Once-packed Vivian Dance Hall still stands as Main Street symbol of musical past, changing times

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Lonis Wendt is the unofficial keeper of the Vivian Dance Hall.

When Lonis Wendt opens the south door of the Vivian Dance Hall, the building gently exhales — its breath musty and cold from mildew and winter.

But as the 84-year-old Vivian musician and self-styled historian steps inside and shuffles out onto the scuffed hardwood floor, the moldy smell begins to fade and the temperature seems to rise with the warmth of recollection.

And, oh, there is a lot to remember here.

“I think it was 1964 when they brought the Blue Barron in here,” Wendt says. “He’d taken over a lot of Guy Lombardo’s orchestra, and they got him to make a stop here when he was on his way to Seattle. They figured we had close to 1,800 in here that night. They took turns dancing because the floor was full.”

Main Street might well have been packed that night, too. It often was on Saturday nights when the otherwise sleepy town of Vivian turned into a noisy summertime destination for  young people — and the not-so-young, too — with a burning desire to dance and socialize.

No place in central South Dakota offered such a venue more consistently and for more years than the Vivian Dance Hall.

“It was a lot of fun,” says Brad Smith, a 62-year-old Vivian native. “ There were times when you couldn’t get across Main Street. It was bumper to bumper traffic in both directions.”

There’s no bumper-to-bumper traffic in town these days, and hasn’t been for a long time. Like the historic dance hall itself, the unorganized Lyman County town that surrounds it reflects the inexorable realities of population shifts away from farm and ranch country across most of the state to metropolitan areas in the east and west.

“We lost our high school  in 1970,” says Wendt, a retired rural mail carrier. “We held onto our grade school until the fall of ’77. At that time we still had three churches and a couple of grocery stores, believe it or not, a couple gas stations and garages, an elevator, a real good bank and  the post office.”

There are still a few businesses and a small bank that’s open part-time on a well-maintained Main Street, as well as a clean, cheerful little park. And the Coffee Cup Truck Stop on the Interstate 90 exit to Pierre less than two miles away offers a variety of consumer options when needed.

But the small grocer that hung on for years on Main Street closed a couple years ago, and a succession of drab, gray buildings decay in-between those that are hopefully tended. Midway up Main Street a modern. brightly painted eatery called the Bearcat Den — named for the old Vivian High School mascot — has a “for sale” sign out front.

“I hate to see that,” Wendt says as we drive slowly past. “The owners winter down south, so we don’t know what they have in mind.”

But Wendt knows what he has in mind on a warm spring afternoon. He wants to show me around the town he loves and make a stop at the dance hall, which was inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Association Hall of Fame in 2012. And I want the same thing.

The history of dance-hall celebrations goes back in this town to the early 1920s, when the local American Legion formed a chapter and constructed a wood dance floor to use for fundraiser events.

“And they let it go like that for a couple of years,” Wendt says. “Then they decided maybe they ought to put a tent over it because the snow and rain were warping the floor. Then they built a building over it.”

That building, which still stands next to the current dance hall on Main Street, was constructed in the late 1920s and used into the early 1950s hosted bands with names like Ruby’s Ramblers, The Dittos, Johnny Big Eagle and Johnny Hines. And they played before crowds doing the two-step, polka and jitterbug, among other footsie forms of expression.

Eighty-two-year-old Ray Herman, a farmer/rancher south of Presho, and his wife, Twyla, were regular dancers with a passion for polka. They remember dancing in Vivian to a number of bands, including Lonis Wendt and Yesterday's Wine, and the Dittos -- which included husband and wife Ward and Frances Dittman.

"They played a lot of four-fours and a few old polka numbers, just kind of old time stuff," Ray Herman says. "And they were pretty prominent Saturday night band in the area."

Herman remembers dancing at both the old Vivian Dance Hall and its replacement.

"Yeah, that old one, there was a fistfight about every time you'd go there," he says. "And I remember you had to go downstairs to go to the bathroom."

The beverage consumption that led many to those bathroom trips often contributed to the fights.

"I remember the guys would go outside to their cars to have a drink. They wouldn't let you bring alcohol into the hall," Ray says. "And I remember a lot of them that weren't dancing would go down to Jack Goodwin's Ford dealer down on the highway to have a drink."

Those who worked up a powerful thirst had options in Vivian, too, Wendt says.

“Vivian got what you might call advanced entrepreneurship for its day, and decided to have a bar here in town where you could buy a drink and sit down,” he says. “That was kind of unusual around here at first. Then  into the late 1950s the other towns realized that if they didn’t  have a bar they wouldn’t get into this action.”

The action at the Vivian Dance Hall continued as musical trends shifted in the late 1940s and into the 1950s toward rock n’ roll. The old dance hall was retired when a new city gymnasium and community hall was built with donated funds and volunteer labor in 1952.  The floor new success right away, too, with a different kind of fast-moving feet. The Vivian High School Bearcats took district championships in basketball that first year and in 1955.

But soon the building was also serving as the new home for the dance tradition in town. And it was kept busy with the rock n’ roll craze.

“That was the next thing, with Elvis and everything, you know,” Wendt says. “The Hutchison brothers from Presho, that was our first rock ’n roll dance here. We have the dance bills from when they first played here.”

