not far from the hall's front entrance.

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 dad, originally from Waverly, Nebraska, but then stationed at Jefferson Barracks, drove up for the evening in his '26 Chevrolet. His mom came in on the Cherokee streetcar. His dad wore his green Army Air Corps uniform and his mom, Strahan says, "would have had a real nice dress on."

Now Strahan works as a military move manager for UniGroup Worldwide during the day, organizing military transfers to and from Alaska. But he clearly relishes his night gig at the Casa Loma, where he has worked for the past ten years. Tonight he's trying to create a little romance.

He spies a table of thirtysomethings sitting a bit anxiously at one of the hall's long folding tables, and he fiddles with some switches on the wall.

"Dance with the ladies," he shouts over to the guys. "I turned on the ball for you." And it's true; the mirror ball has been activated, throwing white shards of light around the floor. He's also turned on the mood lights overhead, which now glow a sweet light blue. How does he decide what light the mood calls for, or if the mirror ball should be on or off? "Whatever I feel like," he says.

The band takes a break at 9:30, and a few people come over for dollar-fifty plastic cups of Miller Lite. Owner Brannon is doing double duty behind the bar tonight, and for a few minutes he's busy dispensing overpriced mixed drinks and two-dollar pitchers of water. At 9:45 -- to the second -- the Ambassadors return to the stage and launch into a jumping version of "The Lady Is a Tramp."

The shy thirtysomethings are now on the floor, and Strahan is gabbing with 24-year-old regular Lisa French. Looking dapper in a black-and-white checkered skirt, French provides a play-by-play of the dance floor action.

"That's swing," she explains, alluding to a dapper seventysomething couple, "but they're not on the same foot." She chuckles. "Okay, there they go. They leave off the rock step, though, because that's the hardest part."

"Most people, if they've been coming here a while, don't dance a specific dance," she adds. "They do their own thing. Nobody cares who's better than who, it's all about having fun to the music."

She launches into a brief history of the St. Louis Imperial Swing, which originated at the now-defunct Club Imperial on West Larson. Regular performers Ike and Tina Turner pumped out the St. Louis original -- somewhere between a swing and a jitterbug -- and it caught on across the country. It inspired variations known as the East Coast Swing and the West Coast Push.

Her bit of local lore is interrupted when an older gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard comes over and gazes at her expectantly.

"If you'll excuse me," she says, taking his arm, "I'm going to dance."

The floor is almost completely packed. Things have slowed down at the bar, and Brannon is taking a little breather.

Staring up at the stage, he shakes his head. Despite having heard brass bands play here hundreds of times, he still seems impressed. "Some of our orchestras have a 78-year-old first trombone that played with the Dorsey and Glenn Miller bands, and an 18-year-old or 20-year-old third trombone sitting right next to him learning the music," Brannon says. "He can't pay for that type of education."

The ballroom is obviously a labor of love for Brannon. But the labor seems great enough tonight to inspire a familiar question: Is the Casa Loma going to have to close any time soon?

"Nope," he says, still staring at the stage. "We're not going to close down. I've got too much invested. This is my job, this is what I do: I sell people on coming in, listening to the music and dancing on my dance floor." He snaps to as a young couple approaches the bar. "And hopefully," he adds, smiling, "selling a lot of drinks."

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