A lot of people loved to dance years ago. And so, we take you back again in time to WWI.
George Dulany was here in Clinton from the very beginning of the new Coliseum, in 1914. He had just moved to town with Eclipse Lumber Company from Minneapolis, and was a very flamboyant yet civic-minded person, who got the Clinton Commercial Club interested in building the fantastic Civic Center known as the Coliseum. He was involved in numerous local activities, none better-remembered than his own personal “club” for people with the first name of George. The national press got hold of his club’s name and spread news of it everywhere, giving Dulany and his “Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George,” a lot of great, free publicity! I must explain for the younger audience. -- Pullman or “sleeping cars” were very popular on long train rides in the first half of the 19th Century. The men working on these train cars were “negroes,” who were often named “George,” perhaps after our first president or, more likely, just because it was a common and popular name then. As time went by, ALL the porters came to be referred to and were, often rudely, addressed by the same name, “George”… much to chagrin of some genteel people like George Dulany. Thus he started a club, to which you might belong if you were his friend and happened to have the first name George. People often did some strange things back then, but they had a lot of fun doing them!
Let’s return to the fabulous “Modernistic Ballroom,” built as an afterthought, but it made The Coliseum even more famous. The dance floor had a beautiful oak parquet floor, which was perfect for “tripping the light fantastic!” The perimeter had an area for tables and a large attractive bar, all separated from the dance floor by a piped, fence-like affair that “jitter buggers” could hurdle in a one-handed flip, just as they did with their dance partners! Most of the patrons were dressed to the hilt, and almost all of the men work suits and the girls had to be in a dress. One would see an occasional “Zoot Suit” -- with the big shoulder pads and long key chains -- a dandy would show up in one, and he would have his greasy-haired slicked back.
In the early 40’s at “The Mod,” Lawrence Welk and his group appeared for $1,100 dollars with Clintonian, Tommy Sheridan at the piano. Two years later, he came back for an April 6, 1942 performance, charging over ten times as much, and playing to a staggering Clinton audience of nearly 1,500 people -- proof positive that he and his 21-piece band had truly “arrived.” The Welk orchestra stayed in the limelight long after rock ‘n roll came on the scene, and after most of the “big bands” were gone. Even Guy Lombardo’s time had passed, but something about Welk’s “schmaltzy” style reached out to older Americans, and it all began right here in the Midwest and in Clinton.
In those days, when dancing was so very much a part of the youth social scene, there were really three types of dance steps: the jitterbug, which was the dance of the wild ones; a slow soulful glide, preferred by romantics; and the most used one, a boobity-boop mid-range step, which fit perfectly with the Lawrence Welk band. It’s just amazing how a moving couple could twirl lightly and completely around the entire dance floor perimeter and be seen by everyone and, in turn, see the whole audience! The girls wore long dresses and boys usually had on a sports coat and tie, because it was a special occasion to go to a dance.
In the early 1950’s, The American Legion sold its Ellis Home digs on 6th Avenue So. (which was in my opinion the most beautiful of all the early millionaires’ mansions) to Clinton Lincoln Mercury; then the Legion bought the Coliseum. They turned part of the first floor into a nightclub with a great restaurant (perhaps called the Porterhouse Room), which flourished until the night of the fire…. All profits from their illegal slot machines went up in smoke that cold December night in 1958!
For the most part, “The Mod’s” dancers were run-of-the-mill youngsters from Clinton, who met, danced, dated, and frequently married as a result of this fabulous facility in the 30’s and 40’s. The lighting was dimly romantic, as Big Band dance music might lull you to sleep one minute and rattle the rafters in the next! Their 21- to 40- piece groups needed no electrical apparatus for amplification. First invented in the mid-1940’s, electronic enhancement later allowed ever-smaller groups to make loud, popular music of other kinds. The therimin in the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock movie thriller, Spellbound, was the first instrument of that kind, and the music won an academy award. In the early 50’s, Les Paul and Mary Ford were innovators with the electronic medium and then followed by the rockers, but many people still say it’s never been the same since, because the big bands could knock your socks off without knocking your ears off. Oldsters will tell you that listeners could hear a perfect vocal rendition from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Mel Torme, Jo Stafford, or Helen O’Connell, (including all the lyrics), and still not be overwhelmed by the big band in the background. Certainly, the “sweetest sounds this side of heaven” seemed best when experienced at The Modernistic Ballroom!