Watch the past Whoopee John, Wee Willie and Six Fat Dutchmen

Lee Epps

Third part of a series

Versatility was invaluable to many dance groups playing in southeastern Minnesota during the 1930s and 1940s. Local newspapers frequently advertised upcoming dances, emphasizing both “old and new music ” or on “modern and ancient music”.

“Old Time Music” included dances brought by European immigrants – waltzes, polkas, schottisches – the latter a round dance resembling a slow polka. Janice Dean, who grew up in Rushford, also remembers the “two-step circle”. Two circles would form, the women inside, spinning in opposite directions until an order was announced to dance with the person in front of you. Then a big circle formed – alternating women and men. On the next command, you pair up with the person in front or behind you.

“New Time” or “Modern” music was part of the “Swing Era” or Big Band Era (ca. 1935-1945) of American jazz which followed written melody rather than improvisation. Swing groups or big bands were usually orchestras, consisting of 12 to 25 musicians playing saxophones, trombones and trumpets plus a rhythm section. Many have won national acclaim, including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw. Some enjoyed additional popularity when joined by popular singers, notably Frank Sinatra.

Photo of Blue Moon found. This photo of the Blue Moon Ballroom in Eitzen surfaced after a recent column noted that no photographs had been located. In this photo, the dance floor and roller skating surface are covered with tables and chairs for a private party. At the rear above the stage, the curved ceiling and roofline can be seen. The famous ballroom/skating rink was probably built in the mid-1930s and was razed some time after it closed in the mid-1940s.
Photo submitted

If a group specializes, the ad can inform dancers with words such as “All Modern” or “Old Time Waltzes”. A well-known “modern-only” or “old-timers-only” band might attract a large crowd, but a combination would attract a wider variety of customers. However, the larger population of La Crosse, Wisconsin allowed Avalon Ballroom to offer “modern” music on Saturdays and “old-fashioned” selections on Sundays. In 1937, the annual Spring Grove Fire Department fundraiser was held over three nights with a movie on Thursday, the ancient dance on Friday, and the modern dance on Saturday.

In southeast Minnesota, a local swing band would likely have fewer musicians than national bands. The popular Hanke’s Harmonizers was an eight-piece orchestra. A Caledonian dance from 1938 attracted attention when a local band was joined by a musician from Twin Cities radio. “Dance to Vic Zimmerhakl and His Orchestra with WDGY’s Happy Jack Holm on Hawaiian guitar.”

Many local bands were busy on local dance floors, such as The Tyroleans, Carpenter Brothers, Kelly Brothers Harp Orchestra, Langen’s Band, Pea Pickers, and Rudy Hauser Band. A Caledonia newspaper advertised dances featuring 16 different groups in 1938 and 1939. And they weren’t the same 16. There were many appearances by Don Victor and His Orchestra, Peerless Dance Band and Al Seidel and His Accordion Band.

Performing frequently throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the nationally recognized Six Fat Dutchmen, originally formed in New Ulm, Minnesota, were voted the number one polka band by the National for seven consecutive years. Ballroom Operators Association. They were known for the “oom-pah” style of polka music from Germany and the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.

There were many visits from another New Ulm band “Whoopee John, America’s Favorite Polka Band”, an 11-piece radio recording band which in 1948 could be heard every Sunday afternoon on the Twin Cities WTCN station.

A regional but well-known radio band might be on tour, such as Joe Fejar’s appearance in Caledonia in 1938 and his WNAX radio band in Yankton, S. Dak., as well as WOI’s Moeller’s Accordion Band, Ames, Iowa. The Mike Barnes Revue Band of Chicago played three nights at the 1939 Houston County Fair.

Caledonia has also attracted musicians touring nationally, such as ARIONS, America’s only all-blind novelty band on their second national tour. Not to be overlooked, Ruth Coleman and her girl band – “nine girls give you that love of swing music”.

There was some interest in minority musicians touring this Far North. Wee Willie and the Memphis Blue Devils, a colored band with a solo girl, traveled to Caledonia in 1939. That same year was “Don Clifton’s Rhythm Aces with 13 colored collegiate swingsters, the only colored college band of America”. The previous fall was “Jimmy Claybrook and his 14 colored college boys, straight from Piney Woods College, Miss.”

Amazingly, 13 of the country’s greatest orchestras played for dances in Caledonia during a 30-month period in the early 1950s. This extraordinary story follows next week.

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