Dancing the night away

Previously written for the New Hartford Independent by Anne C. Hall

At the turn of the last century entertainment in New Hartford was self-generated. There was a regular series of concerts, dramatic productions, dances, and talent shows; almost all of which was organized and performed by the local residents. Musical programs were generally mixed classical pieces, popular songs, and readings of verse.

In the late 1800’s Nepaug had a fine brass brand that performed regularly in parades; while the New Hartford chorus supplied an enthusiastic and accomplished foundation for many concerts.  The chorus flourished during the early twentieth century under the direction of the Jones family, and had over one hundred members during World War I.   As with any chorus, soloists were brought in from other areas; a 1918 performance included two soloists from New York City and one from Boston, though the soprano was from New Hartford. In addition they collaborated with musical groups from Hartford, Norfolk, and Winchester.  New Hartford’s enthusiastic musical scene was further enriched by the artists who considered it to be home.  International performers such as the violinst Efrem Zimbalist Sr., Clara Louise Kellogg and Teresa Stich Randall, both world renowned opera stars, regularly performed locally at Christmas Concerts, Fourth of July celebrations, and other occasions.

The popularity of the events necessitated equally respectable buildings.  Many performances were held in North Congregational Church’s old Assembly Hall, torn down in the 1950’s.  This building could seat an audience of up to two hundred people.   In the early years of the town, the Chapin Hall in Pine Meadow, located where the Pine Meadow Post office now stands, had room for assemblies and social gatherings. The other popular location was Nepaug’s church.  Of course, the town hall, both the 1876 and the 1894 buildings, was another obvious location for a range of events, primarily relating to important anniversaries and/or political concerns, but also for dance.

Dances were a very popular form of entertainment, even fairly small private dinner parties might well finish the night with a dance.  Public dances were regularly held, needing only a piano or other solo musical instrument, perhaps a dance caller, and a large area.  They were often held in the old Bakerville tannery on the third floor. This was the big red building in Bakerville, at Cedar Lane and Rte. 202, that was taken down in 2011. The third floor, known also as Jones’ dance hall after the tannery’s owner, George Jones, was a full width and length clear space, with a sprung floor and a small stage at the far end. Additionally, it had a small piano and a cloak room, complete with a small wood stove, which was reserved for the ladies.   The other main dance hall in town was in the town hall.  The 1876 building was opened with a celebration that began with a parade, including the Nepaug Brass Band, and didn’t end until sometime early the next morning as people danced to the music of Ulser’s Quadrille Band from Hartford.  Judging by the name of the band, and the era, it is likely that the dances were based on the quadrille, cotillon or German, waltz, polka, and mazurka; though given the solemnity of the occasion it may well have begun with a grand march.

A description of a dance at the Town Hall to raise money during World War was given in the New Hartford Tribune of April 3, 1917:

“There was a large crowd in attendance at the Home Guard dance given in the town hall on Monday evening of the present week and each one present had the very best kind of a good time. The hall was very attractively decorated with flags, bunting and army muskets and two large portraits of President Wilson were displayed at the front of the hall. Excellent music was furnished by Nobile’s orchestra from Winsted with the dancing continuing until one o’clock Tuesday morning. Refreshments of ice cream and soda water were served in the rear of hall and a large company of spectators viewed the dancing from the balcony.”

By this era, the more formal dances had begun to give way to distinctly American dances and music based on the piano tunes of the Rag-time; though the waltz and the polka would continue, merging with the younger Two-Steps and Cake-Walks to form new waltzes, new tangos, and new rhythms by which old floors danced.

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