By Janie Southard
Long ago, summer sunsets on Grand Lake St. Marys on Sundays found local movers and shakers at Edgewater Dance Hall, swinging to the sounds of the finest big bands in the country.
"Those were joyous, happy and carefree times at Edgewater," recalls Charlie Ayers of Celina, still a big band enthusiast.
Edgewater was one of the stops the bands made as they traveled to and from Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, Detroit and other big cities.
And it wasn't just a stop-over jam session, the musicians gave professional performances, said Ayers, 77, who was a dance hall customer from the time he went to Edgewater with his parents in the 1920s.
"There were flappers out there then who could really do the Charleston," Ayers told The Daily Standard recently in his off-white and bamboo Florida room. Ayers is a big fan of Stan Kenton and his orchestra, even planning family vacations around the group's itinerary. But, the first time he ever heard Kenton was in 1941 when the entertainers stopped at Edgewater on their way to New York from Balboa Beach, Calif.
Ayers had been going to dances at Edgewater long before he was a high school freshman. "No one ever paid much attention to your age in those years, and I went to Edgewater whenever I had enough money," Ayers wrote in his 1989 autobiography, "Memories Are Made of This."
Theo Temple, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, was general manager of Edgewater Park for about 20 years, beginning around 1940. He told The Daily Standard that Stan Kenton was the first big band to play at Edgewater dance hall.
Kenton, described by Temple as a "good guy and good musician," had a brief run-in with Celina law enforcement one evening when he was caught in a Celina taxi cab with an open bottle of booze. Another guy was with him, Temple says, and the bottle could have belonged to either of them.
"I think he could have fought it and won, but Stan just paid the fine and went on. Of course, he'd have lost a lot more money than the fine if he'd pulled the band off the road to stick around here," Temple recalls while seated before his big picture window looking out over Grand Lake St. Marys.
Ayers says every time he saw the Kenton band play in various places in the country Kenton would mention the incident in Celina. "He'd just shake his head and tell me he'd never forget it," Ayers says, adding the open bottle ordinance had just recently been passed in Celina and Kenton was one of the first fish caught.
Edgewater hosted most of the big bands of the swing era including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Ralph Flanagan, Duke Ellington and others.
It was during the 1940s that most of the classic big band tunes were introduced: Ellington's "Take the A Train" and "Satin Doll," Harry James' "You Made Me Love You," and Kenton's "More Than You Know."
"Duke Ellington was another good person -- well, most of (the musicians) were just normal people doing a job. One night he got his band all set up on the bandstand and started them off. Then he sat on a bench with my father-in-law (former Celina mayor, the late Henry Herman) and talked and laughed with him all through the performance," Temple says.
Mayor Herman also is reported to have planted a big kiss right on Louis Armstrong's lips during a performance, certainly a daring move, even if only in jest, in the racist climate of Mercer County then.
Even big name black performers could not find lodging in Mercer County and had to stay in a certain hotel in St. Marys, according to Temple. Nor could they eat in local restaurants: the white musicians would bring food back to the bus for them.
Average cost to bring a band to town was about $1,000 for a good band. That meant there had to be a pretty good crowd (at $2.50 per person) to pay the bills, Temple says. But filling the hall was not much of a problem. "Often there would be about 1,000 people there," he says.
And as for booze, no one could buy liquor at the dance hall, but people could bring their own, if they followed the rules.
"You couldn't set the bottle on the table. You had to keep it on the floor. You could bring it up to pour drinks, but you'd better get it right back on the floor or else you'd have to talk to Fuzzy," Ayers says.
Fuzzy Grace was the dance hall bouncer and, according to several folks in the know, he was not the person you wanted to talk to if you'd done something wrong.
"Fuzzy was a real strong guy. His idea was you straightened up or got out. He wanted things just so," Temple says in a probable understatement.
And, things were kept just so and straightened up throughout the prime of the dance hall.
"People didn't go to Edgewater looking sloppy," says Ayers' wife Polly. "It was a big deal and we were dressed to the nines -- beautiful dresses and high heels. And, believe me, we could really dance in those high heels."
Dancers and partiers packed Edgewater every Sunday night for years, but neither of the Ayerses remember any big trouble.
"If there were drugs out there, I sure didn't know anything about it and I would have known if there were," Charlie Ayers says.
People weren't clannish, he recalled, but Rockford folks all sat together and Minster sat together, Coldwater and so forth. They would mingle throughout the evening and dance with people outside their group, but everyone sat at his/her home table.
The dance hall was a groovy spot for Swing Era dancers for a decade or two. For different crowds, it continued to be a popular spot into the Bebop and rock and roll eras of the 1970s.
Swing had its own lingo
By JANIE SOUTHARD
Some say the real end of the big band era came in the late 1940s, but the bands played on albeit to fewer and fewer listeners. Benny Goodman was still playing his particular brand of music well into the 1980s.
Along with the unique sounds of swing and jazz came a unique vocabulary. Many of the words and phrases are still around today. Here's some talk from the Big Bands Database Plus on the Internet.
´ Two cats talking in 1945 might say: See ya later, alligator. After while, crocodile.
Alligator was originally slang for musician. Cat designated anyone who loved jazz. Crocodile was a take-off on alligator.
´ Ofay was a black person's slang for a white person. It comes from the Pig Latin for foe.
´ A lady could be any one of a dozen designations, such as: frail, chick, doll or main squeeze. A barn burner was Frank Sinatra's slang for a classy woman.
´ Anything needing a superlative description might be called the bomb, bad, chills, crazy, down by law, flip your lid, get down, gas, gone, groovy, ace, etc.
But, if something became undesirable, you might use: bring down, bug, clam, clinker, fluff, dark and so on.
´ Here's an exchange that could have been heard at Edgewater in the 1940s:
"Man, Benny really blows that licorice stick. It's the end."
"Yeah, Gate, I fell in with him last night in Dayton. He's got a freak lip."
Benny Goodman plays the clarinet very well. It's thrilling to hear.
Yes, fellow who appreciates swing music, I attended his performance in Dayton last night. It seemed like he played all night without stopping.
´ Jitterbug originally described jittery type people such as swing dancers. It then became a dance style of its own. By the way, some dancers loosened up with a glass or two of jittersauce (booze).
Although it's referred to as jitterbug now, the dance the jitterbugs were doing is officially called the "Lindy hop." The dance required a lot of wild moves such as the splits, throwing a partner in the air as well as precision dancing.
´ A birdbrain is self explanatory in any era's jive. A birdbrain then would be a birdbrain today.
Those who didn't walk the walk and talk the talk of the swing era were out to lunch, off-time jive, lame and certainly were not booted, hip or in the mix.
But, for those in the know, everything was 18 karat, Daddy-O.