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This Week in South Side History: Ballroom recalls an earlier time
By Jim Merkel   - 09/02/2008

South Side Journal

More Info on This Book: St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom

While people were still selling apples on street corners, depression-weary St. Louisans were finding solace in the films of two ritzy dancers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

At 3354 Iowa Ave., meanwhile, a dance hall that opened in 1927 was shut down for the fifth time, the result of financial failure.

The hall's fortunes were to change for good on Sept. 7, 1935, when Art Kawell and H.J. (Nap) Burian reopened it for a sixth time as the Casa Loma Ballroom.Eighty-one years later, people of all ages are still swarming to the Casa Loma to dance to music ranging from swing to rock to big band.

"In the history of St. Louis, there are probably a dozen or so nice ballrooms," said Dave Lossos, a St. Louis author who wrote "St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom" published by Arcadia Publishing.

While other ballrooms faded, the Casa Loma remains, Losos said.

"Longevity says a lot of things," Lossos said.

From the beginning, a long list of celebrities made stops at the Casa Loma. On Nov. 5, 1939, for example, a relatively unknown crooner named Frank Sinatra debuted at the Casa Loma as male vocalist for the Harry James Orchestra. He was at the bottom of the nightly bill, according to Lossos.

Others on the long list of entertainers who walked onto the ballroom's stage includ Steve Allen, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Bill Haley and the Comets, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney, Tom and Dick Smothers, Lawrence Welk and Andy Williams.

The ballroom was one of the broadcast homes of the "St. Louis Hop," a local version of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" on television from 1958 to 1973.

Over the years, the ballroom has seen its share of disasters.

A fire on Jan. 19, 1940, devastated the building, but it was soon rebuilt and went on.

The surrounding neighborhood found itself in the midst of hard times but is making a comeback.

Since 1990, Pat and Roseann Brannon have kept the Casa Loma open, with big band sounds on Fridays and old time roll 'n' roll or swing on Saturdays.

Some Sundays there is Mexican dancing. It's also rented for other events, including wedding receptions.

"It's the only place in town you can see an 18- to 24-piece orchestra just about every Friday night," Pat Brannon said.

He estimates 100 to 300 people arrive on Fridays and 200 to 500 on Saturdays.

"We have 18- to 88-year-olds that show up, all dancing to the same music," Brannon said. "It's hard to say how these kids still dance to the same music that their grandparents did, but they do."

Among the people who have followed their grandparents to the Casa Loma is Dan Conner, 31, of Maplewood, who works in customer service.

Conner has been going to the Casa Loma for about 12 years. He's there two to four times a month, usually on Saturdays.

"It's a great Art Deco style venue," he said.

The groups Conner sees include Hudson and the Hoo Doo Cats, a "jump, swingin', rockin, boogie, blues" group led by Kingshighway Hills resident Hudson Harkins, 51. It's a trio, but Harkins usually adds a piano player at Casa Loma.

"The history is amazing. I just love playing on that stage knowing all the great players that played on that stage," Harkins said. "The view watching all those dancers while you're on stage is really incredible."

Buy It Now: St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom $19.99

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