Falls Ballroom

The stereotypical male mid-life crisis tends to include trading in the minivan for a hot, growling red sports car and exchanging the middle-aged wife for a younger, perkier, more fawning model. Rarely does a mid-life crisis lead a man to leave his farm in order to open a ballroom, but that’s precisely what happened to Albert Dietz in 1950. At least that’s the way his family describes it. This New Ulm farmer had a passion for old-time dancing and decided to follow that passion to Little Falls, Minnesota. Little could he have known that his mid-life crisis would produce a third-generation business.

It was hardly an accident that Albert Dietz’s ballroom ended up in Little Falls. He was looking for a market that wasn’t already being served by a large ballroom. New Ulm had one, so that wouldn’t do. His wife Lucy Dietz was formerly a Gruber, a name commonly associated with Pierz, Minnesota, and, indeed, Lucy was originally from Pierz. Albert intended to build his ballroom in Pierz, but land closer to Little Falls, along Highway 27, was available, so that’s where he and his friends built the Falls Ballroom.

Rather than build the Falls Ballroom on stilts, which was typical for other ballrooms of the era, Albert and friends constructed a cement foundation, which has been one factor in the longevity of the business. The exterior walls were built of cement block, which was painted a vivid pink. There was no kitchen or entryway on the Ballroom; these came later. The dance floor was, and still is, a 50-foot by 90-foot span of maple. It remains original to the building, having survived warping due to incorrect installation. The floor was taken apart and repaired around 1960.

While many of the state’s ballrooms deteriorated along with their stilts (musician Johnny Holmes once broke through the floor of the New Munich Ballroom because of rotten stilts), the Falls Ballroom has continued on, surviving a variety of shifts in trends over the years. During the eight years Albert and Lucy ran the Ballroom, they catered to a public that enjoyed old-time dancing. They booked musicians like the Six Fat Dutchmen, “Fezz” Fritsche, and Whoopee John, whom Albert had become familiar with while in New Ulm. The first dance in the Ballroom was billed as a “Pre-Opening Dance” and was held on October 11, 1950. It featured ““Rolly” Wickman and his Old and New Tyme orchestra with Lucile Gaylor at the electric organ.” (LFDT – October 11, 1950) Rolly also played during the official grand opening on November 15, 1950. (LFDT – Nov. 13, 1950)

Public dances were held on Wednesday and Saturday nights in 1950, but were later switched to Friday nights. There was no cover charge to enter the Falls Ballroom. Instead, income was earned on booth reservations, which could be made by phone or by mail. It cost fifty-cents per booth for all public dances except one, the New Year’s Eve dance, for which the price jumped to one dollar per booth. Along with hosting public dances, the Ballroom served as a venue for wedding dances. Wedding parties were allowed to attend dances free at the Ballroom.

Because public dancing was frowned upon during certain times in the Christian calendar, the Ballroom was a seasonal business. It closed in December for Advent, opening in the winter only for the New Year’s Eve dance (in 1951, there was also a New Year’s Day dance), and closed again throughout Lent. It reopened after Easter.

As time went on, improvements were made to the Ballroom. The building did not have a kitchen in the beginning, but food seemed a natural fit for hungry dancers. Albert allowed Artie Gruber, one of Lucy’s relatives, to build a hamburger shack on the property near the highway. After Artie’s Shack went under and was converted to a garage in a different location on the property, Albert allowed another relative to build a restaurant onto the Falls Ballroom. Though physically joined, the businesses were operated separately at first. Eventually, the restaurant became the kitchen of the Ballroom. This change was also critical to the longevity of the business.

Albert and Lucy operated the Ballroom until 1958, at which time they enlisted the help of their daughter Elaine and her husband Jerry Peterson in succeeding them in the business. The four of them worked together until about 1960, when Albert and Lucy retired.

During the time that Jerry and Elaine ran the Ballroom, old-time dancing waned in popularity and rock dancing took its place. The Ballroom continued to cater to weddings, but in an expanded way. With an attached kitchen, food could be prepared on site and served directly to Ballroom customers.

Further improvements were made to the building. The pink block was covered with stucco on the exterior. Jerry had the parking lot paved, which was considered a big deal at the time. The kitchen was expanded and improved and six chandeliers were hung in the ballroom. Something significant was needed to replace the shiny dance hall fringe that decorated the ceiling. Jerry found the chandeliers at an auction in the Twin Cities. They had been removed from the Lemington Hotel in Minneapolis and cost $445 a piece.

Around the time the chandeliers were installed, Jerry and Elaine’s son, Tom Peterson, and his wife, Francie, were repeating the family business succession scenario. As the eldest son of Jerry and Elaine, Tom grew up helping out at the Falls Ballroom, as did his younger siblings, Lisa and Mark. After college and a two-year stint as an insurance adjustor in the Twin Cities, Tom was approached by his dad to take over the family business. Jerry didn’t pressure his son to do so; he merely suggested that Tom should give it a try and see how he liked it.

Tom moved back to Little Falls in September 1983 to run the Ballroom. At the time, he’d been seeing Frances Ann Pumper for over a year, the two having been introduced by a mutual friend who had ties to Little Falls. Tom and Francie were married March 31, 1984, not long after Tom had decided to go into the ballroom business. Francie had been working as a commercial loan officer at a bank in the Twin Cities prior to her new commitments. She said that her parents “were a little concerned” by her decision. Tom was more blunt in his assessment of the situation. He said, “Her parents thought we were both nuts, quitting our jobs and coming up to run a ballroom.”

The decision seems to have paid off. After assisting with the transition for two years, Jerry and Elaine bowed out of the business and Tom and Francie have been running it since. As with the previous two generations, Tom and Francie have been keen to change their business as societal trends dictate. The majority of their business now comes in the form of banquets, rather than in dancing and liquor sales. When they started, they often saw large gatherings from agricultural groups using the Ballroom. While these groups have diminished in size, school-related groups have increased, especially for athletic banquets.

Weddings still make up a significant portion of their customer base, with people coming from farther away to use their services. Part of the reason the Falls Ballroom has remained popular with wedding couples is because of its lower cost compared to venues in larger areas, like St. Cloud and Brainerd. Another reason is that big maple dance floor. While public dancing may no longer be in vogue, it’s still a desired part of most wedding celebrations. Albert Dietz was certainly onto something when he got his mid-life itch to build a ballroom.

~ Mary Warner, Museum Manager

Sources: Little Falls Daily Transcript – various issues between October 4, 1950, and December 29, 1950.
Interview with Tom and Francie Peterson by Mary Warner, ­November 27, 2007.

The article was first published in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 20, Number 4, 2007.