The golden days of dance halls
“At the dance halls you had really great dancers, men who knew how to dance!”- Betty Rousse Glowacki
Betty Rousse Glowacki was born in New Orleans 83 years ago, and she has loved to dance nearly all of those years.
Her husband, Frank, can polka (and has relatives in his native Ohio who play in Slovenian polka bands), but Betty Glowacki has different tastes.
“I always loved to dance. I learned to dance real ballroom dancing, and I didn’t take lessons,” she says proudly. A native New Orleanian, she was born “at the French Hospital on Orleans Street – it was right where St. Peter Claver is, by the down-ramp of the Expressway.” Her father died when she was very young, and the man who became her stepfather used “to have me stand on his feet to learn to dance, and my godfather was an excellent dancer, too. I just learned from the family.”
“The story of music in New Orleans must begin with dancing,” author Henry A. Kmen notes in Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years 1791-1841. By 1805, the town held 15 public ballrooms, and there were more than 80 by 184. In the early city, lack of a common language was never a problem when the band struck up a tune.
The American versus Creole rivalry sometimes meant that a dance program included formal French dances as well as American country dancing. General Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, celebrated his victory on the dance floor, to the strains of “Possum Up A Gum Tree.” During the Civil War, Nathaniel P. Banks, the Union General who took over New Orleans from the controversial Benjamin Butler, tried to soothe the local population and decrease Confederate support by hosting numerous balls and entertainments. Banks was accused by a fellow Union officer of attempting to “dance the fair Creoles to loyalty” according to Stephen A. Dupree in Planting the Union Flag in Texas: The Campaigns of General Nathaniel P. Banks.
The spontaneous musical invention that would become jazz provided the rhythms for those dancing Orleanians beginning late in the 1800s. The city’s early fondness for public ballrooms translated into a proliferation of dance halls, public places that offered a dance floor and room for musicians. The halls belonged to fraternal organizations, some were part of a liquor establishment and some hosted various public events, but the primary function of New Orleans dance halls was to provide a stage on which locals could perform and enjoy their own company.
Dance halls provided an escape and inexpensive amusement. As Glowacki recalls, “It was the Depression. We lived in one house, all different generations. My divorced aunt, the big thing she did was on Saturday night, she would go dancing in this club on St. Claude Avenue and she would bring me. You just went in, you didn’t have to have an escort and there were always gentlemen who would ask you to dance. It was a lot of fun; always good music, local bands played.”
Dance halls might have been very sparse in their decoration. Describing Luthjens (the first of that name was in the 1200 block of Franklin Avenue, before it burned in 1960), Glowacki says, “It was a regular dance hall. You came in, there were tables and chairs, nothing fancy. Just raw wooden tables, maybe even just fold up chairs. It was a fun place to go on a Saturday night out. You could nurse a beer.” Luthjens catered to an older clientele: “The nickname was ‘the old folks home,’” she explains.
In its later incarnation at the corner of Marigny and Chartres streets, Luthjens kept up its adult atmosphere. “There was a sign that said ‘No Jitterbugging’ – the sign is still across the street at the Friendly Bar,” music historian Dr. Jack Stewart explains. Were they serious about that rule? “I once jitterbugged in there and they kicked us off the dance floor,” Stewart says.
In its heyday Luthjens provided work for a changing number of musicians. Trumpeter Clive Wilson, who arrived in New Orleans in the 1960s from England, has made his living here in music and has done his share of dancehall stints. “Back in the early 1960s,” Wilson says, “I sat in with the band at Luthjens. And I used to sit in with Tony Fougerat at Munsters.” Munsters, at Laurel at Lyons streets, had a regular clientele of dancers, and it also functioned as the home base of the Lyons Carnival Club, a walking club.
Lars Edegran, a Swedish jazz enthusiast (proficient on piano, clarinet and guitar) and longtime New Orleans resident, led the Luthjens house band in the late 1960s, according to Wilson. “I also used to sit in with Kid Thomas Valentine at the Firemen’s Hall in Westwego,” Wilson adds.
There are benefits to playing for dancing, Wilson, himself a dancer, admits. “Regular dance hall dancing is just kind of relaxing [for the musicians]. The music seems to flow. I think you feel better when people are dancing: it feels like your music has some extra purpose.” Wilson, who leads the Camellia Jazz Band, plays on Fridays at the Palm Court Jazz Café on Decatur Street, and occasionally plays on Sundays with Tommy Sancton at Preservation Hall.
Dance halls can also be problematic for musicians. With all those dancers in close proximity, accidents can happen, according to Stewart, a regular member of the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. “At the Columns Hotel once, a couple fell into the band and onto a music stand and knocked it over,” he recalls.
Various solutions to protect the band evolved over the years – rarely, the band ending up playing behind chicken wire in overly rowdy establishments. “The idea is separating the musicians from the dancers,” Stewart notes, and he cites the elevated bandstand as the best solution. For example, the Jefferson City Buzzards Hall on Annunciation Street has an elevated bandstand.
Dance halls still exist in the city, and Luthjens may be in for a rebirth. Marigny resident Julian Mutter actually tried to buy the hall some years ago, after it had gone through a punk rock phase and a quasi-religious phase, but he only acquired it some years later. “It went back on the market, and I bought it within 24 hours.”
“I’d love to bring it back as a music venue for traditional jazz and private parties. I’m in an awkward position; it lost its non-conforming use status, so it’s actually zoned residential. I am going to try and get it put back” into the right zoning classification for live music, Mutter says.
New Orleanians can still find a hall where they can dance away their Saturday night. Rock ‘n’ Bowl on South Carrollton Avenue, and Southport on Monticello Avenue just over the Jefferson Parish line, are dependable dance choices. One classic dance hall, the Old Fireman’s Hall at 320 Fourth St., in Westwego, even has its own website: oldfiremanshall.com. And, just wait until you have a chance to try out some steps on that springy, wooden dance floor. Whatever the music, you can bet that Jitterbugging is allowed!