Dancing Fools

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

Jan 7, 2004 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

And the Casa Loma was the singles 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-Dispatch reported 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.

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."

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."

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."

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."

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.

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."