SUNFIELD OPERA HOUSE, HIGH SCHOOL GYM & DANCE HALL
Compiled by: Max E. McWhorter
On the site of the huge, metal grain bins owned by the Mueller Bean Company on the north side of Main Street, once stood a complex of buildings which was wiped out by the fire of May 10, 1934.
In the center of this complex stood Ives Hall. Flanking the hall on the east side was a double, brick, two story building in which C. N. "Charley" Town operated a hardware business. This location was later acquired in about 1927 by Ray Welch who continued the hardware store. Flanking Ives Hall on the west side was a single story, false-fronted building in which Aaron Ives once handled the farm implement lines of International harvester and McCormick (later McCormick-Deering). He probably had bought the implement business from Fred Turner, an old time Sunfield business man. In 1921, Ray Welch acquired this building and soon, became the Sunfield area John Deere implement dealer.
Aaron Ives, the owner of the hall was a well known man about town. Familiarly known as "Arnie" to some and "Aaronie" to others, he once was a partner with J. D. "Jessie" Norris in the grocery and general merchandizing business before he acquired the farm implement franchise and hall. Aaron was taken away by the great influenza epidemic, which swept the land in the closing year of World War I and the year which followed, 1919. He left behind his widow, Grace, and two sons, Stanley and Winston. Winston lives in retirement in Portland, Michigan.
Ives Hall served many functions in small town Sunfield during the 'teens and 1920's. Performances by travelling show troupes, medicine, vaudeville shows and the like were held there. During those years, Sunfield High School had neither auditorium nor gymnasium. Consequently, many high school functions such as graduation ceremonies and commencement exercises were held there. Since Sunfield High was without a gym, basketball contests took place in the hall despite the low ceiling which effectively prevented high-arching long shots from center court but the teams made do regardless of this inconvenience. But as a youngster, the thing that really sticks in my memory - the Saturday night dances.
Most of the Saturday night dances were strictly a commercial affair put on by some entrepreneur willing to gamble that his ticket sales on dance night would exceed the expenses of putting on the dance. For instance, I have before me a handbill advertising a dance. it says:
At Ives Hall
On Nov. 6
Marsh 5 Piece Orchestra
Dance 9:00 to 1:00
Price, Including War Tax, $1.00
Irving Evans, Prop.
Although no year is stated, the notation "Including War Tax" would date the dance to have been held in the World War I era. In this case, Irving Evans (a well known man in Sunfield) would rent the hall from Aaron Ives, hire an orchestra, advertise in the local papers, publish handbills and hope that his income on dance night would amount to more than his outgo had been. A bad Blizzard on dance night would be disastrous and cause the affair to be a sure loser.
The ground floor store-front below Ives Hall was at one time occupied by Elmer "Bun" Perrin who ran a lunch and poolroom there. Before that, this space had been a harness shop. Entrance to the second floor hall was by a street-front door and staircase on the east side of the building.
As one entered the hall from the stairs, the long dimension of the hall was north and south. On the north end of the hall was an elevated stage from which the actors gave forth in the case of a vaudeville show or upon which the orchestra was seated in the case of a dance. Around the hall's sidewalls were movable wooden benches which could be relocated out onto the floor to accommodate the audience in the case of a show. A little past midway of the hall on the east side, stood an oversized, cast iron wood and coal stove. On a cold winter's night, with both draft and damper full-open, this stove would heat to a cherry red and contributed to a dancer's affliction, which, we will diagnose as "Hard Cider Syndrome: and of which, we will speak of a little later.
The orchestra had no set compliment of musicians except that there must be a piano to carry the melody and drums to emphasize the beat and tempo of the music. Songs of that era were particularly compatible with the wail of the fiddle and other than these three instruments, the orchestra could consist of about anything. Many musicians could "double in brass" so it never was surprise to see a clarinet, trumpet, trombone, saxophone or banjo show up on the stage.
The orchestra's repertoire of music generally consisted of old familiar tunes left over from the patriotic fervor of World War I plus a few of the latest hits which had become big sellers in the sheet music and phonograph record markets. There were no continually changing "Top Twenty Tunes on the Chart" and once a tune became popular, it tended to stick around for a number of years. Songs left over from "The Great War" like, "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" (which came out in 1912), "Keep The Home Fires Burning" (1915) and "Let The Rest Of The World Go By" (1912) hung around the dance halls for years. A super-hit like "Dark Town Stutter's Ball" (I'll be down to get you in a taxi honey) came out in 1917 and never did go away.
Current hits like "The Sheik of Araby" (1921 and a song which reminded the ladies of the Heart Throb matinee idol, Rudolph Valentino), "Sweet Georgia Brown" (1925) and "Baby Face" (1926), gave the dancers new tunes to whistle after the dance.
The orchestra's tempo was calculated to fit the dance steps of those days and they were predominately the fox trot, the two-step and the waltz. Now and then, an energizer would be thrown in such as a polka, a schottische and even a square dance number which might feature the "Grape Vine Twist". (This was a genteel form of a schoolboy's "Crack The Whip", set to music. The person on the end of the whip generally went skidding across the floor and went flying into the spectators seated on the wall-side benches!) Except for the waltz, the music had to be fast to be good. The more athletic the dance, the more fun it was for the recreation-starved people of the 'teens and 'twenties.
