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Hi-Toppers

Polka dance memories

A former Hi-Toppers Orchestra member recalls the heydays of polka in NB

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Recently a cassette tape was found with tunes recorded by the Hi-Toppers Orchestra in 1965. This collection of polkas, waltzes and ballroom standards brought back many memories of dance halls and music of the past. Of course, the collection served as a reminder of how the musical entertainment and socializing has changed throughout the years. Nearly all of the following reminiscences were experienced by the members of the Hi-Toppers Orchestra during their performing years from 1949 until 1987, while a few of the changes occurred before and after these years.

In the past, attending a weekly polka dance was the way of life for the whole family.  The younger couples would bring their children to socialize with other children or to sleep on the big stage at Echo Hall or smaller room at other halls.   Many married couples initially met at dances. Many halls had a side room for the older parents to watch the dancers.  In the Friday edition of the local papers usually four to six dances were advertised.  One might say the dances were the most socializing events besides the bowling events during the week.    For six years (1958-1963), the Hi-Toppers Orch. played every first Saturday of the month at the American Legion Hall (Post 179) in New Braunfels for a happy and socializing bunch of Legionnaires and friends.  

As the lifestyle changed so did the dance entertainment.  Many years ago when the rural folks had a chance to gather for a dance, they made the most of it by celebrating most of the night.  These people physically worked hard and they also “played hard” in dancehalls before air conditioning was introduced. 

At many dances in the past, the band would play two Paul Jones songs during the evening.  Paul Jones is the name used for mixer dances popular throughout the years.  This was another form of socializing during which the couples parted after the whistle was sounded (usually by the drummer) for the men to form a circle and the ladies formed another circle inside the men’s circle, going in the opposite direction.  The whistle would be blown again and each man would dance with the lady who happened to be next to him.  This would be repeated five or six times until the song ended. Currently, a Paul Jones is seldom played at dances.  One explanation could be that at festivals, with larger crowds, the participants would not feel as comfortable exchanging partners as they would at the smaller more frequent community gatherings. 

Throughout the years a number of specialty dances became less popular than they used to be:  Herr Schmidt, Put your Little Foot, Schottisches, Garden Waltz (Trojak or Zahradnik in Czech), Waltz-Paul Jones, Fingertanz(German), Lott Ist Todt and Cotton-Eyed Joe. It would be an over-statement to say that the Chicken Dance has replaced all of the above special dances.  

Many of the dancehalls had a stage and benches around the perimeter.  Often the perimeter benches could not accommodate all the dancers, so some simply stood on the dance floor until the band played the next set.  Drinks were served in a nearby room or in a separate building for the management did not want to run the risk of a sticky drink spilled on the waxed dance floor.  During the warmer months the dancers would enjoy their drinks while visiting outside of the non-air conditioned halls during band intermissions.

As time passed and society became more sedentary, tables were placed in the dancehalls so people could relax, socialize, drink and dance the evening away. The added tables usually limited the dance space, while the drinks were still purchased in a side room. It was during the 1960s and earlier, when the purchase of liquor by the drink had not been legalized, that the dancers would bring bourbon whiskey in a bottle to enhance their enjoyment.  The bottles were usually “disguised” by covering them with knitted woolen material, etc.

At the first Saturday of the month dances (Burger Ball) during the 1940s at Echo Hall in New Braunfels (later Eagles Hall), the ladies would bring a box of homemade sandwiches or snacks for the dancers to consume at midnight in the basement located under the stage (entrance on each side of the stage).  The band usually played from 9 p.m. until midnight, and after the food was consumed, they continued playing for another hour or so.  The basement was closed to the public in later years when the Fraternal Order of Eagles Society turned the basement into a private club and the side entrances were boarded over.  

Gruene Hall

During polka dances at Gruene Hall, flaps along the side of the hall would be opened for ventilation.

Gruene Hall hosted mostly polka and waltz dances during the early 1950s when the Gruene settlement had become a Ghost Town.  The Hi-Toppers Orchestra played in “Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall,” built in 1878.  Hence, the Hi-Toppers contributed to the expression during their starting years when they played 51 jobs at Gruene Hall from 1949 until 1952.

Walter Porter was the hall manager during those years. In the 1970s, the town gained popularity and the hall became the site of many dances featuring a host of country music stars throughout the years.  Currently, the hall side flaps can still be opened for ventilation in the unairconditioned building.

