Texas' disappearing dance halls

AUSTIN (KVUE)-- Some of the biggest stars in country music got their starts playing in small Texas dance halls.

But some of these Texas institutions are fading into the past while others thrive and remind the next generation of a time gone by.

"The day I got out of the army I started building the Broken Spoke. That was 1964, and I was 25-years-old," said James White, the owner of the Broken Spoke in Austin.

Mr. White is now 75. His beloved Broken Spoke still shines like the rhinestones on his red and black country western shirt.

He built a dance hall institution on two concepts: Cold beer, which was 25 cents a bottle in those days, and good music.

Acts like Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Dolly Parton were regulars on Spoke stage. Their old photographs line the wall James White's memorabilia room.

"I had over 20 country music hall of farmers who performed here," said White.

That superstar power has kept the Spoke rolling.

Just 45 miles south the place that claims to be the oldest continually operating dance hall in Texas has cashed in on the star power, too.

Everybody who's anybody and many who started as nobody in the world of country music have graced the stage of Gruene Hall.

Manager Shane Roch said, "There's guys who play you know for free for tips on Sunday all the way up to Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett [and] Los Lobos."

Gruene Hall is a place where flip flops and cowboy boots circle lock-step on the dance floor. The old wooden building has been the glue holding a community together for 136 years.

"Gruene started as a German immigrant farmer town, and it was the social center of the town. This used to be the mainstay of small towns all across Texas," said Roch

While dance halls like Gruene Hall and the Broken Spoke pack them in night after night the reality is, many dance halls in Texas are fading away. There were more than a thousand in their heyday of the early 1900s. That number has shrunk to less than 500 now.

"It's not as good as it used to be," said Barbra Worthy. She and her husband Tim run The Old Coupland Dance Hall and Inn in Coupland.

"It takes quite a bit of maintenance especially on an old building. Our old building is 108-years-old so you know it has its problems," said Tim Worthy.

Maintenance is just one of the struggles for Texas' old dance halls. Paying for the music is another.

Barbara Worthy explained, "We hire either the older musicians like the Gene Watson's, The Bellamy Brothers, Johnny Rodriquez. We used to have Gary Stuart two or three times a year. And we hire a lot of the upcoming artists. The artists that's in the middle, they're too expensive for us to hire."

"One issue that is really coming to a head right now, is a performing rights fee or a royalty fee," explained Patrick Sparks with Texas Dance Hall Preservation.

He is part of a group helping halls fight those fees which can be as high as $3,000.

"The fees that are being asked by the performing rights organization can be quite high compared to what the hall brings in, it is really a serious threat to how the hall can operate," said Sparks.

Another threat creeping in on dance halls is urban growth. Austin's Broken Spoke is a perfect example.

"The city limits was a mile down the road on the right out here, and now it is about six miles down that way," James White explained while pointing the opposite direction.

And most recently the sharp edges of modern apartments are like a wagon circle around the Spoke.

"We are surrounded. The apartments make it feel like it's the Alamo," White said with a laugh.

But the dance hall story doesn't have to end like the Alamo.

That growth is also an opportunity. That growth is also an opportunity to introduce new people to this piece of Texas heritage and save the dance halls one two step at a time.

Click here for more information on Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc.


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