Twenty-two years ago today, Memory Lane debuted in the Napa Valley Register. It has been a pleasure sharing Napa County’s past with you, and I look forward to continuing this joint exploration of our heritage. Also, I thank you for all of your comments, contributions and support.
With this being such an auspicious occasion, an equally as joyful historical subject of this column is a must. That topic will be dancing, circa 1920s—1940s.
Although dancing has always been a part of the local lifestyle, the dance events of the 1920s—1940s far outpaced any time before or after it. This dance obsessed era was fueled by significant American political and social upheavals. Authors Marjorie “Midge” Lund and Paul “Kiki” Chiotti delved into this point within their book, “The Musicians—A Chronicle of Vallejo’s Bands, 1920—1949,” as well as documented the Napa County music and dance scene of that era.
They wrote, “Prohibition’s impact on the social functions of the decade (1920s) was a determining factor in where the music was played. Dancing became important as a sign of social acceptance.” They added, “When women ... bobbed their hair and shortened their dresses, dancing and music changed to satisfy the new freedom of expression.” According to the authors, local 1920s hot-spots included the East Napa Pavilion—now part of the Napa Valley Expo, the Mt. Veeder area’s Lokoya Lodge, Vichy Springs—once located near Silverado Country Club, Palisades in Calistoga and Pope Valley’s Aetna Springs.
Prior to the Repeal of Prohibition, the Great Depression began in 1929. In hope of alleviating the despair, Hollywood began producing musicals with what would eventually become known as “glamour dancing.” Icons of this style were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Lund and Chiotti added, “These pictures helped keep music in the forefront even in the worst of times. Music and dancing became a major means of escape from the Depression.”
By 1935, a new musical beat was resonating in local dance halls. Swing made its Napa County debut later that year when the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, and his orchestra performed from 9 p.m.—1 a.m. at Vichy Springs and East Napa Pavilion. According to a promotional flyer, the admission was 50 cents for women and $1 for men. Those concerts inspired jitterbug dance contests throughout Napa County.
As the ‘30s turned into the 1940s, more uncertainties confronted Napa County residents and the world. Lund and Chiotti continued, “The war brought an era of musical activity that has no parallel in post-war times.” By 1941, locals had two new dance venues. Upvalley, there was Paradise Park, now Bothe State Park, which boasted having the longest bar in California.
The second new dance hall was the Dream Bowl. It still stands along North Kelley Road south of Napa. Lund and Chiotti continued, “Originally anticipated to draw a crowd of 500 couples, its popularity exceeded all expectations. And before long, over 2000 people jammed the building on a single night. A record crowd of 3200 showed up for two smash-hit performers, clogging Highway 29 for miles with a line of cars waiting to get in.” Some of those performers included Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra.
With the end of World War II, Americans’ priorities changed to white-picket-fenced houses, family living and pursuing the “American Dream.” Lund and Chiotti continued, “All the responsibilities of that...(made) a night out a special event instead (of) routine.” They added, “In 1947, a new infant ‘television’ was born, which soon made homebodies out of the populace.”
Since the post-war years, the once popular Napa County dance halls eventually disappeared and became just a memory.