Ballroom Ghosts in the old Fiesta

Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with previously published “Woodward Classics” for the duration of the pandemic. This one, slightly revised here, originally was published in The Idaho Statesman in 2017.

  How many times had I passed the building, once so dear, without stopping?

  The old brick building has graced the corner of Sixth and Idaho streets in downtown Boise 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?

  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.

  It had been closed for a couple of years when we got the idea to reopen it. We were desperate to find a regular place to play, 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 get back into it.

  My father, who was more susceptible to 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. We hired police officers to patrol our dances, one of the toughest kids in town to work as a bouncer and 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 had an idyllic hangout. It was perfect for everything from rehearsals to parties to telling ghost stories late at night with the vacant third floor creaking and groaning above us. There were times when we swore we heard footsteps up there. One night when I went to the ballroom to get a guitar, a heavy amplifier began to tilt back and forth – all by itself – and tip over on the stage. No one else was in the building, and no one in the history of feet has run faster.  

  Fast forward to today. The building has been renovated and is now mostly offices. The stairs we used to lug our gear to the second-floor ballroom have been replaced by an elevator leading to the three upper floors. I rode it to 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 eerily silent. 

  A window provided a view of the building across the alley. Now an office building, it used to be Boise’s jail and police station. On hot summer nights when the fire-escape door was open, prisoners shouted song requests at us from the jail windows. Through some mystery of atmospherics, our amplifiers picked up police radio transmissions – a source of amusement to most 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, which also used to be a dance hall. It was 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 alley window and let us in was a band member named Vance. Vance was small enough to fit 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 him by 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 leap to the ledge and pry up a window to get inside. The leap was patently dangerous. A fall to the alley below would have been fatal. 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; all of the office workers seemed to have left for the day. The fourth floor, like the others, was almost spectrally quiet.

  Then, an unexpected sound.

  Piano music. Played haltingly, like someone practicing. 

  In the old days, this floor was the spooky part of the building, the part that creaked and groaned and inspired ghost stories. The music was coming from an office down the hall, but the view through its door window revealed … absolutely no one.

  The song being practiced: Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man.” 

  Vance had been our piano player.

  The only member of the original group to have passed away, he also was something of a practical joker. 

  Breaking the creepy silence that preceded it, the piano music with no visible source gave me goosebumps. 

  It’s possible, of course, that there was an unseen piano somewhere on the fourth floor. Or maybe a practice tape was playing behind one of the locked doors.

   Or maybe …

   I’m glad the developers saved our old clubhouse. Instead of being torn down, it was tastefully restored and is home to new tenants.

   And maybe a ghost or two. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

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