Going Big Time

Lucky for Lake Chelan back in the late forties and early fifties, my mom was part of the troupe that provided hours of entertainment for the locals. Think in terms of radio only entertainment, and it’s not hard to imagine the high need to attend events in town with live performances. Even if it was a dance recital with the local kids, it was a welcome break from the radio! This created an opportunity for Lake Chelan kids to go big time on the stage at an early age.

Mom and Uncle George performing “Where O Where Has my Little Dog Gone”

My mom seized the opportunity at eight years old. She and her brother George performed “Where O Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” with straw hats and suspenders and tap shoes. Relatives from nearby communities filled the Chelan grade school auditorium for the spring recital while small bodies waited in the backstage area for their turn in the spotlight. This was the culmination of months of practice, making dance a local priority of time and energy with many local kids back in 1946. For my mom, her brother George and sister Evie, it lasted their entire childhood.

John Bixby’s Grocery Store, now the Eagles building

It all started at John Bixby’s grocery store, where the Eagles building is today. Parents shuffling through the vegetable department with children in tow would eventually encounter Blanch Russell, John Bixby’s sister. As vegetable department manager by day and dance teacher by night, Blanch had no time to spare. Often while sorting through heads of lettuce, Blanch would also be mentally choreographing a dance to something like, “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” She might even do a couple of heel clicks, and a step heel turn if she thought no one was looking.

The store provided an excellent dance student recruitment base for Blanch, she didn’t miss it when my grandpa Herman approached the vegetable section. His three children accompanying him appeared to be athletic and sure-footed.

Blanch ditched her handful of broccoli and quickly intercepted Herman. Wasting no time, she got straight to the point and asked if his children would like to take dance lessons. Herman was a softy when confronted by a determined woman. So, just like that, Blanch recruited all three Schultz children.

The Singer Featherweight Sewing Machine

Annually, Blanch would celebrate her students’ dance achievements with a spring recital. Each student needed a costume that was unique to his/her dance and body type. The only professional seamstress in town that could also design was Erika Kowski.

A couple of months before the concert, you could hear the continual hum of Erica’s 221 Singer Featherweight sewing machine. One might even observe smoke coming out of the gears as she pressed the foot pedal to the floor. Her tireless work would result in new costumes for all the students performing each year.

Here the three Schultz children are performing together during a time when tap dancing was at its peak in popularity. Their shoes had metallic taps on the bottom of the heel and toe to produce crisp clicks when they tapped their toes or stomped their heels. The tap shoes came via special order from a dance shop in Seattle.

Recitals occurred in the Masonic Temple when Blanch first began her dance lessons. Her student numbers grew, so the present grade school auditorium became the new site.

To the dancers looking into the sea of faces, it felt like the big time

On recital night, it would be a full house. The folding chairs packed so tightly together that it was a shoulder to shoulder space for the audience. To the dancers looking into the sea of faces, it felt like the big time. The temperature would heat up from all the people and the stage lights. Performers would start sweating immediately on stage even before their first dance moves.

The best performers from Blanch’s tap classes would also perform in the Kiwanis talent show. Performers of all ages and from neighboring communities participated. Dance and piano teachers from Wenatchee, Brewster, Pateros, Omak, Manson, Entiat, and Waterville enlisted their best students. Local newspapers highlighted the talent show since it was something the community looked forward to annually.

Eventually, Barbara and George got into fancy dancing. Blanch ordered shoes with individual metal plates that attached to the shoes so that the plates would clack together when the dancer shuffled along. The brother-sister duo were percussive musicians as they created music with just their feet. With a well-delivered shim sham shimmy and shuffle ball changes, they could dance Capella style with no music at all.

Barbara, George, and their portable dance mat

Blanch recognized the talent she had in Barbara and George. Their popularity increased to the point that they would perform at a lot of different venues, so she got them a portable mat to dance on. This ensured they always had a hard enough surface to deliver the classic “tap” sound.

Wherever they performed, they would take the mat along with speakers and a record player. Their vast repertoire of venues each year included the Lion’s Club, Rotary Club, Ruby Theater, Manson and Wenatchee Apple Blossom, and a one-time performance on Krem TV dancing on Starlit Stairway!

My mom wiped the tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes as she told her favorite dancing story about her brother George.

“When George got into High School, he got more agile, taking lots of flamboyant steps. He could jump up in the air and lay almost entirely sideways and click his heels together like Fred Astaire.

George was also an outstanding Coronet player in the school band. The year Chelan took state championship, the band leader Mack McDonnell asked George to dance at the last minute. George had to make something up fast, so he did a shuffle, toe toe, step heel flat without much effect. When he did his signature jump up in the air while laying sideways and clicking his heels together, the Chelan crowd roared with delight. Like any great performer, George kept the crowd cheering by repeating the move over and over, jumping to the right side and then the left.”

The brother and sister duo’s last performance was the summer of ’54. After winning dance competitions locally, they qualified to perform on Krem TV in Spokane on the Starlit Stairway, a live TV talent program for kids. The family made the journey to Spokane to watch the duo perform in the studio while being televised on TV. Of course, they won the competition and earned a cash prize of $25. After George left for college that fall, Barbara went ahead and took dance lessons but didn’t want to perform by herself. She had danced from third grade to her sophomore year of high school.

Although my mom didn’t go on to be a professional dancer, she did go big time here in Lake Chelan. All those performances and experiences gifted her with skills that carried over into all parts of her life.

I can visit some of those dance venues today, like the Ruby Theater, which is the local cinema for viewing the latest movies. It still has the same stage she and my uncle danced on, back in time when live performances were the best entertainment. Before the movie starts, I check my iPhone, and I’m reminded how much our lives and culture have changed since then.