Life

When Detroit danced to the big bands

The Bob-Lo Island Pavilion on the Detroit River was one of the most popular dance halls in the swing era.

There was a time when glittering palaces were vibrated by thousands of dancing feet, making Detroit one of the busiest of ballroom cities. These palaces now are empty abandoned hulks where a footfall is seldom heard.

The big ballrooms and the big bands that played the cool, bouncy music of the age of ‘swing’ remain alive now only in the memories of old Detroit jitterbugs.

Those Detroiters who had survived the dark years of the First World War wanted to rebuild their lives, put the pain behind them and begin to enjoy peace.

Among the well-to-do in the 1920’s, modernism became the in thing in music, dance, fashion, and behavior. Old rules crumbled. Jazz became the rage, along with lively dances. Hard-working newly independent women now chose a new way of dressing. Layers of long, smothering garments fell in favor of simple clothing. The most daring even wore trousers. Women challenged the demure ladylike manners once expected of them. Drinking and smoking in public became more common. More women wore make-up and went to restaurants and nightclubs without a chaperone.


The dance floor of the bob-lo pavilion, second largest in the country.</

The dance floor of the bob-lo pavilion, second largest in the country.


People worked hard having fun. They tried to erase war memories and its austerity and ballrooms became the public drawing room where Boy met Girl

Ballrooms could be elegant or plain, in big cities or in rural areas. But they all shared a common denominator — music and dancing.

The huge Bob-Lo Island pavilion, second largest in the country, held 5,000 swaying dancers at full capacity most of the time.


The Pier Ballroom in Electric Park at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge was a popular place with young people.

The Pier Ballroom in Electric Park at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge was a popular place with young people.


The Bob-Lo pavilion was built in 1914, the same year as the Arcadia Dance Hall on Woodward. Kids danced the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear and the Turkey Trot that year. Their elders feared that they had fallen to evil ways.

The old Arc, as it was known, closed in 1941, but Bob-Lo pavilion operated until 1955. “We used to pack them in like sardines,” recalled Matti Holli in a 1961 interview. Matti led the Bob-Lo band there for 15 years. “We’d charge a nickel in the afternoon and let them in for free at night.”

During the 20’s, the old Pier Ballroom in Electric Park, at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge, attracted young people. The park also held the Palais de Dance and the Ramona, but they never gained the reputation of the Pier.

Old-timers fondly recall great times at the Graystone (1924), Walled Lake Casino (1925), Edgewater Park (1927), Jefferson Beach Pavilion (1928), Grande Ballroom (1928), and Vanity (1929).


The old Vanity Ballroom on East Jefferson was built in 1932 by architect Charles Agree, who was known for his Aztec Deco designs.

The old Vanity Ballroom on East Jefferson was built in 1932 by architect Charles Agree, who was known for his Aztec Deco designs.


On the east side the Eastwood Gardens vied for trade with the ornate Jefferson Beach ballroom, which was managed by Red Welsh, father of Thomas Welsh, former St. CLair Shores mayor and Macomb County Drain Commissioner.

“We’d battle for crowds,” said Tom Welsh in a 1961 interview. “My dad would send a gang over to Eastwood, in the old amusement park at Gratiot and Eight Mile road, with free tickets. We’d circulate on Eastwood’s dance floor passing out free tickets to our place, but of course, Eastwood would do the same to us.”

The ballrooms succeeded despite the Depression. “Times were tough,” recalled Hank Zeck, former Eastsider and dance king, “but everybody was broke. People loved to dance and have a good time. It didn’t matter if you were working or not. The only thing fellow partners wanted to know was, ‘could you jig’.

“Over at the Vanity,” he continued, “Mrs Strata was the owner, manager and bouncer. She was a REALLY BIG Lady and wore a fresh corsage every night but was as tough as nails. One night she threw me out and banned me for a year for too much ‘jig’ in my jitterbugging.”


The Grande, at 8952 Grand River near Joy, boasted one of the largest polished hardwood dance floors in the country.

The Grande, at 8952 Grand River near Joy, boasted one of the largest polished hardwood dance floors in the country.


Betty Hutton used to come there with her sister, before Betty signed up with band leader Vincent Lopez as a singer. She got to be a popular Hollywood star, but at the Vanity the guys called her ‘bottle legs Betty’ because she had such thick ankles.

The Graystone attracted an older crowd and got the big bands. Monday night at the Gray was known as “colored night”. Bands such as Cab Calloway’s would swing down to Detroit after performing at Idlewild, a black resort in western Michigan. Local white band leaders were barred on Monday nights so they would climb the telephone poles outside the ballroom and listen in order to copy the musical arrangements of the black musicians.

Establishments that catered to black and white clientele were called “black and tan” clubs. The 666 on E. Adams was a place where, if you were lucky, you might run into Joe Louis, who hung out there with his buddies when he was in town.

