If The Floor's A-Rockin', Just Keep A-Bouncin'

If The Floor's A-Rockin', Just Keep A-Bouncin'

3:55pm Sep 29, 2015
Galactic brings the bounce to Portland's Crystal Ballroom, which has one of the few remaining spring-loaded dance floors in the country.
Galactic brings the bounce to Portland's Crystal Ballroom, which has one of the few remaining spring-loaded dance floors in the country.
Kathleen Nyberg / Courtesy of McMenamins
  • Galactic brings the bounce to Portland's Crystal Ballroom, which has one of the few remaining spring-loaded dance floors in the country.

    Galactic brings the bounce to Portland's Crystal Ballroom, which has one of the few remaining spring-loaded dance floors in the country.

    Kathleen Nyberg / Courtesy of McMenamins

  • The 1905 patent for the elastic floor technology used in the Crystal Ballroom.

    The 1905 patent for the elastic floor technology used in the Crystal Ballroom.

    Courtesy of McMenamins

In a town known for "keeping it weird," the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore., doesn't immediately stand out. But it's got plenty of character below the surface.

The interior of this 100-year-old brick building is striking — high ceilings are accented by two gorgeous antique chandeliers, and massive arched windows line the walls. But ask concertgoers what they think the most interesting feature is and one always stands out: "I hate to say it, but the flooring," Katy Stellern says, laughing.

When the music and dancing start, the floor bounces. A lot. Zachary Carroll says he loves the sensation.

"It's like springs or tennis balls," he says. "I don't know how they make it."

It's not tennis balls or springs. Walking across the maple planking, Jack Headinger, the construction superintendent who supervised the building's restoration, describes what's underneath.

"I'm going to call it rocking-chair-type members," Headinger says. "And so when you step on one part of it, it'll go down and the other part will go up. So it gives you this feeling of walking on a mattress, you might say. And then, when you get 1,500 people in here dancing, this whole place starts moving."

Floating dance floors were fairly common during the early part of the 20th century, and some of them are still in use elsewhere. But most use springs to achieve the floating sensation, and virtually none of them have dealt with the wear and tear that the Crystal Ballroom has experienced. According to historian Tim Hills, the floor is part of the original structure from 1914.

"And its design is so simple, but it's ingenious," Hills says. "And around the perimeter of the floor are these ratchet holes where you can change the tension of the floor depending on what dance you wanted to do. I mean, it was just incredible."

The unusual rocker-and-ball-bearing design, patented by Charles R. Hunt in 1905, was originally intended for ballroom dancing. However, jazz dances quickly became the hall's main source of income in the early 1920s, much to the chagrin of local authorities who deemed the new music and moves indecent.

"The city fathers and parents, they couldn't control it," Hills says. "They couldn't regulate it, and the controversy and the tension came to a breaking point."

The city of Portland banned lewd dances and appointed a dance-hall inspector who shut down the shows. In the following decades, the Crystal Ballroom mostly featured old-time dances until the late 1950s, when financial difficulties and pragmatic ownership forced the venue to accommodate new events like college dances and R&B shows.

"What's fascinating about the Crystal Ballroom's history is [that] it was around long enough that it saw history repeat itself by the time you get to the 1960s," Hills says. "It was the same thing."

The culprit this time was psychedelic rock. With the counterculture movement in full swing, the conservative Portland city government once again shut down the venue in June 1968. It remained largely unused until 1994, when the property was purchased by McMenamins, a Portland-based entertainment company that wanted to reopen the legendary venue. That's when Jack Headinger got the call to begin work on restoring and upgrading the building. He'd gone to rock shows here when he was a teenager.

"I was just stoked," Headinger says. "In the '60s, this was the place to come. "The Grateful Dead played here, and so it was really exciting to think that we were going to recover this building, because it had been sitting unoccupied for a number of years."

In its latest incarnation, the Crystal Ballroom is a successful Portland rock venue that hosts everything from electronic dance music to country. It's a fitting rebirth.

