Article below appeared at Gazette.com on August 29, 2014.
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The Gayla Ballroom opened in 1955, burned down in 1983
INDEPENDENCE — The Gayla Ballroom, an Independence landmark from its 1955 opening until it burned to the ground in 1983, will be inducted into the Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Music Association Hall of Fame on Aug. 31.
It “played a significant role in the promotion of rock ’n’ roll for a long time,” said Doris Welle, the association’s interim executive director.
The Gayla, which opened when rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy, “brought in some really big names, the biggest stars of the era,” Welle said.
The 176- by 96-foot ballroom was billed as “the finest floor for dancing and skating in northeast Iowa,” according to a brief history compiled by descendants of Joe and Orpha Schmit, who built and managed the Gayla.
Scores of those descendants will be on hand Sunday for the induction ceremony at the SAMI Center in Spirit Lake.
Though Iowa is not widely considered a hotbed of rock ’n’ roll music, Welle said it had a disproportionate influence in promoting the genre because Iowa had more ballrooms per capita than any other state when rock blossomed in the 1950s.
Those venues, she said, gave up-and-coming performers much-needed exposure, and they provided midweek tour dates for many of the biggest names in show business.
Deb Crawford of Quasqueton and Kristi Reck of Winthrop, both granddaughters of Joe and Orpha Schmit, have documented hundreds of acts that performed at the Gayla.
Their research, which included searching archived newspapers for ads promoting dances at the ballroom, indicates that most of the big-names that performed at the Gayla were more closely associated with big band and country and western music than with rock ’n’ roll.
Stars that performed at the Gayla include Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Wanda Jackson, Faron Young and Don Gibson.
Reck and Crawford said they found ads promoting an appearance by Johnny Cash but have yet to find evidence that he actually performed at the Gayla.
Leo Schmit of Winthrop, who was 15 when his parents built the Gayla, said the ballroom featured a “floating, silent floor” constructed in eight separate operations.
The hardwood floor that people danced and skated on was attached to two-by-four boards floating in a layer of liquid tar above a concrete subfloor, said Schmit, who helped with its construction.
“The only sound you heard was that made by shoes or skates moving across it,” he said.
The floor was built in an octagonal pattern so skate wheels were not constantly clicking across board joints, he said.
Schmit said the floor was waxed before dances, and the wax had to be scrubbed off before skating could resume.
“We also had to move 100 tables and 400 chairs before and after every dance,” he said.
Initially organ music accompanied the skating, but that was soon replaced by rock ’n’ roll records, often supplied by the skaters themselves.
Two other music venues, Vets Auditorium of Des Moines and the Chesterfield Club of Sioux City, also will be inducted into the hall this weekend, along with several bands and individuals.
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