On a recent Saturday, for no apparent reason, Lydia Merrill came to mind, making me wonder whether she was still living. A few days later, a call came saying that she wasn’t.
She died the day I’d been thinking about her.
Maybe it was her way of saying goodbye.
I’d have liked to have said goodbye to Lydia, the owner of Boise’s Mardi Gras Ballroom. In her quiet way, she was the heart and soul of the old ballroom at Ninth and River streets. I’ve attended or played music at events at the Mardi Gras since I was a teenager and there was never a time when she wasn’t there.
“If you went to the Mardi Gras, you probably saw her,” her son, Tim Merrill, said. “She took tickets, counted the money, answered the phone, did a lot of the cleaning.”
“She was pulling tables around in her 90s,” daughter Lana McCullough added. “If a dance ended at one or two in the morning, she’d curl up on a recliner and sleep there.”
Interviewed on the occasion of her hundredth birthday, she said she’d try to make it to 110. She came within a few years, dying of Covid 19 complications at 106.
The ballroom is almost as old as she was. Her husband, Orson Merrill, bought it in 1958. It was already a local institution by then, opening in 1928 as the Riverside Pavilion, an open-air venue. By the time the Merrills took over, it had a roof and a history of hosting big bands and jazz artists – Buddy Rich, Glenn Miller and his orchestra and Gib Hochstrasser and the Kings of Swing to name a few.
The Merrills initially operated it as a roller skating rink. When roller skating didn’t prove to be as popular as they hoped, it went back to being a ballroom and an integral part of the local music scene for decades. The Ventures, Johnny Winter, Leon Russel and Edgar Winter, Albert Collins, the Animals, David Lindley and his El Rayo-X band and R.E.M. were among the famous acts that played there.
It could take forever just to get close enough to the stage to see the band at some of those events. I was there the night blues guitarist Buddy Guy had fans packed elbow to elbow – 1,200 of them filling the dance floor, the lobby, tables and chairs, nooks and crannies, anywhere with sitting or standing room. The music was so loud you felt it in your solar plexus.
In my high school years, the Mardi Gras was a magnet for teenagers drawn by the music of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Dick Cates and the Chessmen, the Chancellors and other local groups. Along with the Miramar and Fiesta ballrooms, now both memories, it was one of the happening places to go.
If the Mardi Gras had a front man, it was Orson Merrill. Outgoing and colorful, he enjoyed chatting up the bands onstage while they were setting up. I still laugh about the time he carved “Orson” with a nail on one my group’s microphones, thinking it was his. He once poked a teenager with a hat pin for sitting on a table and was known to stop the music during dances to clean the hard-rock maple dance floor, which he installed himself.
And always, behind the scenes, there was Lydia – an icon in her own, quieter way. She helped keep the ballroom running for over half a century, kept the books in her younger years, and in her 90s was still vacuuming, cleaning tables, answering the phone, overseeing pretty much everything.
“She’s probably the hardest working individual I’ve ever known,” McCullough said. “The two things that gave meaning to her life were being able to work and being able to learn. Until last few months of her life, she talked about wanting to go back to school to learn to speak Spanish.”
On her hundredth birthday, she received an honorary certificate from Boise State University – where she earned over 100 credits as a senior citizen.
“She had bookshelves in almost every room of her house,” McCullough said. “She read everything – self-help books, cookbooks, religious books, political books, everything except fiction. To her, novels were just stories. She wanted to learn, and she read everything she could to do that.”
The ballroom during her last years wasn’t the force it had once been on the popular music scene.
“It was mostly used for ethnic celebrations,” Tim Merrill said. “Mexican, Laotian, African, Afghan, a Bosnian party. … Mom went to a few of those. She had a T-shirt with ‘Security’ written on it.”
With her passing, the iconic ballroom’s days most likely are numbered.
“I think it’s going to go the way of Lydia and Orson,” McCullough said. “I think they were the only two people who could do the job the way they did it.”
Developers, she added, “have been interested in it for years. It would be great if someone bought it who wasn’t just in for the money, who wanted to keep it a ballroom. I’d be all for that. Money isn’t everything. I’m hoping for something that would be a legacy for Lydia and Orson.”
And for the city. How many venues do we have that have been around for nearly a century and entertained Idahoans with artists from Artie Shaw to Pinetop Perkins?
Here’s hoping that McCullough gets her wish and someone who appreciates its history will buy the Mardi Gras, pump some money into it and bring the artists and the crowds back. We have plenty of banks, office buildings and condominium complexes. There’s only one Mardi Gras.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.