Riverside Ballroom

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Description

It was a place where the teenagers of a once small town Phoenix came to listen to big bands, slow dance, and, sometimes, fall in love. The Riverside Ballroom was once the center of social events for young adults in Phoenix when the likes of Fats Domino on stage.

Transcript

From the internationally famous Riverside Park Ballroom in Phoenix , Arizona , we present one of the nation's great western swing dance bands, Bob Fite and the Western Playboys!

Narrator:
Saturday night at Riverside Ballroom was always packed.

Marie Morton:
They had a marvelous dance floor. They had a great band all the time playing, and we were a dancing era. That was a big part of our life was dancing.

Narrator:
There was always a band playing at Phoenix 's fanciest restaurants and finest hotels, but Phoenix 's all-time favorite dance hall had to have been Riverside Ballroom. Riverside was home of the name bands, and all of America 's best played there.

Bob Fite:
When the big bands came, that was such a treat to get to go to those, and then many people would gather around the bandstand in order to just see up close Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorseys.

Narrator:
Local favorites also played at Riverside . The western playboys became regulars in 1940 when Bob Fite and his brother bought the place.

Bob Fite:
We'd get through that number, and the people would clear the dance floor and go to the tables and sit down. And then we'd start another tune up, and here they'd all come back again. That goes on and on and on and on.

Narrator:
To get to the Ballroom, you went South on Central Avenue , out past the edge of town, almost to the Salt River . Riverside 's open-air dance pavilion was built around 1914. After a flood washed it away, a round, wooden Ballroom was built in its place. There wasn't any air conditioning back then, but if the dance floor got a little too steamy, the sides of the place could open to keep the place cool.

Dottie Battiest:
It had the flaps on the side that you could let up and down, up and down. And you would go outside and sit on the grass and laugh and talk, or they had this big pole in the middle of Riverside . That's where you meet your boyfriend. Said, baby, look for me right here. I'll be standing right here by this big pole. Young people came from far away. I mean, you know, I would meet people from Safford. I would meet people from Tucson . I would meet people from Yuma . Everyone knew where Riverside was, and they all loved to go there.

Narrator:
There was something for everyone at Riverside Ballroom. Thursday nights were devoted to Phoenix' black community, and some of the nation's finest entertainers like Fats Domino, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington performed there. On Fridays, it was collegiate night. The bar served soft drinks, and the place was overrun with kids from high schools and junior college. But Saturday at Riverside was a slightly different story.

Lou Ella Kleinz:
Saturday night was kind of a night that you stayed away. That was kind of a -- well, I remember the Russians from Glendale used to come there on a Saturday night, and they would fight with the local boys. And it used to be Saturday night was fight night. Friday night was collegiate night. [ laughs ]

Narrator:
More often than not, fights at Riverside were over a girl, but they always came to a speedy conclusion when police took the would-be boxers to a makeshift ring behind the Ballroom.

Walter Garbarino:
They'd take these old boys. They says, okay, strip your pockets. And the cops would do this themselves, and they'd take them in there and strip the pockets. And if they had a pocketknife or anything, they'd take it away from them, see. Put them there, says, now, see which one's the best man. Now, they had three or four licks, you know, one of them maybe bloody the other one's nose. He'd jump up. He says, man, you're a better man than I am. Let's go have a beer.

Narrator:
On Sundays, the place came alive with the distinctive sound of Latin music.

Bob Fite:
The Mexican people, the Hispanics, it was their night. They had a place to go, and they went there every Sunday. It was like a big family, like everybody knew everybody else, and it was just mucho gusto to be there.

Narrator:
Local promoter Carlos Morales brought some of the world's most famous Latin

Bands to Riverside , but the usual favorite on Sunday nights was Pete Bugarin and his orchestra.

Pete Burgarin:
Going to play there, it was a delight because of so many people coming in.

It would be packed, you know. You know, you take 2,000 people or more. That's a lot of people that went in there and danced, and just -- you could just see them, you know, dancing, laughing, you know, and the girls and the young people and the older people, everybody having a good time.

Narrator:
The festive atmosphere led to many lasting romances.

Bob Fite:
A lot of people have come to me and said, "I proposed to my wife at the Riverside ." And we played on the average of two, three, four weddings every week, and these were the people that went to the Riverside . So I don't know why, you know, but they went there, they met, and they got married.

Narrator:
The honeymoon ended early one morning in 1957 when Bob Fite got a disturbing call.

Bob Fite:
Man, the phone rang, and the sheriff's office called me. He said, " Riverside 's on fire." And that was it. The time I got there, I guess there was a couple of thousand people out there. And, uh... It was some sight.

Narrator:
The Ballroom was a total loss. But within a year, the Fite's opened a smaller, more modern dance hall on the same site, and while Riverside lived on well into the '80s, presenting every kind of music, we remember the big-band sound and a full dance floor on a hot Saturday night.

Narrator:
On the next Arizona Stories, the last of the great railroad lodges, the birth of suburban living, a flying ace in the war to end all wars, and the stained glass of St. Mary's Basilica.