As the first notes from the orchestra drifted across the hall, the dancing couple would embrace each other with the lady's right arm extended while the gent likewise, extended his right arm. The hands were clasped together and the arms moved up and down, "pump handle" style, in time with the music, the faster the music, the faster the pumping!
Most of the automobiles of that era were of the open-sided, "touring car" type. Although they had side curtains to shield the passengers from the worst of the winter's blasts, they had no heaters. Therefore, dancers had to dress warmly to withstand the frigid trip to and from the dance hall. The men wore their customary woolen, "long handled" underwear while the ladies, I presume, were equally well fortified by suitable undergarments of which I have no means of knowing about. Anyway, suitable dress for the wintry trip into town did not mean that it was also suitable for the athletic contest which was about to take place in the hot dance hall.
As the dance progressed and as the music became faster and the dance hall hotter due to the cherry red heating stove, the woolen underwear became more prickly and close-fitting and the dancers began to sweat profusely. Here we encounter an occupational hazard call the "Hard Cider Syndrome". A syndrome resulting from the heat, the physical exertion and a dry throat condition brought on by the dust resulting from the corn meal routinely sifted on the dance floor to make it slippery. The men had a remedy to alleviate this bother-some affliction. Between dance numbers, a group of men would go down the stairs to the street, turn right at the village bandstand where behind this bandstand, Ray Welch, the hardware man had a number of steel, livestock watering tanks stored upside down on the ground.
A tank would be raised to reveal two or three one-gallon jugs of hard cider which some far sighted individual had stored there for just such a medical emergency as was now at hand. The jug would be passed around the circle of overheated dancers; each customer taking a healthy glug. Meanwhile, the frigid temperature had cooled the perspiration and now, the sweat on the back of the neck was about to freeze solid. The second passage of the jug was therefore, a hurried one, as the participants were now shivering and in a big yank to get back into the dancehall to get warm. And so the night went - up the stairs to become super-heated and then down the stairs to become super-cooled - then, back up the stairs to do it all over again. This was F-U-N, 1920's style!
By now, the 18th amendment to the Constitution was the law of the land. this amendment prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages outside the home. And was not hard cider an alcoholic beverage? And where was the town Marshal during this horrid and flagrant abuse of federal statutes? Why, Marshal D. W. "Bill " Knapp was home in bed where an understanding law man should be on Saturday night! Bill well understood that dancing could be hot and thirsty work and besides, he knew the benevolent medical properties of "THE JUICE OF THE APPLE" - he'd tried it out himself!
In my mind's eye, I can still see little Eric Rice (then known as Bobby Thorp) and as a man, destined to become the mayor of Sunfield, perched astride his step-father's neck as he circled the dance floor. Little Bobby would wave at his grandpa "Colonel" McDiarmid each time they passed on the dance floor. Grandpa McDiarmid was a dedicated dancer and never missed a dance, even as his declining years overtook him.
Along about 1:00 o'clock in the morning, the orchestra swung into the song "Sleepy Time Gal" (1925) which was a prelude to the final number for the night. The dancers groaned as they heard this number and quickly, some volunteer would pass the hat with the hope that the proceeds would entice the orchestra to play a little longer. At length, the inevitable "Home Sweet Home" refrain was played and as the band members cased their instruments, the dancers donned their galoshes and hats with "Ear Flapper's" and wound their way down the stairs to go home.
Now the prudent dancer of the 1920's would, during intermission, go down and start his car before the arctic temperatures congealed the crankcase oil to the point that the engine could barely be turned over by hand cranking. Most vehicles were Ford Model "T" "Tin Lizzies", Chevrolet "Chivvies" or less commonly, makes like the Overland "Puddle Jumper". None of these makes had self-starters and had to be started by hand crank called the "commencer". After the engine had been warmed up, the car hood was covered with a horse blanket to preserve as much warmth as possible. thus, at the dance's end, the owner might be able to start the car without an ordeal. On the other hand, the lax driver who had neglected to start his car during intermission, cranked until the hard cider popped out of every pore. At long length, "Tin Lizzie" would cough, backfire and spring into life with such vibration that the owner would race around to the door of the car to shove up the spark and gas control levers, (both located on the steering column) to quiet the gyrations before "Ol' Hank" (Ford) shook itself apart. Then came the problem of wallowing their way home through drifted and unplowed roads. Their tracks to the dance had long since drifted shut and bucking snow banks on the return home was a way of life back then. These were the "Good Old Days" of which the oldsters so wistfully look back on!
As the dancers leave Sunfield for home, some head north across the Pere Marquette railroad tracks to their home in Sebewa or Danby. some head west down the narrow and rutted "State Reward Road" (later to become the graveled M-39 and still later, the paved M-43) to their homes near Woodbury. Others turn south to cross the Sebewa Creek on their way home to Bismark or Shaytown. And the rest head east, over the steep and snowy Smock Hills to their homes near Mulliken.
"Goodnight, everybody. See you next Saturday night at the dance in Ives Hall, Sunfield!"
-------I. M. TINKER
(Oct 15, 1992)
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