SWISHER- Live music and dancing has returned to the historic DanceMor ballroom in downtown Swisher after a four-year hiatus.
The venue, originally a dance floor and stage covered by a circus tent, closed in 2014 and sat dormant until a young couple with an appreciation for the history, and a passion, set out to breathe new life into it.
Nick and Rebekah Neuendorf purchased the legendary dance hall earlier this year and spent the past six-to-eight months engaged in a labor of love restoring the DanceMor and opening the doors again. The historic nature of the building has not escaped them and they've embraced it as both entrepreneurs and curators.
"It was just the stage and the dance floor, (an) all open-air venue," Nick said of the DanceMor when it first opened in the 1930s. "And Frank Stangler, the original builder and owner, had a circus tent over the top of it to protect it from the elements. He took it to a circus or a show or something, and it caught fire."
In 1933, a roof was built over the dance floor. A wooden rafter still bears "April 15, 1932" carved in it over the original hardwood dance floor. Nick figures that's either when the beams were milled, or when they started erecting them here. The Paramount Pavilion, as it was known then, was still open-air but with a roof over the dance floor and stage, the sides still wide open with carved wood pillars holding up the roof. Those pillars still stand today, unchanged from their original appearance.
"Cars were able to pull up right to these pillars, and they could walk right onto the dance floor from the sides," Nick said.
In the 1950s, a major remodeling took place with additions built on the east and north sides, fully enclosing the structure and giving it the look it has today. Along with a new look, the venue also got a new name: the DanceMor.
"We're the third owners," Nick said, "Stangler's (family) had it from '30 to '74, the (Harold) Davis family purchased it in 1974 and ran it until 2014, so they had it for 40 years, and then we took over earlier this year."
What prompted the Neuendorfs to purchase the DanceMor?
"Oh man, that 'for sale' sign just started eating at me," Nick said. "Five years ago, if you had told us we'd be managing a ballroom, we'd be like, 'Yeah, you're crazy.'"
"I think we just see a lot of potential in downtown Swisher," Rebekah said. She's co-owner of The Black Squirrel Tap and Beer Garden, across the street from the DanceMor.
"The small-town feel and the community feeling that we have here is really phenomenal, and we saw that this could be an asset, a fun place to go, and add some things for people to do in the evenings again without having to travel," she said. "More 'hometown' fun."The Neuendorfs moved to Swisher in 2012 when the DanceMor was still open.
"We came out here for a dance one night and just kind of wanted to check it out," Nick said. "We walked in and it felt like we went back in time a little bit. Kids were in cowboy hats, belt buckles, cowboy boots, the whole shebang. I didn't know kids still went all-out like this. So that was cool to see."
When the Davis family closed the DanceMor in 2014, Nick said the loss of the venue was palpable throughout the community.
"You just heard people saying this is the 'heartbeat' of Swisher, and kind of what put Swisher on the map," he said.
How popular has the DanceMor been?
The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway (CRANDIC), which has tracks running alongside the building, used to run an interurban passenger service between the namesake cities, with a stop at a platform across the street from the DanceMor. Special runs were made hauling people to the DanceMor.
Timeless performers such as Lawrence Welk have appeared on its tiny wooden stage. The venue was even inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
"Everybody was kind of sad to see it go," said Nick.
"I'd say bringing it back, revitalizing that, almost wanting to take a step back in time? we get so absorbed in technology and phones and computer games, that I think real authentic interaction and socialization is what we crave sometimes without even knowing it," Rebekah said. "So, creating a place to do that is what's really neat for us.
"Just imagining all the people that have spent their evenings here throughout the decades," she added. "Eight decades of dancing and different music genres."
Most recently, she noted, the DanceMor featured all country acts, but classic rock was common in the past with occasional forays into such diverse sounds as reggae and even a hip hop/rap night.
"Before that there was swing," she said. "It can be a very versatile space, it's like the dance floor has a life of its own. You walk out and it creaks and bounces. My mind goes to what it would've looked like to see ladies back in the '40s and '50s out dancing."
She pointed out women would bring extra shoes, just for dancing.
"They'd check their coat and shoes at the door and they'd spend their evening here dancing," she said.
Rebekah said she's heard stories of people who as kids spent hours sitting in the car while their parents danced. Since taking over the DanceMor, she said they've heard a number of stories from people who danced there or even met their spouse there.
"There's a gentleman who's 100 who I believe got married here," she said. "There's another gal here who said she's really hoping to bring him to opening night (the DanceMor opened on Friday, Oct. 19). Freddy and Evelyn (Shelton) next door (Shelton's Groceries, another long-time Swisher staple) had their wedding dance here and we'd love to find some pictures and pay some homage to them."It boils down to some 80 years of memories, keeping them alive, and creating new memories.
"We haven't lived them for ourselves, but we're kinda living vicariously through other peoples' stories," she said.
Preserving those memories means the Neuendorfs have been careful to avoid radically altering the historic interior during the many months of work. One change some may notice has been to replace a maroon and forest green interior with a more subtle brown. A faux ceiling was also removed, opening up the space and revealing the beams and trusses. Also, a line of booths, along the east wall were removed and replaced with new tables and stools.
While some of the vintage furnishings had fallen into an irreparable state, others were sent to Bloomsbury Farm near Atkins. Some questionable wiring was replaced, as were several large, antique light fixtures.
The Neuendorfs plan to continue the tradition of hosting a variety of musical styles with classic rock and country acts taking the stage the first weekend.
"I'd say out of every 10 shows we book, four or five are going to be country, four or five are going to be classic rock, and then one or two others that we want to sprinkle in," Nick said. "We do want to be more versatile than it had been the last 30 years when it was strictly country, but we also know we can't get away from country. That's its roots."
Part of the variety includes bringing in a southern rock band from Mississippi in December. On Saturday, Oct. 27, the DanceMor hosted a "Rock and Roll Extravaganza" featuring bands from Nashville, Chicago and Cedar Rapids.
"This first season, we have 16 shows, 33 bands, playing between Oct. 19 and Dec. 31," Nick said. "We're excited to see the different genres and how the crowd reacts, and what those bands offer the crowds. We're going to learn a lot this first season."
The DanceMor can also be something of an incubator for bands starting out. Rebekah noted they could be opening acts for more established bands and, "mingle and talk to them and learn some things, and get some experience under their belts."
The DanceMor will be open Fridays and Saturdays through the end of the year. For the latest schedule of events, go to www.dancemorballroom.com. You can also check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Dance-Mor-Ballroom. The DanceMor is located at 77 2nd St. SE in downtown Swisher, phone 319-857-4205.
"We always just kind of had a dream to do something that we call 'work,' but that we can be passionate about and feel good after we've lived our lives and look back, and have a lot of cool experiences. And that's really what this has developed into," Rebekah said. "The way that people in the community have come out to support, jumped in, and offered to help? those things have been incredibly humbling and we're very grateful to the people that have stepped up."
The couple wants the DanceMor to be a good neighbor, respectful of those who would perhaps prefer peace and quiet, Rebekah said.
"We want this to be a good, positive thing in the community," she added. "We just see a lot of potential with the space here, and the history of it is just really, really neat. It's been a really fun adventure so far."