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The Hi-Toppers also played memorable dances at the open-air pavilion in Landa Park.  One of the “Under the Stars” dances was a July 4th dance which started at 8 p.m. with the band taking a break at 8:30 p.m. for the participants to watch the fireworks and later resuming their dance activities until midnight. The band had the pleasure of playing in the band shell for the dancing audience.  The acoustical semicircular band shell was a curved cement structure designed to reflect sound towards the audience.  Band shells were very popular before amplification became a “necessity.”  The band shell and border wooden fence were removed in the early 1960s, although the dance slab is still being used. The Hi-Toppers also played in the nearby old dance hall, wooden floor and roof, which was removed years ago. 

Dance Slab at Landa Park

The dance slab at Landa Park was a popular spot for community polka dances for many years.

The Clear Springs Hall, now the site of the Clear Springs Restaurant, did not have regular monthly dances; however, the Hi-Toppers remember playing at the hall for several occasions, sitting on the stage where presently catfish and onion rings are consumed.

In 1960 the Hi-Toppers played for the first polka dance at the Saengerhalle located at 255 Saengerhalle Road, just off Highway 46, south of New Braunfels.  The hall was constructed from several army barracks by a group of singing societies to continue to promote the heritage of German singing groups.  The Hi-Toppers also played for several New Year’s Eve dances, as well as wedding dances until the band disbanded in 1987.  The society sold the hall in 1996 and since then the hall was used as a country western dancehall, church and an event center. 

In 1981, the Hi-Toppers played nine dances in the short lived Heidelberg Hall located at 1933 IH-35.  Currently, the Woods Cycle Country is located at the site.

Not much has changed at the Anhalt Hall from the time the Hi-Toppers played at least 20 times at the Maifest (May) or Oktoberfest dances from 1951 until 1987.  This semi-annual tradition usually gave the ladies a good reason to sew or buy a new dress.

The Bavarian Village (Restaurant and Biergarten, 212 West  Austin St.) was the site of many polka dances for several years. The Hi-Toppers entertained the dancers here under three different managements, starting in 1979 until their retirement. The site was sold to Schlitterbahn in later years.                           

The Crystal Chandelier dance hall, located at the intersection of Loop 337 and Common Street, was a popular place for the younger generations for many years.  The dance hall was built by Leonard Hitzfelder in 1968, and he and his wife, Margyline, managed it until 1976. Later the hall was sold and managed by several other owners.  The Hi-Toppers played for weddings and occasional fourth Saturday dances while the hall hosted many country western dances on other dates.  In time, the dance activities tapered off and the building was modified to become restaurant and barbecue places.  Currently, Black’s Barbecue is located in the front of the former hall and Gennaro’s Restaurant  toward the back.  The only reminder of a dance hall ever having been there is a painting of George Strait with the writing of Crystal Chandelier on the back wall of Black’s Barbecue.

The Schumannsville dancehall, located in Guadalupe County about three miles from County-Line on FM 725, was also a popular place for dances.  The Hi-Toppers played there monthly during their beginning years. The Schumannsville Social Club ceased to exit after it sold the building in 1963 to the Woodmen of the World Society, New Braunfels.  

The band members have “tons” of memories after playing for the Wurstfest celebrations for 25 years (1963-1987).

And lastly, we must mention the annual New Year’s Eve dances at the gymnasium on Academy St. near the old New Braunfels High School (Administrative Building) on W. Mill Street, sponsored by the New Braunfels Volunteer Fire Department.  The Hi-Toppers played for the Firemen’s dance for several years in the early 1950s.  Afterwards many dance couples would go to Ma’s Café, S. Castell St., for breakfast.

As you can see, over half of the earlier dancehalls, where the families used to come to socialize and dance as their weekly entertainment, are no longer in existence.  Socialization is moving into another era where one keeps in touch with many more friends through social media but really know few in great depth.

While the weekly type of entertainment has faded, currently, the Goodtime Polka and Waltz Dance Club is keeping the polka spirit going by sponsoring nine monthly dances during the year at Eagles Hall.  Of course, the annual Wurstfest celebrations offer many opportunities for the people to dance polkas and waltzes.

 •••••

Thanks to Margyline Hitzfelder for the information on the Crystal Chandelier dance hall.

Also thanks to Tommy Koehler giving to the Sophienburg Archives his grandfather’s secretary minutes of Schumannville dance hall.

Anyone interested in a two volume set (CDs) of the1965 Hi-Toppers recordings mentioned earlier, contact Roy Haag at 830-625-8262, or 39roha@gmail.com

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