Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Starry Nights

O What a Night
"Jelly" Leftwich and his Blue Devils at Duke University
Looks like a Pizzini Poster & Printing Co. product
Psychedelic show at old Tantilla
Starlight Ballroom, Hershey
During their heyday from the Jazz Era after World War I to the late 1960s, magic was made in the great ballrooms across the country.  "The South's Greatest Ballroom" -- not an exaggeration -- was the Tantilla Gardens at 3817 West Broad Street, Richmond, where up to 750 couples could dance from 1933 to 1969.  All the greats played there: Duke Ellington, the Dorseys, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson; Cliff's parents did too, as elegant and professional as any of those nationally known.  Their perfect poster above (no date, unfortunately) is actually available for sale by the state library's The Virginia Shop, 808 E. Broad St. today.  Bandleader George E. "Jelly" Leftwich Jr. had written the Duke University fight song, still used today; his singer and future wife went by the name Kay Keever (actual name:  MacIver) and he had used a stage name himself earlier (Lee Dixon).
The big bands' days were numbered due to the gas rationing and conscription of World War II.  Local bands did, however, get booked more frequently because of this.
Boy met girl at the ballrooms, each one dressed to impress, with lots of red lipstick and new haircuts.  Smooching on the Tantilla's unlit balcony probably led to more than a few marriages.  One source states that the ceiling opened up for relief on hot nights; if so, music, stars above and a brown bag nearby provided all the inspiration that frisky young folks might need.
In its last decade the Tantilla featured beach music, soul acts (The Tams tore it up), battle of the band contests and Beatles-inspired quartets.  The local Bill Graham, Chuck Wrenn, produced and provided the light show for the first psychedelic concert dance in August of 1967; the Actual Mushroom played its one and only gig that night.  (Some creative spelling on the poster:  "preformed" and "electricly.")  A Richmond musician said, "it could have been our Fillmore," but with $400,000 worth of renovations needed, the Tantilla had to close in 1969.  Virginia had approved liquor by the drink a year before, which might have helped if the new mixed-drink license had not required that food sales exceed alcohol sales.
Two hundred fifty miles north, the Starlight Ballroom in Hershey had a very similar history.  The dance pavilion was opened in 1923 and considerably remodeled in 1957, bouncing back after closing during a few of the WWII years.  All the same national acts appeared there for dances on Wednesday and Saturday nights; Duke Ellington for one evening in July 1965 just before it closed forever.  It was demolished in 1977, but many local couples keep it in their memories of when they were young.



  1. high times (in many ways). Where couples could go and touch and hold each other to the sway of jazz. The longer the song the better. Remember playing in some of the last great halls, hauling up amps and overpowering the acoustics, but the kids needed a place to come together and the dance halls fit the bill. A time machine would be neat to see mom and dad in their heyday. Nice story.

  2. I wish someone had filmed them in action. For our generation, I remember the Hullabaloo club in Richmond -- whether in tuxes or jeans, music brings people together in the best way.