My sister and I were introduced to the Roof Garden early in our lives. When we were very young our parents would load my sister, Jean, and I into the car and drive up to The Park after work and supper. Dad would find a parking space below the Roof Garden and we all went up to the dance floor.
The climb up those steps sure seemed long and I've often wondered if anybody ever counted how many. My folks would take us to the side and seat us in a couple of seats next to the dance floor. After depositing us they would surrender their dance ticket and go out and dance. Many times my folks probably only danced three sets at a cost of ten cents per set. I think my sister and I got in free but my parents had to pay 10 cents each to get in and ten cents a dance so all total probably spent only 50 cents. Sometimes Dad would buy us each a sack of popcorn (5 cents) to eat while they danced so $1 went a long ways in those days.
Later on while I was in high school in the summer it was almost mandatory that one go to the Roof Garden and dance. I worked as a printer's devil at the Milford Mail and being that we did a great deal of advertising the Roof Garden's dance schedules were given two season passes. The other printers and owners used only one pass occasionally and I received the other. The passes allowed free entry except big name bands; we had to pay the tax. Needless to say I didn't miss many bands in those days and recall many of the big names bands of the time, Benny Goodwin, Dorsey Brothers, Glen Miller, Lawrence Welk, Blue Baron, etc.
When I was in World War II and stationed in India and China the living conditions were not always the best. Driving a truck miles and miles on bad roads gave one time to think. Many a night I would "dream" of dancing at the Roof Garden and could almost hear, see and feel like being there. Using your imagination helped pass the time. I also dreamed of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and string beans until I could almost taste them.
Many of you old timers who frequented the Iowa Great Lakes recall with affection the Roof Garden. The "Roof" was an institution that has no equal. The Roof Garden was a dance hall that was built on the roof of many stores at Arnolds Park. It actually was a roof. The Roof Garden and the Casino (in Terrace Park) opened the same year (1923). Many locals doubted the area could support both. It surprised the "nay-sayers" because both not only survived, but prospered. In those years there was a great deal of competition for ballroom dancers because, along with those two, there was also the Central Ballroom and the Wigwam dance floor at Brooks. The Roof Garden was under many different managers and owners over the years.
In 1933 the Roof Garden was operated by the Spencer American Legion and Legion Auxiliary. The season opened on May 27. The Carl West Orchestra was featured. Prior to playing at the Roof the Carl West Orchestra played at the Central Ballroom in 1932. When Karl Westenberger and Mr. Becker (owner of the Central) were negotiating it was evident that Westenberger was too long to fit on an advertising bill, so Mr. Becker suggested the name Carl West. Karl Westenberger used that name for many years and Mr. Becker never let Carl forget that it was he who picked that name. Interesting sidelight: the band members and wives in the Carl West Orchestra lived in the lower level of the Central that summer. In 1933 Manny Strand, a popular Lakes Area pianist, also played at the Roof with the Carl West Orchestra.
Many of you will recall that dancing at the Roof could be a very crowded affair. The couples were constantly bumping or trying to avoid bumping into each other. The Roof was usually fairly cool because it was very open and could catch breezes off West Lake Okoboji. That was not always the case and many times it was "swing and sweat." On May 30, 1933 single admissions totaled 2,071 and by the end of June over 20,000 admissions had been sold. That is a lot of dancers so no wonder the Roof dance floor was crowded.
The admission price was not so bad -- 10 cents. When you entered at the top of the steps you were stamped on the back of your hand. Couples would purchase dance tickets at 10 cents and this permitted them to one set of musical numbers played by the orchestra. The dance floor would be emptied of people and as you entered the dance floor you surrendered your ticket. The band would play three or four numbers and then the "rope girls" would herd you off the dance floor and this method was repeated again and again. Years later general admission tickets were used and one could dance all night or until the place closed.
Many of us can remember how crowded the dance floor would become with all the couples dancing. I recall one story told by Fran Fitzgibbons of Estherville when he and Evie were dancing at the Roof. The band had played a number and while the band members were getting their next number's music out the dancers could stop and rest a minute or two. Fran looked at the couple next to them and said to the man, "You look like Phil Harris." The fellow responded by saying, "I should. I am Phil Harris." Phil Harris and Alice Faye were frequent visitors to the Lakes Region for several years and Fran never got over that encounter.
The Palm Garden was directly below the Roof Garden and they served 3.2 beer. Couples could go down after a dance or two, get a beer or go out on the state pier to cool off. If one wanted to really splurge a speedboat ride might be in order. All and all it was pretty laid back sort of an evening and many of us who frequented the Roof and danced to the great swing bands reminisce over and over again. Those were great times and dancing was really "dancing."