Ballroom Rekindles Stardust Memories
Glen Echo Dance Hall Reopens With Flourish
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2003; Page C12
Betsy Platt still has the dress she wore that hot summer night. Sky blue linen with a touch of lace at the collar. The long skirt romantic and flowing with each step and turn. It was one of those enchanted evenings, the night she met the man she would marry. In an enchanted place, the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park.
"In some ways, I think of that as our anniversary as much as our wedding anniversary," said Jamie Platt, the man who spied her across the room in 1988 at a contra dance as A Band Named Bob played, asked her to dance a shocking three times in a row and now is her husband. "It's such a special day."
And the ballroom became like a second home, circumscribing their social lives. They even bought a house in Glen Echo to be within walking distance.
There is just something about the Spanish Ballroom. Some come and find themselves or create the community they've never had. Others lose themselves in the music, the movement and the moment. And many, like the Platts, find love. Or expect that it's just one dance away.
There was passion for the ballroom, one of the last of its size in the country, when the stucco walls were peeling, raccoons lived in the soaring vaulted ceiling tiles and fleas infested the floor. The passion turned to rage when the National Park Service, which owns the park, proposed tearing down the dilapidated pueblo-style building a few years ago. And it was because of that passion that the ballroom reopened yesterday with a grand gala and sonorous speeches to celebrate a hard-won, 18-month renovation that cost more than $4 million.
It's not just the ballroom that is being saved. The entire park -- the Arcade, the famed Dentzel carousel, the sod-covered yurts where artists create and students learn, the Hall of Mirrors, the Candy Corner -- is getting a $20 million facelift, with funds from the federal government, the state of Maryland and Montgomery County.
After years of neglect, when the Park Service budget made no provision for its upkeep and the park fell into ruin, the passion of the people has now ensured that the park will be turned over to the county and run by a private, nonprofit organization called the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture Inc.
At yesterday's ribbon-cutting, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) praised the county government, but feigned disappointment that a promised polka by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) did not happen because Duncan's partner, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), could not attend.
Duncan, who had promised to cut a rug with Mikulski, joked, "Well, if any of you are here to see us tango, you'll have to come [to a park fundraiser] on Sept. 20. . . . You'll have to pay to see that."
For others, the opening ceremony brought back fond memories. Cliff Cunningham, a 67-year-old contra dancer, reminisced about his summer days as a boy when he would save up money from his paper route for the amusement park rides.
"It's been around here forever, and so have I," he said. "And tomorrow, we're bringing our 6-month-old grandson." His grandson doesn't dance yet, but he'll get his first ride on the carousel, Cunningham said.
The grand old ballroom, built in 1933 when Glen Echo was a funky amusement park, was never meant to last. Its windows were open to the elements, there were no bathrooms and over the years, an amusement ride and later a puppet theater crowded into its once-elegant foyer.
Now, the grandeur is back. The mellowed yellow stucco walls are cream-smooth. The red tiles of the mission-style roof and tower have been replaced. Always a place of fantasy, its Moorish windows, Egyptian-inspired columns and bright colors of the Ballets Russes all have been restored to their original art deco whimsy.
"The original facilities were temporary. They were meant to be torn down or changed," said Katey Boerner, executive director of the new partnership. "The nice thing about this project is we're going to have a very solid, long-term facility that is meant to last a long time."
What hasn't been touched is the dance floor, the legendary 7,500-square-foot sprung maple floor, known up and down the East Coast for its give -- and for the army of dancer volunteers who crawled around underneath it with miner's hats and cinderblocks to shore it up. There's even a special way to sweep it.
"It's just the Platonic ideal of a dance floor," said Betsy Platt, who glided on the boards just hours from delivering her first baby. "It's really smooth. And at the end of the evening, when the lights are down, it just glimmers like a pearl."
The floor -- some call it "delicious" -- has always drawn the dancers. But it is the ballroom, with its promise of a chance meeting and the electricity of the human touch, that pulls at the heart.
"When you dance, you're taking other people's hands, making eye contact," said Betsy Platt. "Most people don't get that close to each other. Especially in Washington."
Yesterday, Fred and Pauline Decker, 89 and 91 respectively, returned for the first time to the ballroom that changed their lives one fateful summer evening in 1947.
It had been a brutally hot day and Pauline, who had ventured from the wheat fields of North Dakota to work for the federal government, just wanted to get cool. A trolley ride out to Glen Echo sounded like heaven. Fred, who worked on farms and in factories in Upstate New York and was recently out of the Army, was "hepped" on roller skating in those days but decided to go with a friend to the Spanish Ballroom that night.
A big band was playing swing. Excitement was in the air. Pauline turned around in her two-inch heels and there was Fred, asking her to dance.
"It wasn't no big thing," Fred says now. "I just took a big chance, and we went out and did the best we could. It was a fox trot."
"A jitterbug," Pauline interrupted.
"A two-step, anyway," Fred said.
Pauline was radiant that night. She gushed to the girlfriends she'd come to the ballroom with that she and Fred had the same rural background, the same German roots, the same Catholic religion. He asked to drive her home. And after a few years of courting, they married. They still live in the tidy brick house in Prince George's County they bought a few years after that magical evening.
Carol Hurwitch, a major force behind the renovation who also met her beloved on the dance floor, found a home at the ballroom. "I'm a career diplomat's daughter. I grew up moving around and never had roots and a strong sense of community," she said. "The ballroom is my community."
For all the gossamer nostalgia the ballroom evokes, it does have a dark side. Glen Echo was segregated; the starry-eyed dancing, amusement rides and ice cream were for whites only until a series of protests in the 1960s, after which the county forced park owners to admit African Americans.
Lawrence Bradford, 59, a fixture in the D.C. African American dance community, said many didn't think much about the Spanish Ballroom. "It wasn't like it was a place around the corner we couldn't get into. It was so far away, people almost viewed it as being on the other side of the world," he said. "Besides, we had U Street" -- known to some in its heyday as the Black Broadway.
Still, for those who have waited eagerly for its reopening, there is no place quite like the Spanish Ballroom.
On a recent evening, a scattering of dancers took the halting steps of beginners at the weekly swing dance lesson in the old Bumper Car Pavilion.
Kenneth Shallop, 49, a tall and stiff biotechnician at the Smithsonian, came early to prepare for the intermediate lindy hop lesson, Hollywood style. As crickets hummed in the darkening evening and fireflies blinked in the nearby woods, he paused to think about why the ballroom beckons so powerfully.
"It's almost like going to church. And there's a certain therapeutic aspect to it," he said. "Men get to hold women. And women get to be held. For just a little while."
Staff writer William Wan contributed to this report.
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Photo caption:Pauline and Fred Decker, who met in 1947 at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom, returned yesterday for the first time since that night. (Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
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