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Last of Cobblestone family longs to see landmark saved

Friday, August 24, 2012

(Photo)
Mark up one more supporter hopeful to see a project to preserve and reopen the Cobblestone Ballroom at Lakeside - a last relative of the man who established the landmark 83 years ago.

Gay Raszaiewicz, a resident of Arizona, who fondly remembers the Cobblestone from her childhood, is the granddaughter of Jake Figi, who built the original "Cobb" in the late 1920s.

She contacted the Pilot-Tribune to express her support for a preservation project. In a recent article, the owner of the long-closed facility told the newspaper that it would take a local organization or committee to partner with him or to take over the process to get the necessary investment to restore and reopen the Cobblestone. He suggested that it be done in stages - starting perhaps with antique shows and occasional musical entertainment to get people into the old structure again, and get momentum started toward more restoration.

Raszaiewicz feels that with a resurgence of popularity in dancing and dance music, the time is ripe for an attempt at new life for the Cobblestone.

"If Clear Lake could do it (restore the popular Surf Ballroom), then I would think someone in Storm Lake could do something to save the Cobblestone before it falls down or gets torn down," she said.

Gay recalled that her mother, Bettty Lou, told wondrous stories of the Cobblestone. For a time as a young woman, Betty Lou lived in an apartment in the upper reaches of the complex, above the ballroom that heard big band legends such as Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey, and rock 'n' roll pioneers such as Bobby Vee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty and Tommy Bolin.

"She was a very, very glamorous young woman, and pretty much the talk of Storm Lake. Her apartment was decorated to the nines, and she wore beautiful gowns that were ordered from the biggest people in the fashion industry in New York. To the people in town, it must have seemed like a pretty incredible life to live inside the most exciting place around," Gay says.

Betty Lou helped her family run the Cobblestone, circulating from table to table, charming visitors and talking them into letting her take their photos, which were quickly developed into prints she would sell to them. At age 27, she talked him into letting her paint numerous huge murals around the property. With no previous experience in art, she produced murals that had people talking all over Iowa and beyond - some of her original work can be seen to this day in the Circus Lounge in the upstairs part of the complex. She also painted all the walls of the dining room in a unique nautical and mermaid theme.

A terrible fire destroyed much of the Cobblestone, and while it was reopened, all of the opulent furnishings, furs and gowns that were such a part of her mother's persona were destroyed. She never went back to the apartment, and she and her husband, who she had met at the Cobblestone, moved to California, where Betty Lou continued in her newfound artistic endeavors. They chose never to return, even for a visit.

Gay came to live in Storm Lake for one year as a child, spending lots of time in the Cobblestone and attending Hayes School. "I had a third grade teacher who was so tough that I swear she could have chewed up nails," she laughed. "I still have great memories of Storm Lake, the wonderful Cobblestone, eating in the fancy restaurant there and swimming in the lake behind it. It was quite an interesting time."

Now, everyone is her family who was connected to the ballroom is long since dead, her mother going last. All she has is her memories and a box of photographs that were clipped from the papers back in the glory days.

After retiring from the daily running of the Cobblestone, founder Jake and his wife became one of the first to purchase the Airstream trailers that later became so iconic, embarking on daring trips through Mexico. Jake passed away in the early 1960s. Gay's grandmother settled in Wall Lake, where she happened to live next door to singer Andy William's family, and sang with them in the church choir. She most remembers Andy, who was just a child then, racing across her backyard grass, late for church every Sunday.

The Cobblestone was always a family enterprise. Jake Figi started with a simple little store and bathhouse on the south shore of the lake in 1928, which he operated with his sister Laura and her husband Willard Lawrence. There wasn't much to do in Storm Lake in those days, so the store became the hangout for youth and young couples.

It was so instantly popular that Jake decided to build the first Cobblestone Inn on the site - it opened for a New Year's dance in 1929 with room for just 50 couples.

After Willard's untimely death in 1936, Laura continued the partnership with Jake. A fire in 1945 completely destroyed everything but the main ballroom. The partners built a new main dining room with several private banquet rooms and a modern kitchen able to handle banquets of 1000 or more.

Two years later, Laura's three sons bought out Figi's half of the business and joined their mother in operating what became one of the finest dining and dancing spots in the Midwest. They employed 39 people plus extras for special events.

Laura Lawrence retired from active participation in the business in 1957, turning it over fully to Orville (Shorty) and Willard Junior (J.R. or "Junior"). They became the proprietors just in time for the rock and roll era to arrive. For the Cobblestone, that happened on Sept. 21, 1958 with CYO dances that started with records and turned into regular Sunday night Teen Hops with regional and national bands. That continued until the early 1980s.

The ballroom's datebooks reflect appearances by Myron Lee & the Caddies, Johnny & the Hurricanes, the Rhythm Aces, the Charades, the Fabulous Flippers, Spider and the Crabs, Dee Jay & the Runaways, The Senders, Red Dogs, Baby and the Rumbles, among countless others.

J.R. passed away in 1976 and his wife Geraldine (Jerry) took over his duties in the family business. Shorty died in 1987.

The Cobblestone closed in November of 1986, locked up as a virtual time capsule. The microphone stand is still at the stage, and the dishes still in the kitchen.

The last member of the family to operate the Cobblestone, "Jerry" Lawrence Dahlen was on hand to accept the honor when the ballroom was voted into the Iowa Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. She died in 2004.

Gay hopes to see the Cobb reopened in her lifetime.

"I imagine it to be so ghostly," she said. "It's just so there... so much an important part of the history of music and of Storm Lake. I know that the people who remember it in its prime are becoming fewer now, but people surely know the history of the music. I would think this could be done, and I would sure like to see it."

Until then, she pulls a photo from her box of memories. It shows her mother as a young woman in a bygone era - World War II vintage - in her fancy ballgown, twirling a night away in the Circus Lounge where she would paint her timeless murals during the days and captivate the crowds at night.

"It's not just an old building for me," Gay says. "It's my history. It's my family."



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