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Skylon walls coming down but memories live on for area residents

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HARTINGTON – If these walls could speak, there would be chatter about brides in exquisite white lace and grooms in traditional black and white suits with bow ties.

Most likely, these walls would gossip about the boy who asked the girl to couple skate, the joining of sweaty palms, and rollers clacking against the hardwood floor.

There would be tales of the perfect item found at a bargain price amongst the rummage sale tables, and yarns spun about the bands who took the stage, the crowd who sang along, hips swaying to a steady beat.

The walls of the Skylon Ballroom have stood the test of time - more than 70 years - but may soon be torn down.

Its downfall is leaving many with heavy hearts full of memories and traditions that extend beyond the confinement of its four walls.

The last dance at the Skylon has been set for Saturday, July 13, after Hartington residents voted against a $1.6 million proposal to move and refurbish it into a community event center. City officials said a community center is desperately needed and will most likely cost twice as much to build new. While there are other places in town to accommodate an event, the Skyline was the largest with enough space to seat 640 people.

Large events bring new people to town who also bring their money with them, providing a boost to the local economy.

“If Hartington don’t have a facility dance hall or something else, to come and enjoy and put on big dances and festivities, where are we going to go? Go out of town. And that takes revenue away from Hartington. It’s definitely needed there’s no question. Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t think it was needed. They were wrong - at least that’s my feeling,” said Bill Yates, Hartington.

The vote also left Roger Wortmann a bit sad and disappointed.

“I don’t think the public knew what could happen and it wasn’t worded right,” he said of the ballot language.

He’s owned the Skylon for the last 30 years but needs to make room for a business expansion at his Plumbing & Electric business, located north of the ballroom.

“It’s a tough thing to work around to get into our building,” he said. “I have to get rid of it.”

But doing what needs to be done is not as easy as it sounds, Wortmann said.

He’s the first to reminisce about celebrations and momentous events held at the ballroom facility and tout its importance to the Hartington community.

That wasn’t always the case.

When he first gained ownership of the massive ballroom, demolition was definitely on his mind.

“It was leaking pretty bad and there was a lot of things wrong with it,” he said.

Wortmann also recalls when the building’s lack of functional air conditioning ruined a wedding.

Some Hartington residents heard he was planning on tearing it down in those early days and convinced him to renovate instead. Along came a new roof, new airconditioning and repairs to the sidewalls, among other improvements.

It was some time later, Wortmann added permanent special occasion decor - lights and banners - to the ballroom ceiling which was a beautiful update and convenience for brides wanting a special look but not the hassle of dealing with the ballroom’s 30-foot high ceilings, said Elaine Arens, Hartington.

The building’s flooring has been in need of replacement for several years and that was part of the final straw for Wortmann who often put the Skylon’s demands above his own personal time.

Flooring came from the former American Legion building in Hartington and from the former Homewood Park Dance Hall in Wynot.

The Homewood Park hall was owned by Ferdie Peitz who decided to close it and tear it down after issues with flooding.

“Every time it rained, it would flood down there,” Yates said of the Homewood Park. Peitz took Yates in under his wing and he was treated like a son. “It was a wonderful place with nice dances. There was a swimming pool down there in that area and cabins. He used it as a recreation place and it was really wonderful but it wasn’t feasible to try to keep it going with flooding every time it rained.”

Instead, Peitz decided to replicate and enlarge the ballroom in Hartington with the construction of the Skylon in 1952.

Clarence Hoesing was instrumental in building the Skylon with the trusses and rafters built right on the spot in the parking lot, Yates said.

“I helped pour the cement and footings for Ferdie,” recalled Duane Arens, Hartington. “All the neighbors around here really put that hall up for him.”

Yates has fond memories of working at the Skylon, picking up trash from outside, filling the beer coolers and selling popcorn as a teenager.

“People would try to steal my popcorn and I would hit them over the hand with the scoop,” he said. “That was a money maker. Nobody was going to take my popcorn.”

