Whenever I remember Brebner Walker, I see a tall, thin figure in white tails and a sparkling white top hat, tap, tapping across the dance hall floor at Half-A-Hill and surrounded by an appreciative crowd during the floor show. Sometimes he paired with his petite daughter, Joy, who eventually moved to New York and became a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.
During the Depression, Saturday night dances at the “Hill” were popular, especially for dates. Admission was reasonable and young people liked our eight-piece resident band that could play all the popular tunes of the day like “Stardust” or “Lullaby of Broadway.” A glamorous vocalist in a long gown usually sat near the piano and added a rich note to her blues solo. Or, she might snap her crimson tipped-nails in time to a jazzy swing number.
Hollywood had an enormous effect on American culture. We were spellbound by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing “The Continental.” Novelty numbers like “The Big Apple” and the approaching World War II import from Britain, “The Lambeth Walk,” enlivened a ballroom dancer’s repertoire of steps, beginning with the box step and progressing to the relaxed fun of joining in on a Conga line dance. When my mother let me stay up late some Saturday nights, I learned the latest dance steps by watching the couples dip and sway across the floor.
Parents approved of my parents who were chaperones as well as owners. Mother was the unofficial bouncer. Only once did she ever remember starting to perform her official duties when an intoxicated youth approached her in a threatening manner. Immediately, a trio of fraternity guys took charge and escorted their frat brother out the exit. My folks didn’t sell liquor, but they would serve “set-ups”—a bowl of chipped ice, sliced lemons, and the customer’s choice of ginger ale, club soda or tonic water. Coca-Colas were always available, but in those days you could order a chocolate, cherry or lemon coke from the fountain that my father serviced.
Occasionally Daddy planned special holiday dances. He paid someone to decorate Half-A-Hill for the holiday dance. Halloween brought festoons of orange and black crepe paper cut into scalloped ribbons that were draped from the rafters, and cardboard decorations of witches on brooms, black cats and yellow crescent moons were posted around the dance hall. Sometimes the band wore costumes and masks. There would be a large scene or an ornamental sign on the backdrop of the bandstand.
I loved formal dances when the girls wore floor-length gowns of taffeta, tulle and lace-trimmed satin. I took mental notes of the styles—halter tops, off the shoulder, puffed sleeves, full skirts or tight-fitting, cut-on-the bias slinky numbers. In unsophisticated Springfield, Missouri, during those times, I don’t ever remember seeing a man in tails. It was easier for girls to dress formally. Most of their mothers could sew.
Fraternities and sororities planned and paid for most of the invitational dances at Half-A-Hill. Their budgets usually allowed only one or two dances per year. They had to pay a substantial rental fee to my parents. They needed funds for decorating the dance hall and hiring a band. More money was probably needed for incidental expenses, and carrying out all the tasks was a lot of work for both the young people and their parents. One invitational dance I especially remember was a “sunrise dance,” which began at 4 a.m. and ended at 7:30 a.m. Breakfast wasn’t included in the invitation, so attending another event (breakfast) when other folks were just starting a new day gave an air of upside-down, mixed-up reality.
The Hillcrofters arranged for a special dance once a month. They were what we used to think of as “country folks.” Some of their ancestors had crossed the Appalachians long ago and had eventually settled in Greene County, Missouri. They did square dancing, the schottische, waltzes and something I’ll call the two step. An amateur fiddle player whose name, I think, was something like Chauncey Yates, was the caller for square dances and the leader of a small band that could play “old-time music” as I called it. I can still remember a quaint little couple who stepped rather seriously around the dance floor and the woman whose skinny little legs and feet in too-big shoes reminded me of Minnie Mouse.
Whenever I hear the popular song “Blue Moon,” I am a child again, falling asleep upstairs at Half-A-Hill and lulled by the music of our Saturday night dances.