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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Lament for a Legend: Cobblestone Palace

Friday, January 4, 2013

Tere she sits: alone, lonely, and forsaken, showing her 60-plus years of a life - once of fame and grandeur, the toast of generations who flocked to her - and now abandoned, suffering the ravages of time and neglect. She sits there on the shore of the lake contemplating, I'm sure, with emptiness of soul, the waves, the seasons, the years, her misfortunes, and her ultimate fate.

I knew her when she was at the peak of her celebrity, her beauty, her popularity; and, as generations of others did, I danced with her, romanced with her, drank with her, dined with her, never to forget her. She seduced us all with her charm and elegance. Now, to return after a 40-some year separation, I cannot help but see, with sadness in my heart, how the years and neglect have been so cruelly unkind to her - truly a tragedy, and such a waste. But I remember the good times in the Cobblestone, that grand lady, when she was renowned throughout the Midwest, when she was siren to all who valued the good times. That grand old lady's fall from grace must leave an emptiness in the hearts of all who knew her, as in mine.

The Cobblestone offered much comfort, joy, diversion and revelry to those who endured the eras of The Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Civil Rights, and the "hippy", disco and rock years - through all of the generations of good and bad years of the 1930s into the 1980s. She was a legend of Northwest Iowa for 60 years, providing music, dancing, dining, excitement, laughter, romance, and the atmosphere of welcoming hospitality and fellowship. The biggest bands in the country sought engagements at the Cobblestone. It was a place where the young at heart could take their wives or dates, or find a date, or dance with strangers who became friends, or just enjoy the best of music and the social ambience. Besides the music and dancing, there were excellent dining and wining, friendly socializing, and sometimes even a short stroll through the dark of night to the privacy of the night-shrouded lake shore for a bit of romance. She was Shangri-La to all who sought her out.

The modest birth of the Cobblestone was as a small dance hall that accommodated 50 people, opening on New Year's Eve, 1929, in Lakeside, on the shore of Storm Lake. Over the years it grew into a cobblestone palace that would accommodate 1,500 patrons, and employ 39 staff members, plus part-timers. The centerpiece of the Cobblestone was the 5,300 square-foot maple dance floor flanked by booths and fronted by a grand stage. The facilities included a full kitchen, dining rooms, banquet rooms (capable of handling banquets of 1,000 or more), and a couple of bars. A fire in 1945 destroyed everything except the grand ballroom, but the facilities were rebuilt and operations resumed. The Cobblestone was considered one of the Midwest's finest dining and dancing ballrooms.



The 1930s through the 1940s and into the '50s was the era of the big bands, and the height of the Cobblestone's legendary popularity. When the big bands toured the Midwest, it was imperative for them to play the famous Cobblestone. When they played the Cobblestone, people from miles around surged to be there. Crowds would fill the ballroom to celebrate the event, dancing and listening to the world's most popular music by the biggest bands in the country. They often would just congregate as a crowd in front of the bandstand, mesmerized, swaying, in awe and worship. The old timers (like me) can recall thrilling moments of their lives when they were immersed in the music of (remember?) Tommy Dorsey (Getting Sentimental Over You), Glenn Miller (Moonlight Serenade), Harry James (Chiribiribin), Louie Armstrong (When It's Sleepy Time down South), Jimmy Dorsey (Contrasts), Lionel Hampton (Flying Home), Russ Morgan (Does Your Heart Beat For Me), Duke Ellington (Take The A Train), Lawrence Welk (Bubbles In The Wine), Sammy Kaye, Jan Garber, and so many others. Memories impossible to forget.


During the late 1940s and early '50s, several factors contributed to the fading away of the big bands. Musicians were returning from WWII, older, getting married, having families, and no longer willing to constantly be on the road living in cheap hotels and eating bad food. They tended to stay at home playing in local nightclubs and hotel ballrooms. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the dominating factor of the music industry, decreed higher salaries for musicians, which the bandleaders could ill-afford to pay. Recording technologies had advanced from the old 78-rpm records to the newer 45- and 33&1/3- microgroove hi-fidelity discs, creating higher demand and opportunities for studio musicians. The travelling big bands were slowly disbanding in favor of recording studios. The big band events at the Cobblestone grew fewer and fewer.


At the same time, changes in copyright law and the diminishing stranglehold of the AFM over the music industry created more open opportunities for young, independent songwriters and musicians. The youth culture was on the rise, with musical tastes tending to less disciplined music - rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Local "garage bands" abounded in most every community - especially with the popularity of the guitar. Finally, the emergence of a new breed, like Elvis and the Beatles, through their records and concerts, finalized the revolution in the music industry. The effect was overwhelming on the Cobblestone.



The 1950s ushered in entirely different music genres. No longer having big bands available, nor being able to afford them, the Cobblestone adapted. It began having Sunday night teen hops with recorded music, essentially sponsored by the Christian Youth Organization. Then began a mix of local and regional "garage bands" appearing. Eventually, partially due to TV shows like American Band Stand and FM hi-fi radio, national musical groups were going on tour promoting their records, to gain attention by the TV shows and radio stations. In touring through the Midwest, like the big bands before them, it was essential for them to play the Cobblestone. Thus, a resurgence of live music in the ballroom brought in younger generations of rock 'n rollers who enjoyed groups like Myron Lee and The Caddies, Johnny and The Hurricanes, Bobby Vee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, The Rhythm Aces, The Charades, The Fabulous Flippers, Spider and The Crabs, Dee Jay and The Runaways, The Senders, Red Dogs, The Beach Boys, The Rumbles, and innumerable others. The "ride" of the Cobblestone's rock 'n roll era lasted into the early 1980s, until the owner's death.


With the death of her owners, the Cobblestone closed and locked her doors in 1986, after a reign of nearly 60 years as a notable and legendary ballroom of the Midwest. According to those privileged few who have had recent access to the premises, entering the building is an eerie experience - like a time-warp back into the past. When the doors closed in 1986, everything was left in place. To this day, the ballroom floor and bandstand, the wall murals and posters, dishes and fixtures in the kitchen and dining rooms, cash registers - all left as they were the night the lights were turned out for good. Even a calendar on the wall marks the standing still of time - November, 1986. The ballroom, once a place of joyful celebration of life, is now a dusty, dark mausoleum to the spirit of that grand old lady--the Cobblestone.


At least the grand old lady will not be entirely forgotten. The ballroom may be razed to build condos or a parking lot, and those of us who knew and loved her will pass away with our memories of her, but her legend will live on. In 2003, the Cobblestone was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame in Arnolds Park. I personally regret that she could not be immortalized, as well, in a Midwest Big Band Music Hall of Fame - a much more appropriate and deserving honor for the grand old lady. However, although the cobblestone palace - abandoned, neglected, and deteriorating - will undoubtedly disappear, the legend of the Cobblestone lives on. Amen.