How many times had I passed the old building, once so dear, without stopping?
It’s graced the corner of Sixth and Idaho streets for over a century. I’d walked or driven past it countless times, invariably with memories drifting back, but always in too much of a hurry to stop and venture inside to see how it had changed.
Until now. It was a slow day, no need to hurry anywhere, and the building seemed to beckon. Why not?
Now the Eagles Center, it was built in 1912 as the Fraternal Order of Eagles building. It had a beautiful hardwood dance floor on the second floor, which eventually led to its becoming an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. For much of the 1960s, it was known as the Fiesta Ballroom.
For its patrons, the Fiesta was a teenage dance hall. For me and my friends who played in a band there on Saturday nights, it was a clubhouse, a second home.
By the time we started playing there, in the mid-1960s, the ballroom had been closed for a couple of years. We were desperate to find a regular venue, but the man who previously ran it had had his fill of the dance business. No amount of reasoning or pleading would convince him to reopen it.
My father, who was more susceptible to inordinate pleading, agreed to sign the lease with the understanding that we, the band members, would run the place. It would be our responsibility to pay the rent and other bills, hire security and maintenance people and not lose our shirts. He made it clear that we were on our own. If we failed, there’d be no bailing us out.
We didn’t fail. We advertised on the radio, hired cops and one of the toughest kids in town to work as bouncers and paid friends to run the soft-drink bar and do the janitorial work. For two of the best years of our lives, the old ballroom was packed with teenagers every weekend, we made more money than we’d dreamed possible and we had an idyllic hangout. It was perfect for everything from rehearsals to parties to telling ghost stories while the vacant third floor creaked and moaned above us.
Fast forward to today. The building has been renovated and is now mostly offices, housing enterprises from the Snake River Alliance to the American Bird Conservancy. The former Idaho Street entrance is now an exit. Instead of taking two flights of stairs from there to the ballroom, now office space, you enter the building on Sixth Street and take an elevator to the second, third and fourth floors.
The fourth floor came as a surprise. Before the renovation, which significantly increased the useable space, there were only three floors. The first was a dress shop and tobacco shop, the second the ballroom, the third storage. I took the elevator to the new third floor, about where the ballroom used to be, and stepped into a hallway finished in muted greens and earth tones. Locked offices lined either side. Where hit songs once played and hundreds of people danced, it was absolutely silent.
A window on the north wall provided a view of the building across the alley, now an office building but then Boise’s jail and police station. On hot summer nights when the fire-escape door overlooking the alley was open, prisoners shouted song requests from the jail windows. Through some mystery of atmospherics, our amplifiers picked up police radio transmissions – a source of amusement to most in the audiences and of occasional strategic value to those planning illicit activities.
A window in a deserted conference room offered a view of a concrete ledge and the roof of an adjoining building. Both triggered memories.
The adjoining building also used to be a dance hall, where our primary competitors played. When some of our gear mysteriously vanished, we blamed them and decided to get even by breaking into their clubhouse and swiping some of their gear. The obvious choice to squeeze through an open window on the alley and let us in was our keyboard player, who was small and had experience in such matters. It might have worked, too, except that he got stuck halfway through the window. It was at this inopportune moment that a police car entered the alley.
The officer driving it was Vern Bisterfeldt, later a city councilman and county commissioner but then a cop who, among other things, patrolled our dances. Asked what we were doing in the alley, we told him we were waiting for someone to let us in so we could rehearse.
“Oh,” he said, seemingly satisfied as he started to drive away.
Then, stopping after a few feet: “Why is Vance stuck in the window?”
He’d recognized our keyboard player from his stubby legs, which were flailing madly. We made up a cover story, which he pretended to accept and drove away. We avoided jail (conveniently just a few yards away), and our one and only fling with attempted burglary was mercifully terminated.
The aforementioned ledge was our “emergency entrance” to the Fiesta when we’d forgotten the key. From the top of the fire-escape stairway, it was possible to half leap-half swing to the ledge. Then it was just a matter of prying up a window to get inside. The dangerous part the leap to the ledge. A fall to the alley would have meant broken bones or worse. Between that and some of the other stupid things we did, I sometimes wonder how we survived our teenage years.
Another elevator ride led to the fourth floor and more offices. It was late on a Friday afternoon; virtually all of the office workers seemed to have gone for the day. The fourth floor, like the third, was almost spectrally quiet.
Until an unexpected sound broke the silence.
Someone was playing a piano.
This had once been the part of the building that creaked and moaned, inspiring ghost stories. My first thought was of Vance, our late keyboard player. The music was coming from an office down the hall, but the view through its door window revealed … no one.
The song, haltingly being practiced: Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man.”
I’m glad the developers saved our old clubhouse. Instead of being torn down, it was tastefully restored and is home to dozens of new tenants.
And maybe a ghost or two.
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Statesman every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.