“I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, honey/Better be ready ‘bout half past eight/Honey, don’t be late/Gotta be there when the band starts playin’” -from “Dark Town Strutter’s Ball,” by Shelton Brooks
“When I was a teenager, we had three dance places that we could go to: the Blue Haven, the YMCA, which was still in town on Summer Street, and the dance hall on Main Street where the bowling alley was. That was up over Cutting’s Department Store.”
“We used to go dancing there when we were in our mid-twenties. We had so many little restaurants that we went to on Bank Street. That whole area was busy. We had so many nice stores that we’ve lost, like Newberry’s and Grant’s and Woolworth’s. In the evening, we used to go to the soda shops. There was Rice’s Drug Store and Candyland. We had the Apothecary Hall. They were noted for their sundaes and mochas in there. We had three movie houses: the Richmond, the Paramount, and the Mohawk. To draw in the kids, they used to give away things like a Shirley Temple dish.”
“I miss the dance halls, the places to go for entertainment. There are places like the Eagles and the Elks, but they’re not like they were then. The theaters have closed down. If you don’t drive, it’s hard to get down to the cinemas there on the Curran Highway.” -Marjorie Rynkowski
In the early 1970s, when the last piece of heavy equipment rolled out of town, and the final truckload of junk headed to the landfill, North Adams was left with a huge plot of dirt on the south side of Main Street. For many years, the only reason anyone had to go there was when the carnival came to town.
In a photo taken by Anthony Accetta in the summer of 1975, one can see a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a few rides, a small midway, and a bunch of utility vehicles and trailers scattered about. The police station and a hotel (now the Holiday Inn) fill in the background. In a photo taken by Sonny Shapiro, probably around the same time, there is no carnival, just a few cars parked in no particular order, and virtually nothing between the Main Street and the new North Adams Transcript building on the other side of the parking lot.
Writers often depend on romantic images for inspiration. If I close my eyes, I can imagine a middle-aged couple in some club or dance hall in the late ‘60s. They are holding each other close and dancing the last dance, as an era fades into history. It probably didn’t happen that way. Still, a musician I met at the Miss Adams Diner last year told me he played the final gig at a bar at the Phoenix Hotel (formerly the Richmond), and it was like “the last dance on the Titanic.” Supposedly, the day before Pat’s Café came down on Ashland Street, patrons had one last fling, drinking a toast to Pat as the crane waited outside.
“Heaven, I’m in heaven/And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak/And I seem to find the happiness I seek/When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek” -from “Cheek To Cheek,” by Irving Berlin
Several weeks ago, on the spur of the moment, my wife and I drove over from Northampton to attend the Friday evening Swing Dance Party at Mass MoCA. It started raining as we headed across Stewart White Road in Cheshire, which connects to East Road in Adams and comes out by the McCann School. When we got to Marshall Street, the Mass MoCA parking lot was full, and we had to park about halfway down the lot by St. Anthony’s Church. The dance was supposed to be in the courtyard, but the rain forced a relocation to MoCA’s great new theater, the Hunter Center for Performing Arts.
The place was mobbed. Hundreds of people were sitting in the theater seats as some brave couples tried the acrobatic steps demonstrated by a man and woman from Jacob’s Pillow Dance Company. The band was loud and swinging. When the demonstration was over and the band kicked in with the next number, the floor suddenly filled up, colored lights flashed, and the place was humming. I couldn’t get over the diversity of the crowd. There were teenagers with nose rings, a little girl dancing with her father, graceful old-timer couples, a mother dancing while holding her baby, old women dancing with each other, and a tattooed biker-type. There were Mass MoCA employees dancing next to former Sprague workers. And of course, there was my wife and I.
“I won’t dance, don’t ask me/I won’t dance, don’t ask me/I won’t dance, Madame, with you/My heart won’t let my feet do things that they should do” -from “I Won’t Dance,” by Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh and Jerome Kern
I can’t dance at all. But it looked like fun, so I tried. It was so crowded that I kept bumping into people. Finally we found an empty corner, and I figured out a few steps. It was wonderful to see so many people having a good time, especially since we were only several blocks away from downtown. People were out on the town dancing again, this time at the old Sprague buildings. The writer in me wondered if that mythical couple who had the last dance at the Phoenix, now 30 years older, was one of those graceful pairs who were dancing closer to each other than the younger folks.
When we left at 10:30, we walked around to the south side of the building. We stared up at the power plant on the other side of the river. It looked spooky and a thousand times bigger at night. We listened to the music and watched the colored lights in the windows of the old factory building, now a theater, and wondered if any moment could ever be as magical and crazy as this one. Before we headed home, we took a walk on Main Street and stared at the restored Mohawk Theater marquee. The dazzling neon is another symbol of hope in a city on its way back.
Thanks to Mass MoCA, North Adams will have no more “last dances.” The band is just warming up.