Make-believe Ballroom


I jobbed around for a time and ended with a seven-night-a-weeker in late 1934 at the Dutch Mill, a fairly large old white house that had been converted into a beer garden. It was run by Andy Daley, one of the decentest people I ever met. Maybe I’m prejudiced, though. He raised our pay from $1.00 to $1.25 a night, and that extra $1.75 more than paid for a weekly bus ticket to get to the place.

The boys who came to the Mill hung around in the barroom. Those that caught a turn in the Mill now and then played tong, discussed the prospects of the Cleveland Indians, and called each other “Lubert.” Where the name came from, I never knew. The lucky guys with steady jobs on the three to eleven shift came in after eleven and always had a couple of beers.

The usual patrons of the Mill were nice couples, who spruced up their old clothes and put a good face on the situation. Then there were the K.M.s, the kitchen mechanics who worked in some of the big homes on the North Side. They came in in twos, sat down, and ordered a Coke or beer, which they could, if necessary, nurse the whole night. Andy didn’t mind. He knew that when they got up to dance, some of the guys from the bar would cut in and probably buy them a round.

Three of them who habitually came in beat anything they had in Hollywood. After a time I could tell they came more on business than recreation. There is nothing like a Great Depression to make marriage attractive to young girls, and the K.M.s had their eyes on the guys at the bar, especially those who came in after 11:00 P.M.

We played a country club, a layout like you see in the movies. We didn’t last too long there.

Like everything else, sex was subdued in the 1930s. The boys, regardless of religion or national background (or most backgrounds, anyway), had a sort of mystical respect for the good girl, which was the only kind they would consider marrying. The K.M.s knew this and behaved accordingly.

If marriage considerations shaped up the girls of the period, the gruesome stories about the treatment of social disease—this was before the wonder drugs—did the same for the majority of the boys. Only the hard pressed or foolish would mess around with the nymphs, as they were called.

The managers tried to keep the nymphs out of their joints, but one occasionally came to the Dutch Mill, and another to the Mayfair Tavern when I played there. The nymph to end all nymphs was one at the Shamrock in Warren, who, one Saturday night, went from parked car to parked car and serviced about twenty daring guys. I always felt sorry for the nymphs. The last time I saw the one at the Mayfair, she was an eighty-pound skeleton, but still going strong. No doubt they have all long since passed to their reward, and my hope is that the Lord went easy on them because they sure got little of the good life down here.

My particular problem at these joints was to get the people up and dancing. If we played the wrong songs, the couples would have a beer and leave, and the manager would take notice and be unhappy. If the couples were in their twenties or thirties, I’d call “Say It Isn’t So,” “It’s the Talk of the Town,” or something else slow and sweet. If that didn’t stir them, I’d try something with lift like “The Object of My Affection,” and if they still kept their seats, there was nothing to do but play “Stardust,” which, short of the national anthem, was the best getter-upper ever written.

Of course, getter-uppers came and went. No tune I ever played made a hit like “The Music Goes ’Round and ’Round.” The people went wild about it. We might have to play it five times in a night. But it lacked staying power. The “Beer Barrel Polka” had a lot more of this and taught thousands of Americans a new way to dance. It was still going strong when I left for the service.

I played hundreds of tunes and worked with hundreds of musicians. Most of us were “never-weres,” and “never-would-bes,” but occasionally I played with someone who had made it to the big time and for one reason or another had slipped down again. One violin player had been with the Cleveland Orchestra, and a number had been “on the road” with different bands. But I remember especially Tess Schaffer and May Bloom. They had banged pianos in the local theaters for the silents and had had to follow the mood on the screen, which meant going slow and tender, then fast and loud without having much to do with rhythm as such. They made the transition all right but never could quite fit because they used music.

Music cost too much. In our situation we had to pick up new tunes and words from the radio. One of the piano men I played with the longest, Frank Brindle, I doubt could even read music. But I could play through a tune quietly and he’d reproduce it in no time at all in either C or G, which meant I was always in three or four sharps. No one would invite Frank to play at Carnegie Hall. But on the other hand, the Carnegie Hall guys could not have made it with us. None of them had the heavy left hand that Frank used to pound out the beat.

There were musicians and musicians and also joints and joints. We were at a low point when we played the Bucket of Blood and at a high point when we played a new country club, a layout like you see in the movies with a roulette wheel, tables for playing 21, and guys in formal wear. We didn’t last too long at this club. The people there had money and weren’t our people. Besides, they expected at least an eight-piece band.