One of the regular bands at Jefferson Beach was a local group, Eddie Shell and his Michiganders. Shell remembered the bands were all big in the 30s. A miminum size was 10 musicians and a girl singer, but the average was 13 or 14 pieces.


A crowd gathers in front of the Merry Gardens Ballroom.

A crowd gathers in front of the Merry Gardens Ballroom.


Name bands often came to town in those days. Marge Zeck remembers Perry Como and Danny Thomas singing at Jefferson Beach along with local entertainer Johnny Desmond. “He (Desmond) was so handsome,” she recalled. “I had a crush on him for years.”

For those not lucky enough to have their own wheels to get out to the Shores, the Lakeshore Bus Line could be depended on to get the crowds out to Lake St. Clair on the weekends.

The Grande, at 8952 Grand River near Joy, boasted one of the largest polished hardwood dance floors in the country and attracted Westsiders.

“You have to remember,” recalled one old-timer, “in those days most people didn’t own a car. You could only hang out at those locations where the streetcars and buses traveled.”


Architect's drawing of the Jefferson Beach Dance Hall and Bath House on Lake St. Clair at the foot of Nine Mile Road.

Architect’s drawing of the Jefferson Beach Dance Hall and Bath House on Lake St. Clair at the foot of Nine Mile Road.


At the Graystone, on Woodward at Canfield, the men who would later lead the golden bands of swing — Glenn Miller, Glen Gray, the Dorseys, Artie Shaw, Russ Morgan — were side men in Jean Goldkette’s orchestra.

People danced to Ozzie Nelson’s band, which featured Harriet Hilliard, Hal Kemp, and a girl singer from Altoona, Pa., named Janet Blair. Other bands included Benny Goodman, Skinner Ennis, Guy Lombardo, and Harry James.

The dancing styles included the Charleston, the Big Apple, the Fox Trot, Black Bottom and as the second World War approached, the Jitterbug.

On Saturday nights, courting couples tuned in their car radios to pick up the best swing music in the land, carried on network shows from the nation’s big ballrooms including Detroit’s.


The Arcadia Ballroom on Woodward opened in 1914.

The Arcadia Ballroom on Woodward opened in 1914.


“Now we bring you the music of Glenn Miller, from the beautiful Eastwood Gardens, where Gratiot meets the Eight Mile road,” began the broadcast.

Hank Zeck also remembered dancing in the streets of downtown Detroit.

“Sometimes they called the dances block parties or dance riots. A local business like Wonder Bread, would mount large speakers on a big truck and play canned music. It was fun, and free so everybody would come out to and dance.”

Ballroom dancing continued for a few years after the World War II. Jitterbugging gave way to Delfoy, or Dip, which became a common variation to the basic half-time step, a relaxing shuffle that fitted any tempo.


The spacious dance floor of the Vanity Ballroom.

The spacious dance floor of the Vanity Ballroom.


Detroit also had taxi dancing, establishments sometimes called ‘rump rooms’ by the local law enforcement agencies.

But change was inevitable. The music industry changed. Big bands and ballrooms began to fade. Some blamed the recording industry and jukeboxes. Others the “bebop” fad in jazz that turned dancers to listeners. And television turned former dancers into a nation of couch potatoes. George Strata, owner of the Vanity, felt the musicians after WWII priced themselves out of business. “The cost of musicians started going up so that the era of the the big bands was over,” he said.

Eastwood Gardens came down in 1952. Edgewater Park burned down in 1954. Jefferson Beach’s pavilion became a boat storehouse in 1955. Graystone sold out in 1957. The Vanity ran its course in 1959.

The last of the big ballrooms, Walled Lake Casino, presented name bands up to the night it closed in September 1960.


At

At the Graystone, on Woodward at Canfield, the men who would later lead the golden bands of swing — Glenn Miller, Glen Gray, the Dorseys, Artie Shaw, Russ Morgan — were side men in Jean Goldkette’s orchestra.


Albert Tolettene, whose uncle built Walled Lake Casino and who himself operated it in the last years, talked about teens and their dancing tastes. “Rock ‘n Roll is about as far from dancing as you can get,” he said. “I don’t blame the young people though. If people have never had steak, they don’t know what steak tastes like.”

In 1980, professor and music historian James Dapogny wrote a letter to The Detroit News lamenting the historic and cultural loss that would result from the demolition of Graystone.

“It would be a great cultural loss to the city and to the country,” he wrote “Between the middle 1920’s and the later 1940’s, the Graystone was host to nearly every important band in the country, and nearly every important jazz musician, black or white, played there.

“But the building was important too for being the home venue for two pioneering bands, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra, one black and one white, and each a world-class jazz band.

“With two such powerful groups here, musicians were drawn to Detroit. The styles and ideas originating or maturing in Detroit influenced the world’s music, just as Motown’s ideas did years later.”


Band leader Cab Calloway often played the Graystone on Monday nights, which was

Band leader Cab Calloway often played the Graystone on Monday nights, which was “colored night” at the ballroom. Here he parades through a black neighborhood with boxer Joe Louis.


(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News