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The Starlight Ballroom - Downtown Los Angeles - 1950s

1952
Hollywood Boarding House

My buddy Carl and I have been friends since 7th grade and we'd each recently finished a hitch in the army (including combat duty in Korea) and were now back in Hollywood trying to get our post-military lives in gear.

We had always had a lot of interests in common, but one thing I enjoyed that Carl didn't was dancing.  We'd both always been shy around girls, so while stationed in Virginia I took some Arthur Murray lessons, with the hopeful idea of overcoming my shyness.

Well, I learned to dance pretty well, but never really did get over being shy.  However, after those lessons I seldom lacked for a dance partner.  The trouble was — most of them were married.

What I discovered was that there were always a lot of women who loved to dance, but who usually had no one to dance with because their husbands weren't interested.  In fact, at a party the husbands often seemed quite appreciative for having someone take their wives off their hands for a while.

I'd been trying to teach Carl a few of the dances of the day — the fox trot, the waltz, and the jitterbug.  Well, Carl would go through the motions — but wasn't truly all that interested — especially since there was no girl to practice with.  So one Saturday night I decided I'd get Carl on a dance floor one way or another.  There was a "dime-a-dance" place in downtown Los Angeles where I had been once before, and I figured that, with a couple of drinks, Carl could be loosened up and persuaded to dance with some of the women in the tight-fitting skirts and low cut blouses I told him about.

Well, Carl's eyes lit up when I told him about the ladies, but he was still less than enthused about the dancing.  But I got him to have a couple of drinks before we left the house — and since I would be driving, he decided to have a couple more.  Well, by the time my rickety '39 Chevy reached the bright lights of downtown LA, he was feeling no pain.  In fact he acted like he was actually looking forward to meeting all these friendly girls I had described.

Two Streetwalking Hookers in Downtown Los Angeles

We parked three blocks from the Starlight, and hadn't gone more than one when a pair of provocatively-dressed and overly made-up young women came our way.  They were all smiles and gave us the big hello.  So Carl smiled and said hello right back, while I was trying to gingerly edge my way around them.  By now they each had hold of one of his arms and were saying things like, "Well come on, Handsome — let's go have some fun."

And he was saying stuff like, "Yeah, Don — let's go have some fun." Well, I wasn't having much luck prying him loose, but when I told them we didn't have any money they let go real fast.  Now Carl was saying, "You know, that might have been more fun than going dancing."

In any case, I think the attention he got boosted his spirits — so now he was really looking forward to meeting the dance hall hostesses.

In fact he tried taking the stairs two at a time when we arrived at the second-story ballroom, but was barely in condition to take them one at a time after those four shots of vodka.

When we reached the top of the stairs we were required to buy a roll of tickets (which I am sure at some point in history must have actually cost 10 cents each) but now they were a dollar, and the women would try to get you to tip them an extra dollar or two for each dance.

The reward for the additional tickets was some very close dancing — with maybe an occasional provocative word or two cooed into your ear.  (This was back in the days when people actually held each other while dancing.)

Taxi Dancers - Dance Hall Hostesses

Well, I was trying to be cool by taking my time in choosing my first partner, but Carl got whisked onto the floor by a fast-moving young woman who wasn't about to take no for an answer.  Before I knew it Carl was actually out there dancing! And, as he gyrated uninhibitedly around, I felt a lot of self-satisfaction about having gotten him this far.

Well, the Starlight was busy that night, and before long there were quite a few couples getting acquainted on the floor.  In fact it was so crowded that I completely lost sight of Carl.  To me half the fun of being there was watching Carl having a good time.

But something was wrong.  After the first five minutes I just plain couldn't find him.

I spent twenty minutes searching the dance floor, stopping only occasionally to check the bar and the men's room.  No sign of him.  I described him to the bouncer at the head of the stairs, but he just shook his head.  I even went downstairs several times to check with the hawker, whose job it was to pace the sidewalk loudly describing the charms of the fifty (count 'em — 50) beautiful women waiting for you upstairs.  But he hadn't seen Carl either.

Back upstairs I was approaching total strangers, asking if they had seen a skinny wavy-haired guy with a mustache who may have looked like he was having too much fun.  No luck.  It was if he had vanished into thin air.

After about an hour I finally came to the disturbing conclusion that he just wasn't there.  I reluctantly went back to my car, walking slowly and checking all the doorways and allies I passed.  The drive back to Hollywood was unnervingly spooky, as I tried to visualize all the various things that might have happened to him.

It was not a happy guy who parked in front of our boarding house and headed for the door.  I didn't know whether I should call the police or what.  I unlocked the door and let myself in, still trying to decide what to do.  Carl's room was just to the left of the front door, and to my surprise I saw light coming from under the door.

Something was weird here, because Mrs.  Glasser would never have allowed a light being left on when someone was out for the evening.  So I tapped on the door and softly called his name.  No answer.  So I tried the doorknob, and found it unlocked.  I slowly opened the door and peered inside.

Well, there he was, flat on his back laying on the bed with all his clothes on and a self-satisfied smile on his face. 

He was sound asleep, so I just turned off the light and closed the door behind me.

The next morning I couldn't wait to ask him how he got home.  He was still asleep when I knocked on his door, so I went in and started making some noises.  He finally woke up, blinked a couple of times, and then gave me a blank stare.  When I asked him what had happened, I got another blank stare.  So I got him some coffee and gave him some time to clear his head.

Then I asked him again — and this time I got a faint smile.  He finally said that he didn't think he should tell me what happened or how he got home.  But I could tell by the unsettled look in his eyes and the furl on his brow that he really didn't know how he got home — or with whom he had danced — or anything else about what happened after his first few minutes at the Starlight Ballroom.

Carl Von Papp

And, believe it or not, we still don't know to this day.  But every now and then, when we find ourselves reminiscing about that night, he still gives me a faint smile and tries to pretend he's been keeping a wonderful secret from me all these years.

Well, I'm pretty sure he's pretending.





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