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Dancin’ the Beach

By Karin Messner 

(Excerpted from The Beacon, Feb.-March, 1987)

Terrace Beach Dance Hall, or Ballroom, or Gem Beach, or Twin Beach Resort, or whatever your era called it, must have been the most famous spot on the Northcoast.

Grown Men Cried

The most remarkable thing I’ve found so far, however, is that no one can tell me when Terrace Beach Dance Hall was destroyed. It’s as though a whole community has chosen to blot that fact out of its collective mind. I understand there were grown men with tears in their eyes as they set fire to the building and eventually bulldozed the remains over the cliff into Lake Erie. Many people still treasure small pieces of the terrazzo dance floor scavenged from the debris. For many, Terrace and Gem Beach was a way of life, a summer time Shangri-La, as Donna Clemons calls it. 

Shared IDs

I was over at the Port Clinton Yacht Club one night following a PCHS basketball game, talking with a group of friends, when someone mentioned “Froggy”, one of the regular employees out at Terrace Beach. Half the people in the room must have grown up “Dancin’ the Beach”. I was given this mental picture of every girl from Marblehead to Fremont lined up single file across the dance floor as they danced/stomped/advanced on every boy from Marblehead to Fremont waiting on the other side. One male in the group recalled it as “awesome”.

I heard about things like “the cage”, the place where beer was served. Only those of legal drinking age were allowed inside, once they had produced proper ID and been stamped. As is the case today, however, it seems that some of those “proper IDs” were circulated. There were those among the group at the yacht club who remembered where they got their first black eye, but for the most part, memories were of having a great time, dancing and mingling and meeting and (later) marrying. Almost to a person they remarked, “It’s too bad kids, and adults for that matter, don’t have a place like the Twin Beaches to go today.“ Then they invariably chuckled, “Wonder if I’d let my kids go if it was still there.” 

History

Irene Scherer was most helpful in setting me straight on dates and details, since she, herself, had done an article on The Beach a few years back. According to Irene, Mott Barnholt bought the beach front property from Fred Zihlmann three days before Christmas in 1919. His first job was to tear down an unsightly pig pen, the only building on the premises.

Later a sister area named Terrace Beach, also was formed, the two later being combined. Listed as partners in the Twin Beach Resort Co., which purchased the property, were Melvin Schwartz, Elmer Clemons, Allen Clemons and Charles and Curtice Steffens. According to Hope Clemons, one of the most impressive parts of the dance hall, which these men constructed in the early ‘30’s, was the terrazzo dance floor itself. It seems this floor was exceptionally fine for tripping the light fantastic. Many area residents still treasure pieces of the floor which have washed up on the beach, since the building was demolished and pushed over the cliff into Lake Erie. Hope’s twins, Don and Donna (Swergosa) collected basketsful to use as souvenirs for their class reunion.

It wasn’t all Beach Boys

The formation of the Twin Beach Resort Co. and the building of the Terrace Beach Dance Hall marked a new era along Lake Erie or should I say, many new eras. It seems to tie directly to the music of each decade. Many of my callers did not remember the “Red Sails In the Sunset” Hank Jadwisiak had mentioned to me. (I’m sure they also didn’t know about Pinkey from Fostoria who used to skate rapidly to the end of the roller rink and jump out the window located there.)

Beacon editor John Schaffner, of course, insists that the music was all Beach Boys. Port Clinton Mayor John Fritz didn’t really care what the music was, so long as he and his buddies, (one a farmer who had access to gas during the war years) got there. 

Bruce Hamann was a part of one of those live bands of the ‘60’s, just before going into the Service. Like so many others, he met his future wife at The Beach. By this time former orchestra leader Lew Waterman was managing Terrace Beach. 

Rented bathing suits

The original bath house, built in 1921, also contained the first dance hall upstairs. The bath house did a brisk business as it offered, for rent, 3000 bathing suits. On some weekends, these were all in use. 

A letter from Mary Bishop tells me that in later years, the original building was used as a skating rink. She enjoyed “dancing under the stars” on the terrazzo floor when the new Terrace Beach Dancehall was built in ’37. Mary also remembers In those days you could even go by boat or ice boat over to Johnson’s Island to dance.

Jack Gangway worked as cashier at Terrace Beach in later years during the ‘50’s when Lew Waterman, now manager, brought in big name bands and DJs. Some of the original “Monkeys” played The Beach as did whoever in the world it was that played “Itsy, Bitsy, Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”.

Lew ran a tight ship

Jack tells me Lew was a true gentleman, both as orchestra leader and as manager. “He ran a tight ship. There was seldom trouble at The Beach.” Some Saturday nights as many as 1200 people would pass through Jack’s cashier gate at a dollar a head. The dance floor inside was wooden. The terrace outside was the terrazzo. Huge expanses of garage doors around the sides of the building could be opened on fine nights letting dancers spill out under the stars. Jack describes the feeling about The Beach as being almost like a cult during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. “But,” he also added, “It was the end of an era. It became tougher to get talent that would attract crowds at a price that would allow any profit. The war came along in ’65, and young people seemed to change.”

Peach Queen

Doris Jean Olson put me in touch with Dorothy Flegle who, together with her husband Russell, ran the original skating rink at Gem Beach and later the new one. Couples often strolled out into the peach orchards and looked forward to the crowning of the Peach Queen each summer. Dorothy tells me that sometimes when she can’t go to sleep at night, she’ll think back to the beautiful days of “Summer at The Beach”. 

What a wonderful time you all must have had at Gem Beach in “olden days”, as my kids used to call my youth. Ironically, the memories are as sweet to the young men and women who left Gem Beach Dance Hall for Viet Nam in the ‘60’s as they are for the widow who remembers swaying to the Lew Waterman Orchestra rendition of “The Waltz You Saved For Me” in the 30’s. 

Perhaps this way we can all just go on believing that THE BEACH is still there and that, one of these days, we can go back. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could?

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