SHALL THE creaking bones live again? Ah, so. Ballroom dancing to big-band sounds is back, and starting at 8 tonight there will be this ancient entertainment every Sunday through September at Glen Echo Ballroom.
For some, the three-bucks-a-head admission is cheap enough for a revival of the golden '30s and '40s, when "In the Mood" and "September Song" and all that was going on.
And the National Park Service is convinced that not only all the old codgers but also the barely nubile are ready for the old days.
It cannot be too widely trumpeted that millions of Americans felt stranded at low tide when the big bands collapsed and everybody stopped fox-trotting and tangoing and started jumping up and down to a couple of tin whistles. Wha' happen to the music?
Tom Cunningham conducts the 17-man band for the Glen Echo elegance, at the very time that sales are said to be off for disco and punk rock. The guys in the band all wear dinner jackets and probably scrub their ears.
Remember the Andrews Sisters? Well, Robin Sheridan, Patty Elmore, and Marty DANCE, From K1 Bass sing as a trio as well as one by one. And the two guys who sing, Ryan Wojtanowski (who doubles on trombone) and Richard Bray, who does ballads, are calculated to make a lady swoon.
The band also plays at the Numbers Club on 19th Street and will move to the Shoreham Hotel in September, but if your sweet shoes can't wait, it's Glen Echo tonight.
So much for the news.
There is another side to the big-band phenomenon of yesteryear, though nobody ever says so, and that is that some people who were supposed to be enchanted by that music actively disliked, not to say hated, it.
There is one case of a fellow who grew up in one of those southern provincial capitals (Memphis), who danced a good steady 49,000 miles from 16 through 19 to Tony Pastor-type music--and never liked a minute of it, as far as the sound was concerned.
Oh, it was full enough, it was lush, it was professional and it was polished. But the guy thought at the time it was like a salad with mayonnaise instead of vinegar and garlic.
Come to think of it, dances in those days had a curious smell, by no means unpleasant, since even back then people took lots of baths and Lifebuoy was big. You didn't squirt out of cans. You just washed. In a way it was better.
But the smell had much to do with gardenias. Girls wore long dresses, of course, and spent hours getting gussied up. Makeup was more effective then, or maybe (since we are speaking of the under-20 set) there was less to remedy.
Gardenias came into full bloom in June. Most people had a few big five-foot bushes. Guys used to get mad that the florists charged something like 50 cents for gardenias, which was dumb when the town was alive with them, but you had to do it right and send flowers from the florist.
These gardenias were worn in the hair, on the wrist, on the bosom or (so help me) below the waist on the beginning of the outer thigh.
Dances started about 10 and lasted till 2. Air conditioning was new and had a sterile smell of its own. The wax on the floors may have had a smell also. The band warmed up and so did the dancers.
The ideal in the South has always been to jam twice as many people into a room as the room holds. There might be 1,000 kids milling about on the floor, give or take a few dozen stags looking morose and semi-disgusted, around the walls.
At least two-thirds of the people knew each other, but then again, the South was particularly clever in seeing to it that there was no way to know fewer than 2,000 people intimately.
This guy knew at least that many. As you danced, you were rarely more than two and a fifth inches from the next couple. Guys broke. Got new partners.
A common ordeal in such a town was the dancing school. In the case of our friend, it was Miss Frieda Mitchel's he was consigned to. She walked about at her full four-feet-seven in dancing sandals and opaque silk stockings (and a dress, of course), sprinkling granules of wax and issuing assorted imperial rebukes, especially to boys.
You sat on benches and Miss Frieda started up the Victrola and Tommy Dorsey or somebody wailed forth in a trio of dying saxophones and you walked--you did not run--to grab one of the four non-dogs as a partner.
After a few years of Miss Frieda's you could tango in your sleep and trot better than any 10 foxes of North America and waltz, too, if it came to that. You were prepared for the big dances of the town.
You picked the girl up in a borrowed car and she was always late enough to allow her family, especially her father, who commonly regarded you as a child molester, to look you up one side and down the other.
Out came Mamie, or Edna Earle or whatever the name happened to be, in a shower of net or rustles or both, and she was always astonished at the gorgeous gardenias you had sent. All gardenias were identical, but the girl had not seen the likes of these particular gardenias and you were so SWEET.
Girls heated up more then than now, or else it may be one has not danced much with them lately. It was important not to grab them too closely lest they crushed their dress or your hand left a sweat mark on their back. This was a transitional period, by the way, before World War II, in which some guys put a handkerchief over their right hand before putting it on the girl's back. But others thought that was unduly clinical.
Sometimes there was a long break about midnight for supper. Daring couples left and dined at one of those places where you got hamburgers for about a dime, but it was thought better form to go to the Dumpadumps, who were having a dinner at their house.
Then back to the dance. The second half was always better than the first. For one thing, you were somewhat anesthetized from lack of oxygen, and the silky wailing saxophones did not sound quite as asinine as formerly, and the girls were gladder to dance with you, having had time to be disillusioned with the ape-men who stepped on their hems.
One might go to New York to experience the big-time balls. Our friend, the one who never liked big-band music, did, with a couple of buddies at the age of 17. There might be an uncle who offered to phone the Stork Club or Twenty-One or Morocco to get a table for the three of you. But one was too awed. Who knows what one would do in such a place.
Besides, one of your friends knew all about New York and insisted the only place to go was the Astor. The three of you would go and find there was a coming-out party going on. Fine. There would be a 40-second conference bringing up such relevant facts that nobody knew the girl and none of us was invited, and having weighed the ethics and manners of the case, the three would march in. Since young males are largely indistinguishable, and largely unknown by the young women, there was no problem.
Except you might sit at a table and a waiter might come over and ask what you wanted to drink. Drink? Dear Lord, one had not thought of that. Frank, or the other guy, who also knew nothing, would take charge and ask if the French 75s were good.
"Excellent," the waiter would say. We reckoned we would have three. Only God knows what a French 75 is made of, but one is one too many for a 17 year old. We listened to the big band, commented on the cattle, and felt the glow that comes only once in a lifetime when (for once in a lifetime) one is a man of the world. If you were brave you could dance with a girl you never laid eyes on. The French 75s took forever to get down and were warm as cocoa at the last.
It was the thing to admire the drummer. Nobody ever knew what the hell a good drummer did that a mediocre drummer didn't, but it was necessary to comment on the great drummer and say something about Gene Krupa.
The New York dances didn't seem any different from the Memphis dances except you could get something utterly evil like a drink and the girls didn't all have gardenias, only about a fourth of them.
Probably won't be a one at Glen Echo.