A couple weeks ago I received an email from Cherie Cheney Nomura who mentioned that her father, Ed Cheney, once owned a ballroom on Burnside in Portland in the 1940s.
Would I be interested in a few photos from the ballroom she inquired? “Absolutely,” was my answer.
She took the time to dig out photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia and made copies of everything for me. Even better, she composed a document about her father’s ballroom that I am re-printing [pretty much verbatim] and am using as the kick-off for my oral history project.
Thanks Cherie – hopefully the memories of your father’s ballroom will inspire others to share their own stories about the place and about Portland and Oregon.
Once located at 2115 West Burnside, the ballroom had many different names before my father bought it in 1944, including DeHoney’s Ballroom, the Uptown Ballroom and finally the Palais after he purchased it.
The ballroom was open six nights each night with a designated dance. Some of the types and styles included Old Timers which meant old structured dances such as Schottische, Varsovienne, Viennese Waltz, Polka, the Quick Step, and the Peabody.
These were full houses of accomplished dancers who knew the intricate steps and patterns of these dances. Another designation was “modern,” which meant jitterbug, foxtrot, Balboa, swing, glides and waltzes.
Latin was also popular and included rhumba, Bolero, tango, samba, merengue, salsa, cha cha cha, Paso Doble, Mambo and Bossa Nova.
Dancers included older and younger adults, married couples, singles, high school and college students, service men and women. Many couples would arrive separately and meet up to dance – it was usual for men and women to arrive alone.
The ballroom was almost half of a block size with three floors. The street level housed a Chinese restaurant, a cleaners, a variety store and a books store. To enter the ballroom, dancers walked up a long ramp from the street level up to the second floor. At the entry to the ballroom was the cashier’s booth and inside the large double doors was the coat check room, the office. cafeteria, the ladies “lounge,” and men’s room.
Stairs led to the third story which was entirely a ballroom floor of very fine hardwood. There was a bandstand for the house band at one end and alcoves on each side of the bandstand.
On each side of the bandstand was a reader board that announced the next dance.
One alcove side was for the single women and the other side for single men. Couples could sit on the leather benches that were around the edges of the ballroom. Some dances were called “Men’s choice,” and the men would go to the ladies’ alcove and select a partner and vice versa.
[Scooch around the map a bit – I believe the old site is now the parking lot of the Subway franchise.]
No booze, no cars and lots of fashion
No alcohol was served at the ballroom. Hungry dancers could eat sandwiches, dessert and drink coffee at the cafeteria or enjoy a soda at the soda fountain. People would also occasionally step out to their cars for a quick shot of alcohol though a cop guarded the entrance door to ensure no one showed up inebriated.
Many dancers [and Portlanders in general] only had one car or no car. Many of the dancers arrived by bus are taxi. There was a taxi stand out front and uniformed taxi drivers would line up to take home the dancers at the end of the evening.
Coats and ties were expected for men – with a supply of coats and ties available in the coat room for those who didn’t have them. Service men and women could wear their uniforms – and being the WWII era – there were lots of them.
Young people in high school and college could wear their “clean school clothes” and all women were required to wear skirts – no slacks or jeans.
Famous performers for the dancers at the ballroom included Tex Benneke, Wayne King [The Waltz King]. Other celebrities that performed at the ballroom but not for the dancers included Stan Kenton, Red Buttons, Billy Eckstein, The Mills Brothers, and Louis Armstrong and his All Stars.
The demise of the ballroom? Rock and/or roll
By the mid-1950s dancing styles and lifestyles went through some huge changes. TV became available and people started to stay home. The large dance floors were not necessary for the new dance styles such as the Twist where partners weren’t generally needed for the “free form” dancing. The public for the most part lost interest in more traditional ballroom dances in favor of inhibited, unpartnered, unstructured, extemporaneous “dancing.”
Fortunately for my father, he sold the ballroom just before the demise of grand ballrooms. The new owners allowed alcohol and smoking, no dress code was required and the formal dance band was replaced with very loud electronic music and youthful “rock” bands took over. The building was eventually closed and then demolished because it was a nuisance, dangerous and was so poorly maintained.
Sidenote: Cherie also handed over a 1945 issue of The Oregonian that highlighted her dad’s ballroom. Below is a scan from the article about young couples doing the Portland Walk, described by the writer:
“The Portland Walk is the favorite with the younger disciples of Terpsichore these days. Garbed in Levis, rolled high, the young men steer their companions around the floor, apparently oblivious to others in the spacious ballroom. The young lady’s back is bent backward in a manner that seems to threaten the spine, but the walk apparently is popular. The Levi and bobby-sock brigade also get hep on the jitterbug numbers.”
Also, a Google search came up with this article about a riot in 1960 at the ballroom when Ray Charles didn’t show up to a scheduled show.