Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dancing into the past

Folks came to learn more about the historic Tretheway Pavilion. What they got was that and a lot more, as writer Paul Higbee teamed up with musician Gary Mule Deer for a rare evening of history and music last night (1/5/10) at the Spearfish Senior Citizen’s Center.

Some 50 people braved freezing temperatures and light snow to attend the January meeting of the Spearfish Area Historical Society.

Spearfish native Paul Higbee – who has presented many society programs over the years – was back to talk about the old Spearfish Park Pavilion, known these days as the Tretheway Pavilion.

Last year, the building was one of the first inductees into the South Dakota Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t know that buildings could be members of Halls of Fame,” Higbee quipped, “but it is – along with another building, the Arkota Ballroom in Sioux Falls,”

But the history of the Spearfish Park Pavilion pre-dates even its legendary rock ‘n roll era. Likely built in the 1920’s, the pavilion was a center of much activity – from roller skating to boxing. Of course, it was dancing that increasingly dominated the scene, especially after movies replaced much of the dancing in the old Matthews Opera House.

When Higbee asked how many in the audience had actually gone to dances at the pavilion – about half the crowd raised their hands. One lady volunteered that she’d danced there in the 1930s to Henry Phillips and the Ambassadors, a Lead group that was one of the more popular area bands.

But by the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, it was rock ‘n roll that launched a new era for the pavilion. Artists like the Everly Brothers (at right), the Shirelles, Chubby Checker, Seals & Croft, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others, scheduled shows at the pavilion – usually when they were on their way from one city to another, like Denver or Cheyenne to Minneapolis.

This was music with an edge,” said Higbee, “and it was connected to booze, and fights, and cigarettes, and – yes, sex. He noted that Gary Mule Deer once told him, while discussing the Spearfish park pavilion, that “rock and roll was about being defiant, and parents hated it!

For kids growing up in that era, nighttime radio in western North America was dominated by the 50,000-watt powerhouse, “KOMA in Oklahoma.” The Oklahoma City station, at 1520 on the AM dial, would often mention the performers and dances scheduled throughout their wide listening area – including those at the “Spearfish Park Pavilion.” For most KOMA listeners, it was probably the first time they’d ever heard of the little town in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

By the 1970s, the pavilion happened upon hard times. Heating was becoming a big problem for the old white clapboard building, and by the 1980s there was even talk of tearing it down.

That’s when Mayor Wilbur Tretheway helped save the building. A generation earlier, Tretheway had been a member of the Henry Phillips band that played in the pavilion. The mayor helped lead a successful campaign to save and refurbish the building. Today, it carries his name.

Another fellow who’s no stranger to the pavilion is Gary Mule Deer. A surprise addition to the January program, Mule Deer spent nearly an hour singing and sharing anecdotes about the Spearfish Park Pavilion and the rock ‘n roll era.

Both Mule Deer and the Tretheway Pavilion were named to the South Dakota Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame last year. Higbee noted that another Spearfish resident – Larry Bell – is slated for induction into the Hall of Fame this year.

Our Spearfish History Gallery shares a bit more information and a few additional photos from the Tretheway Pavilion presentation.

Next month, history about "Lookout Mountain" will be shared by long-time resident Paul Dingeman. That program is set for 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, February 2nd. As always, the public is invited, and there’ll be refreshments served after the program.