After the Mardi Gras – Boise’s Gone From Five Ballrooms to None

  The view from the stage would have gladdened the heart of any musician.

  A sold-out show, an enthusiastic crowd. Hundreds of people dancing, laughing, enjoying an experience that, sadly, will never happen again.

 Bob Woollis, who was visiting from Syracuse, N.Y., called the evening “a fitting end to an era for a storied Boise landmark.”

  The occasion was last month’s Farewell to the Mardi Gras dance. After more than 60 years and hundreds of dances, the historic ballroom at 615 S. Ninth Street will be closing soon.  

  I was lucky enough to have been in one of the groups that played there that night. To say it was an honor would have been to state the obvious. Being on the stage where Buddy Rich, the Ventures, Buddy Guy and other legends played, knowing that the old ballroom’s long run was about to end, was both gratifying and bittersweet.

  The future of the Mardi Gras isn’t certain, except for the certainty that it won’t be a ballroom any more. Longtime owner Lydia Merrill died last year at 106, her heirs want to sell and the site – on the edge of downtown Boise – is worth a fortune to developers. The building might not be demolished, but don’t bet on it.

  Playing for the farewell dance took me back to playing for dances as a teenager at the Fiesta Ballroom – hundreds of young people dancing, the band playing hits of the era, the unique experience of participating in the time-honored tradition of a Saturday night dance. People must have danced more then, because Boise used to have five ballrooms.

  That’s not a misprint. There actually were five ballrooms in Boise:

  * The Fiesta Ballroom was on the second floor of the old Eagles Building at Sixth and Idaho Streets in downtown Boise. It was once an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. A man name Mel Day opened it as a teenage ballroom in the early 1960s and made it the place to go on Saturday nights.

  The group that played there was called the Fabulous Chancellors. One of its members, Phil Volk, went on to become a teen heartthrob known as “Fang” of Paul Revere and the Raiders, regulars on Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” television show. 

  Day closed the Fiesta, which had been dark for a couple of years when my group, the Mystics, reopened it in 1965. We played Saturday nights there for a couple of years, but it was more than a ballroom for us. It was a second home. We rehearsed there, had parties there, sat on the stage at night telling ghost stories with the old building creaking and groaning around us. Those were some of the best times of our lives.

  * The Trocadero Ballroom was on Overland Road, in the building that until recently housed a Reel Theatre. Del Chapman, a local deejay, held Friday and Saturday night dances there with music by local bands and national or regional acts of the early 1960s – the Marketts, Paul and Paula, the Wailers, Dick and Dee Dee, the Cascades, etc.

  The regular Saturday night band at the Trocadero was a group called the Hitchhikers, which included two former members of Paul Revere and the Raiders. Revere recruited most of his musicians from the Boise area in those days.

   * The Miramar Ballroom was on Fairview Avenue, where the Alden Waggoner Funeral Chapel is now. It was home to an excellent group called Dick Cates and the Chessmen. Cates was reminiscent of Roy Orbison, for the dark glasses they both wore but mostly because of his voice. Good as he was, Orbison had nothing on Cates as a singer.

  Like many local kids who hoped to be in a rock group one day, I all but idolized Cates and his band, never dreaming that one day I would play with them. A friend of mine took lessons from their drummer. When the Chessmen’s guitar player was too sick to play one night, he suggested me as replacement.

  “Hello, is this Tim?” a voice on the phone asked.

  “Yes.”

  “This is Dick Cates.”

  My heart all but stopped. Was this one of my friends playing a practical joke?

  An awkward silence. Cates pressed on, the power of speech having left me.

  “Darrell can’t make it to our dance tonight, and I was wondering if you could fill in for him.”

  If the Beatles had been around then – they were still a couple of years away – this would have been like asking if I could fill in for George Harrison. I got through the dance with a lot of help from the Chessmen’s bass player, who shouted chords at me all night, and floated home on a cloud of adolescent ecstasy.

  * The Rocking Castle was next-door to the Fiesta Ballroom. It was the domain of a group called the Quirks. We competed with them, a challenge as they were a very good band.

  * And of course the Mardi Gras, bringing the number of ballrooms to five.

  Now there will be none. There are a few places that have dance floors, but none that would qualify as ballrooms.

  Maybe that’s okay. Maybe young people don’t dance to live music as much any more.

  If so, they missed something.

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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