River Views: 1919 L-A dance party ushered in new year

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They really knew how to party in the old days.

It was New Year’s Eve in 1919, and employees of the Cushman-Hollis Shoe Co. of Auburn were rockin’ at Lewiston City Hall. It was called, “without doubt, one of the biggest social affairs ever attempted in these cities.” The Lewiston Saturday Journal said more than 2,000 merrymakers participated in the frolic.

It was nothing new for the residents of Lewiston-Auburn to kick up their heels at a local dance. The newspapers announced many events sponsored by the Twin Cities’ many organizations, and there was no shortage of dance halls and bands, large and small, for the public’s dancing pleasure every weekend. All ages attended the dances at the Grange and lodge halls.

The Cush-Co Club’s New Year’s Eve party welcoming 1920 was a topper, according to the news reports.

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“Old and young, large and small, took part in the revelry,” the paper’s account said. “Griffin, the local decorator, spread himself by transforming City Hall, whose scarred walls and floors bear witness of many strenuous years, into a wonderland where the flags of all nations, in a bewildering color display, vied with the more delicately-hued gowns of the dancers. Serpentine streamers and flaming paper hats blended in a perfect riot of color and jazz.”

The entertainment started promptly at 8 p.m. There were a number of vocal solos, and at 9 o’clock, the floors were cleared. Dumais’ augmented band of 18 pieces took its place in the gallery, and Hobbs’ full orchestra occupied the stage, which was set with potted palms and American flags.

The festivities began with “favor dances,” and the program led up to the special “leap year waltz,” which was the first waltz after the new year.

“The feature of the program was the prize waltz,” the news story said. Eight couples took part, and one by one, the contestants dropped out until the judges gave the decision to Benjamin Peters and Miss Ruby Berry.

“At the stroke of midnight, the hall was suddenly enshrouded in darkness and the New Year was ushered in with deafening clamor. Crash of cannon, simultaneous blowing of horns and shrieks from the startled throng were blended in one grand noise. The lights went on and from the ceiling poured a storm of confetti. The band broke into the game again with flourish of instruments, and the dance was on.”

In exceptionally flowery terms, the story revealed that the “leap year waltz” was a ladies’ choice.

“All the wall flowers arose with one accord and embraced their opportunity. Girls who hadn’t danced for lo these many years suddenly appeared on the floor with partners who never would have had the courage to woo Terpsichore of their own accord.”

The reporter wrote that paper hats were set jauntily “on the hoary head of the octogenarian as well as the sleek, walrus-like top of the modern Lothario.”

The story said, “The wonder was where so much confetti came from. The dancers surged through the fluffy stuff like snowplows.”

At 1 a.m., the plaintive tones of the last waltz warned the party-goers that there is an end to everything, and the mad scramble for furs, wraps and rubbers commenced. It was said that many old gloves and rubbers were lost in the shuffle of New Year’s Eve, and one distressed young man lost his wife. He spent most of the evening hunting for her, and finally was forced to appeal to the strong arm of the law.

That news story on the first day of 1920 was a fascinating look at the local public mood and customs. L-A residents loved their parties and music. A few decades later, as the 1960s began, many local baby boomers will recall the weekly rock ‘n’ roll dances that packed that same Lewiston City Hall for the Police Athletic League’s PAL Hops. It wasn’t that different from the gigantic New Year’s Eve party there at the beginning of 1920. The biggest change was that the crowd packed shoulder-to-shoulder into the massive City Hall second-floor auditorium consisted of teenagers, and the legacy of those PAL Hops endures to this days.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to dasargent@maine.com.

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