gala

For the past three Saturday evenings, I have attended a gala. Two were black-tie events while the other called for dressing fashionably. Of course, there have been other events during the past year that were filled with fun but attending three in a row caused me to reminisce about such affairs in the past.

As I reflected on these fun-filled events, my mind kept flashing back, over and over again, to the galas and dances that I attended, back in the day.

The Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Drexelbrook Catering and Special Event Center in Drexel Hill and the Crowne Plaza in King of Prussia were the venues of these last three affairs. Then there are other locations where I experienced enjoyable evenings in recent years such as Springfield Country Club and the Sandy Run Country Club.

But, the places where we went to dance “the bop, stroll, cha-cha, the strand, the slop and the “slow drag” in the 1960s and ‘70s have, for the most part, disappeared. The buildings may still stand but as a place for galas, cabarets and dances, they no longer exist; they remain but faint memories.

I am sure many of you recall some of these dance halls and ballrooms. If not, let me refresh your memory!

Let me highlight a few that were quite popular when many of us were in our heyday. Think about “getting down” at the Adelphia Ball Room, the Republican Club, the Wynne Ballroom, Times’ Auditorium, the George T. Cornish Post and the Cornucopia. Then there were the “elaborate” affairs at the Sheraton Hotel on JFK Boulevard.

If you attended an event at any of these places, I suspect that you enjoyed yourselves immensely. These were the places where you developed and refined your “game.” For me, one venue stands out more today than any other place I frequented for partying in the past.

So, what was this place where many of us went for food, music and dances in the past? It was that ballroom that was once a roller skating rink, located at 219 S. 60th St., in the section that, back in the day, we used to call “up the way” or “the top.”

There were notable differences in going to a dance at the Imperial Ballroom and attending a dance at one of today’s popular venues. If you were around during the ‘60s and ‘70s you can identify differences that stand out in your mind. The one thing that stands out in my mind is the limited parking. Back then, there were no parking lots so street parking was the only option for the Imperial Ballroom.

It seems like just yesterday when I went to the Imperial Ballroom with some friends and my best friend decided to park his brand-new Pontiac Grand Prix on the grounds of a service station, less than a block away from the event’s venue. Since the service station was closed, we thought that parking there was harmless. After all, other automobiles were also parked on the lot. So, we opted to park there as opposed to parking many blocks away and confronting a walk that was a challenge even in our younger days.

At the end of the evening, as we left the Imperial Ballroom and walked toward the location where my friend’s automobile was parked, our pace slowed as we approached the service station and strange looks appeared on the faces of others heading in the same direction. The strange looks were a result of the positioning of my friend’s automobile; the front end was tilted down. Upon closer inspection, there were no wheels on the front of the automobile. Yes, they were completely gone; tires and rims included.

So, parking back then, on the streets where gangs roamed, in front of driveways, on private business lots, presented challenges that we do not face today. Patronizing facilities that have large parking lots or parking garages is a must if you expect people to attend your affairs today. Many of the places we go today are so safe that you can leave your coat visible in your automobile. Yes, with a little caution, you can do this today but that was unthinkable, back in the day.

Admittance to dances of the past were via modestly printed tickets that sold for $5 to $10 for admission. Try putting out such a modest amount for an event today and your only alternative would be to stay home. Prices for today’s affairs range from $75 to $125 or higher.

Go back and look at some of the invitations for those classy events you have attended recently. I suspect that you will agree that they are — in this day and age — first class. Folk are very conscious of the image of their organization and the invitation or ticket must be representative of the class and style of the organization.

I do not recall events in the past where one’s admittance to an event was free, with the cost being picked up by the person that sponsored your participation. While there are exceptions, you just do not get to go to those highly desirable events you care to attend today without knowing someone or without being sponsored.

You may also recall that the music at the Imperial Ballroom was provided by a disk jockey. The music at our galas and dances today come from bands with vocal accompanist. Then think about one of the first things you do when going to a gala or dance today when the weather is chilly or cold. You look for the coat check where your coat is safely checked until your departure. This was not the way coats were handled in the past. Back then, you took your coat with you to your table and placed it on the back of the chair.

As some of you know from personal experiences, it was not unusual for your coat to “walk away” while you were out on the floor dancing. Going home without the coat that you wore upon arrival at the Imperial Ballroom was something that routinely occurred, back in the day.

If you have traveled in the same circles in which I have traveled for galas and dances in recent years, collations meet a standard unlike what we witnessed in the past. If you recall what it was like in the past then you undoubtedly know what I mean.

The first hour of today’s events are often set aside for a reception with a variety of hors d’oeuvres and an open bar to refresh the palates of most of the guests. Perhaps a few guests were more interested in the aftereffect of the open bar — you know, getting tipsy. There were no finger foods passed around during the reception portion of a gala or dance in the past. Nor were there open bars at the Imperial Ballroom.

I only recall being able to purchase “set-ups” that were used to mix with those alcoholic beverages that were purchased from the State Store and brought into our affairs in paper bags. What snacks and foods we ate at our affairs often came into our facilities by way of paper bags. It was mostly at cabarets where containers of potato salad, trays of lunch meats, and of course, “the yard bird” or fried chicken, came out of bags and were arranged on the tables.

You are probably smiling when I point out those drinks that we brought to events in the past. These drinks are not even served at the open or cash bars at today’s events. So, where are the bottles of Old Crow and Southern Comfort? Most of my friends will not go near the “hard stuff” that was consumed, back in the day.

Despite the changes from back then to now, one thing remains consistent with galas and dances today as compared to events of the past. People dress to kill today just as they did back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even if it meant going out to the corner bar or lounge, we got dressed up.

I do not want to suggest that the Imperial Ballroom was the only place that caused us to get dressed up to go out to dances to have “big fun.” You know that there were many other venues. But, while there are significant changes in what we do today as compared to how things were done in the past, I suspect that we all will agree that one thing remains consistent. Whether it is Drexelbrook Catering and Special Event Center or the Imperial Ballroom in the past, if you patronized both, you can attest to having big fun in both venues today just as you had big fun, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19146

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