Yates recalled the Skylon being packed for rollerskating events or anytime a live band played.

“It was full,” he said. “I don’t know how many people would be there, I can’t tell you that but there was a good crowd every time.”

The Arenses managed the Skylon in the 1970s, otherwise known as the Skylon’s Big Band era.

Well-known national, regional and local bands were welcomed including the du-wop melodies of The Casinos, rock from The Grass Roots, and orchestra tunes from Tony Bradley. Other notable acts included the Eddie Skeets Band, The Wanted Band, the Solid Eight, and The Smoke Ring, musician Louis Armstrong, among others.

“The Wanted was our best, our No. 1 rock and roll band. Solid Eight was our No. 1 ballroom,” Duane said. “Revolver was a good band but was awful loud.”

“You’d put your hand against the wood and it would just shake,” Elaine added.

They were both surprised when Revolver added pyrotechnics to its Skylon Ballroom show as no one from the band let them know ahead of time there would be a fire element to the show.

The Skylon was inducted into the Nebraska Music Association Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

“Music was changing and coming back to the Midwest. The state of Minnesota alone had 200 ballrooms that’s how much dancing was being done then,” Duane said. “Those bands all begged (to play). We had bands call from all over.”

Just like the bands, spectators traveled from all over to take in the live shows. Tickets were generally $1 unless the band was very well known. In that case, tickets sold for $5, Duane said.

“We had exceptional years,” Duane said. “One New Year’s Eve, it was 20 below zero, and people were lined up on the highway to buy a ticket.”

He recalls holding three dances in 12 days and selling more than 1,500 tickets for each.

Elaine sold tickets and Duane would stand in the aisle to keep people moving, he said.

Elaine was also in charge of making Skylon taverns, going through about 40 pounds of hamburger for each event.

Denny Heimes, Hartington, helped by making buns for the taverns and was helping at the Skylon one night when his own handiwork hit him right in the face.

“A tavern hit him in the side of the face. Someone had thrown it,” Duane said. “I remember him saying, ‘They either didn’t like my buns or they didn’t like your meat.’ ” Running a dance hall in the 1970s came with its fair share of interesting experiences and the Arenses can recall quite a few from drugs being sold in the parking lot and youngsters siphoning gas from vehicles to fistfights on the dance floor.

“We had a dance one night and there was a whole crowd in front . . . and there was a guy trying to find an eye contact. Someone lost one. I said, ‘That’s a needle in a haystack.’ It could’ve been stuck on someone’s shoe,” Duane said. “We had a guy bail off the balcony one night, too.”

But those are just the few stories that stand out and 99 1/2 percent of those attending would behave well, he said.

During that time, the Skylon was generally booked on Saturdays for live music and then the building quickly turned over for rollerskating on Sundays.

“We’d clean it up on Saturday night if we had a dance so the floor was dry for skating on Sunday,” Duane said.

About 400 rollerskaters could be accommodated at 75 cents each.

“We had a lot of skating parties from South Dakota, Nebraska, schools coming in. You had to maintain those skates,” Duane said.

Tuesday nights at the Skylon were reserved for wedding dances.

“Nowadays you can’t hardly believe that weddings were on Tuesday,” Duane said.

“That was a standard thing,” Elaine added.

When they think back on their years working at the Skylon Ballroom, they think of the long hours and the hard work. Duane thinks of every single one of the 64 bearings on each rollerskate and Elaine thinks about all the time spent cleaning up.

But more than hard work, the Arens remember the friends met along the way and memories spent within those ballroom walls.

With the vote over and done, one could say the writing is on the wall. The building most likely will be demolished next year.

But for Wortman and Yates its the collective memories that keep them hopeful that there’s still some way to keep the Skylon going.

“It’s definitely needed and I’m disappointed that it won’t stay. I’m hoping it will still somehow be used,” Yates said.