Once upon a time bands & ballrooms kept Iowa swinging

by Robert Weast

During the big band swing era of the thirties and early forties, there were tens of hundreds of ballrooms scattered across the U.S. landscape and there were tens of hundreds of dance bands to play in them. Ballrooms were often the focal point of entertainment for beginner and veteran dancers, and the place to go, where boy meets girl.


Bands and ballrooms have a symbiotic relationship, where one cannot exist without the other. And, of course, both depend upon lots of dancers. This is the story of that symbiosis.


Territory dance bands and Iowa ballrooms rose together and fell together. Territory bands are what the name implies; i.e., bands that played within a region of several states or territories. Starting in the 1920s and continuing into the late ‘40s, bands would travel, sometimes 300 miles or more a night, playing one-nighters.


Ballrooms were almost always their destination and they were everywhere. Even small towns had their own ballrooms. The best of these were elegant and the least were minimal and primitive, only open during the summer months. Some, like the Archer ballroom chain, were open all year. During the summer months some had dance floors that were under the stars, as air conditioning had yet to become commonplace.


Bands traveled in busses, cars or sleeper busses. The latter were custom-made trailers holding fold-away bunks and a small stove to heat up the interior during the winter months. Frequently, the only way to shave and clean up was to stop at restrooms in gas stations. Sleeper busses offered the advantage of musicians not having to pay for hotel rooms.


But life on the road could be difficult and usually only younger musicians enjoyed – or at least endured – the nomadic lifestyle of hours of travel, bad food, dirty laundry and washing up in gas stations. But once they started playing on the bandstand, the hours of daily travel and hardships were forgotten.


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