Swisher’s Dance-Mor Ballroom is an all-ages time warp
SWISHER– In 1932 the Paramount Dance Pavilion got its start and a musical roadhouse legend was founded. Though set in downtown Swisher, next to the railroad tracks, don’t let the small-town look of the place fool you. The greatest of the greats have crooned here: Lawrence Welk, the Dorsey Brothers, Glen Miller, Russ Morgan, Guy Lombardo, Sonny James, the Boxtops, Barbara Fairchild, the Buckinghams, Stonewall Jackson, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Bobby Vinton, Gene Vincent, Bobby Goldsboro, Bobby Vee, Conway Twitty, Joe Diffie; they’ve all played here. Classic acts from the past have dazzled audiences for decades.
And at the ballroom, the magic continues.
It’s been 80 years of music and dancing in what started as an open-air dance floor bordered by snow fencing.
Today the marquee bears a different name, changing from Paramount Dance Pavilion to Dance-Mor.
Original owner Frank Stangler ran an amusement park with a Ferris wheel on the site and had a canvas tent over a dance floor. When the tent burned up off-site during a rental, Stangler started building a structure to cover the floor and eventually enclosed the sides.
When the roof was added, he billed the site as the Paramount Dance Pavilion.
Gradually, the dance floor was enclosed and finished in 1956, and much of the original décor remains– to the advantage of the room’s comfortable atmosphere and special ambiance. Today, it’s a bit like walking onto a movie set in the 1960s. For long-time Solon resident Bev Noska, it’s an ever-enduring blast from the past.
Noska and her husband Leonard spent a lot of time with friends at Dance-Mor in their 20s.
“There were so many good bands that played there in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” she said. “Kenny Hofer, Leo Greco. We’d go over to the dances on Saturday nights with a few other couples, and get together with other people we knew who would also show up. It was inexpensive entertainment.”
Noska recalls the vehicle driven by Leonard’s friend, Mike Machacek, often their transportation to the Saturday night dances.
“Mike had an old coupe with a rumble seat, and we girls would get stuck in the back on the way to Dance-Mor. We had so much fun there. I could tell a lot of tales.”
Noska said she still has vivid memories of the crowds Dance-Mor always drew.
“I have wonderful memories of it. I can still see the people dancing around in there. You didn’t always know everyone there. It was a combination of young and old, with such a great atmosphere. I remember it used to be just packed at every dance.”
Part of the ballroom’s initial appeal– the great atmosphere Noska remembers– and what keeps it a draw for bands and dancers alike is the building’s remarkable floor. Dance-Mor still features the same suspended, rock maple floor, two stacked layers of the legendary hardwood with a crawlspace.
Craig Davis, who took over the Dance-Mor ballroom from his mother, said it’s not like the concrete floors in modern events centers.
“You can dance all night long and your legs don’t hurt,” he said.
And it sounds good too. Not like some overloud beer cafeteria.
Davis asks bands to put their bass amplifiers on the fabled dance floor so the entire building becomes a subwoofer.
In an empty ballroom, as the night’s band, Greenbrier, set up, Davis demonstrated the excellent acoustics of the room with a single handclap.
No echo, no reverb.
He said the sound is so good in the all-wood building that several bands have recorded live albums in the room.
And he would know; Davis has played guitar many times at the Dance-Mor and other venues. He was in a few bands before his family bought the building from Stangler’s daughter, Irma Kramer.
In 1973, Irma invited Davis’ band, the Fourth Estate, back to her house for milk and cookies.
“You knew that you’d made it when Irma invited you back to the house for milk and cookies,” Davis said. His band loaded out their equipment and beat feet to the sweet retreat right after another rocking night on the historic stage.
A year later, Davis’ family bought the building from Irma and renamed it Dance-Mor.
Davis still occasionally joins bands onstage and has even learned contemporary songs to stay in practice.
He’s excited about the musicians booked for 2012 at Dance-Mor and has already taken a wedding dance reservation for 2013. Davis books bands on Fridays and Saturdays from September to May and has the room available for rentals in the summer.
He said Dance-Mor attracts people from all over the state and the rest of the country. The building was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 and can still pack in the all-ages crowds.
“Some families bring three generations in one carload,” he said. “Kids under 12 are free,” but must be accompanied by a guardian.
He pointed out the 1950s-era fixtures and décor, remembering the hundreds of scenes that have played out there at the pool tables, a lounge in the back of the room, the huge dance floor and stage.
One recent elderly wedding guest told Davis, “I’ve danced on that floor a thousand times.”
Davis said he watched as she became 17 again just for an instant, reliving a musical moment from her youth.
When customers return with memories of dancing, music and fun, they still remember the booth they sat in or the dance floor spot where they met their future spouse.
Davis said Dance-Mor was probably the meet-up spot for hundreds of couples.
It’s still the place to spin your partner, new or old.
Tracy Jones of Iowa City started going to Dance-Mor about four years ago.
“I love the atmosphere,” she said, comparing the crowd to a family. “They all have your back.”
This spring, Dance-Mor will host concerts with Stampede, Greenbrier, Black Diamond, the Magnetos, Lockren and the Past Masters. The season will close out with an annual Beach Party on May 26.
“I can tell there’s no ghosts (in the place),” Davis confided. “I’m going to be the first one.”
Davis, who tends bar among other duties at the all-ages club, likes to remind his customers, “If you can’t behave, be careful.”
The musician-turned-club owner also works as a Realtor with Copel Realtors and Consultants and rents land in Missouri for hunting parties. He lives in Solon.