"It's just one of those special places that has served so many people in this city since 1914 when it opened and welcomed so ... many different people of different backgrounds," Tim Hills says. "To have a building last as long as this one has and continue to flourish now — it's rare and it's important."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's step on stage. It's not a Broadway stage, nor is it an off-Broadway stage. It's more like an off, off, off, off, off-Broadway stage because we have been visiting side stages, quirky places best known to locals where musicians love to play, such as the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore. Jerad Walker of Oregon Public Broadcasting finds plenty of character below the surface there.

BILL WALKER: The interior of this hundred-year-old brick building is striking. High ceilings are accented by two gorgeous antique chandeliers, and massive arched windows line the walls.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You guys ready to see the show?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you.

WALKER: But ask concertgoers like Michael Denbo and Katy Stellern, what they think the most answer interesting feature is...

KATY STELLERN: (Laughter) I hate to say, it but the flooring.

MICHAEL DENBO: The bouncy floor is definitely a big feature.

WALKER: When the music and dancing start, the floor bounces...

(CHEERS)

WALKER: ...A lot.

(CHEERS)

WALKER: And Zachary Carroll loves the sensation.

ZACHARY CARROLL: It's like springs or tennis balls. I don't how they make it.

WALKER: It's not tennis balls or springs. Walking across the maple planking, Jack Headinger, the construction superintendent who supervised the building's restoration, describes what's underneath.

JACK HEADINGER: I'm going to call it rocking-chair-type members that sit, and so when you step on one part of it, it'll go down, and the other part will go up. So it gives you this feeling of walking on a mattress, you might say. And then, when you get 1,500 people in here dancing, this whole place starts moving.

WALKER: Floating dance floors were fairly common during the early part of the 20th century, and some of them are still in use elsewhere. But most used springs to achieve the floating sensation, and virtually none of them have dealt with the wear and tear that the Crystal Ballroom has experienced. According to historian Tim Hills, the floor is part of the original structure from 1914.

TIM HILLS: And its design is so simple, but it's ingenious. And around the perimeter of the floor are these ratchet holes where you can change the tension of the floor depending on what dance you wanted to do. I mean, it was just incredible.

WALKER: The unusual rocker-and-ball-bearing design, patented by Charles R. Hunt in 1905, was originally intended for ballroom dancing. However, jazz dances quickly became the hall's main source of income in the early 1920s, much to the chagrin of local authorities who deemed the new music and moves indecent.

HILLS: The city fathers and parents, they couldn't control it. They couldn't regulate it, and the controversy and the tension came to a breaking point.

WALKER: The city of Portland banned lewd dances and appointed a dance hall inspector who shut down the shows. In the following decades, the Crystal Ballroom mostly featured old-time dances until the late 1950s, when financial difficulties and pragmatic ownership forced the venue to accommodate new events like college dances and R&B shows.

HILLS: And what's fascinating about the Crystal Ballroom's history is that it was around long enough that it saw history repeat itself by the time you get to the 1960s. It was the same thing.

WALKER: But the culprit this time with psychedelic rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALKER: With the counterculture movement in full swing, the conservative Portland city government once again shut down the venue in June of 1968. It remained largely unused until 1994 when the property was purchased by McMenamins, a Portland-based entertainment company that wanted to reopen the legendary venue. That's when Jack Headinger got the call to begin work on restoring and upgrading the building.

HEADINGER: I was just stoked.

WALKER: He went to rock shows here when he was a teenager.

HEADINGER: In the '60s, this was the place to come. You know, the Grateful Dead played here, and so it was really exciting to think that we were going to recover this building because it'd been sitting unoccupied for a number of years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Since the day started...

WALKER: In its latest incarnation, the Crystal Ballroom is Portland's premiere rock venue in hosting everything from electronic dance music to country. Historian Tim Hills says that's a fitting rebirth.

HILLS: It's just one of those special places that has served so many people in this city since 1914 when it opened and welcomed so many people, many different people of different backgrounds. To have a building last as long as this one has and continue to flourish now, it's rare, and it's important.

WALKER: Just like its floor, bouncing below our feet. For NPR News, I'm Jerad Walker in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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