A framed dance poster for the group hangs among other dance-related memorabilia inside the entrance of the dance hall. It reads: “In Person, HEP recording stars DJ & the Cats. The most versatile rock ’n roll band in the Midwest.”

According to the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association, the group formed in Presho in 1956 when teenage brothers Terry and Travis Hutchison ordered a Silvertone guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Joined by high-school pals Austin Kotz and Dick Dolly, they played as The Cats.

When the Hutchisons went to SDSU they met two new band mates, Don Hansen and Jay Webster, and DJ & The Cats emerged. The membership would change again over the years, but always with the Hutchisons at the core.

Eventually the group, like the Vivian Dance Hall itself, made it to the state hall of fame.

A guitar player and singer himself, Wendt played in a band while at the University of South Dakota, and they made an appearance in Vivian in 1958. About that time, a hot new band out of Sioux Falls was playing its way to regional stardom.

Myron Robert Wachendorf was attending Washington High School in Sioux Falls when he and some buds formed The Caddies. Wachendorf would become Myron Lee and the band would be known as Myron Lee and the Caddies.

After playing to packed houses in Sioux Falls, the group began to take dates in other towns in 1958, eventually cut record singles and albums and made live appearances with the likes of Bobby Vee and Dick Clark in the early 1960s.

Also destined for the hall of fame, Myron Lee and the Caddies quite naturally joined the flow of bands heading for Vivian.

 “I probably played there a half a dozen times starting in 1959,” says Lee, now a part-time bank security guard in Sioux Falls. “Because of the building, the sound in there wasn't very good and it was very loud. The crowds were always big and a lot of fights outside every time. I have good memories of playing there, though.”

Wendt says old-timers have good memories of Myron Lee and the Caddies, too, including one Saturday when the group arrived a few hours early and strolled up and down Main Street, shaking hands and shooting home movies.

“And they were pretty nice to listen to, compared to a lot of what we hear today,” Wendt says.

Nice-listening music and clusters of feet are rare in the Vivian Dance Hall these days, outside of an occasional anniversary celebration or wedding dance. The dance-hall days began to fade in the 1970s, when law enforcement got serious about drunk driving.

What was good for highway safety turned out to be bad for the Vivian Dance Hall.

“By the late ‘70s the rules on that had changed,” Wendt says. “And they started setting up blockades on the way out of town to make people go through a liquor test. And it took about two months to kill the rock n’ roll dances.”

That was also about the time that Vivian residents were adjusting to not having their school, and watching the population continue to edge down.

Historical records indicate a population of 175 in 1921. The 2000 census count was 131. And Wendt figures the population now at around 110.

That long-term population decline was significant but not a fatal blow for the community, which was founded in 1906 and named after the wife of lawyer, land agent and railroad executive Harry Hunter. The impacts of the general de-population have been softened by people like Brad Smith and his wife, Deb. He works in Pierre in the city business office and she teaches in Presho. They like living in-between the two.

Smith says he lived in Pierre for a number of years but moved back to Vivian about 20 years ago. It’s a reasonable 35-mile drive to state capital, mostly on a four-lane highway, so the commute isn’t bad.

“I just like it here,” he says. “It’s the intimacy of the place, I guess, and having grown up here. You can walk uptown and people gather at the corner and talk.”

A person can also stop by the Lutheran Church — the last church left in town — each morning for a cup of coffee and conversation.

“They put the pot on and the group gathers and solves the world’s problems,” Smith says.

Like Smith, Wendt likes the intimacy of the community. He knows Vivian is a tough place to make a living, is considered too small and too isolated by many and isn’t likely to see much growth. But some people still find a reason to come, and stay, a decision that Wendt celebrates.

“We’ve got a few families living here with jobs in Pierre,” he said. “So we’re kind of a bedroom community in that way. We’re along the interstate and we’ve got that four lane going to Pierre. And for the younger people, I’m sure housing is a little cheaper here.”

He says some things are actually better than they were back in the glory days, when the Vivian Dance Hall was hopping.

“We added a sanitation system in the ‘70s. And before that people had cess-pool things in their backyards, and some didn’t have a drain field,” Wendt says. “So some people would just pump it out on the ground.”

The water system has also greatly approved in the town, thanks to high-quality Missouri River water through the Mni Wiconi system that began to flow into Vivian in 2003.

“We had the artesian water before, and nothing would grow,” Wendt says. “Before Mni Wiconi, the towns around here all had their problems. It seems like the artesian was different in each town. Here we’d say, ‘Drink it real cold and you won’t taste it so much.’ Draper’s was different than ours. Then you’d go to Kennebec and drink it and by the time you got home you’d have the runs.”

And not in a morning jog sort of way.

“Murdo, you know, they used the Murdo Dam water,” Wendt continues. “And there were times in the year when you could taste the fish.”

The bad tastes and related water woes are gone for Vivian and neighboring towns, thanks to the mammoth rural water system.

Good water, good sanitation, a community park and an upgraded community hall are all reasons for Wendt and others to feel good about Vivian and its future.

“It’s a good place to live,” he says. “And we still have a lot of pride in our town.”

And in the sweet sounds of its musical past, too.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.