Oaklyn birthday bash to recall the Dancette ballroom

Dance organizer Janet LaBar, Councilman Chuck Lehman (center), and Jack Moore, a lifelong Oaklyn resident, are ready for the birthday bash with an homage to Dancette.

When the Dancette was demolished in the 1980s, it had been years since a disc jockey cued up the last record at the storied Oaklyn ballroom. But the East Beechwood Avenue hot spot lives on in the memories of South Jerseyans of a certain age.

And they'll have a chance to remember when and Twist again during the borough's 110th birthday celebration Sunday.

"After lunch at the Oaklyn Fire Company, we're going to move the tables aside and pay homage to the Dancette," Chuck Lehman, borough councilman and unofficial borough historian, says.

"It was probably the most popular venue in this area in the 1950s and '60s, and not only for people from Oaklyn," adds Lehman, 71. "It was the place to see and be seen."

Housed on the upper floor of a law enforcement training academy, Dancette was not a fancy place. It served no alcohol and only occasionally offered live music.

Still, former patrons say Dancette had its own brand of magic. It was comfortable, inexpensive and convenient - you could walk, hitch, or take the bus.

Disc jockeys reigned from a console on the stage. Some weeknights they played slow tunes, while rock-and-roll and Motown ruled weekends.

'The dip'

Dancette was just one stop on a South Jersey dance circuit that included Paul VI High School for the younger crowd and places like the Red Hut for those slightly older.

"There was a group of us, and we'd say, 'Who's going to the Dancette tonight?' " recalls Jerry Tittermary, 70, a retired real estate salesman from Haddon Township.

"I don't want to brag, but I knew how to slow dance," Tittermary says. "I had 'the dip.' "

"I can visualize going in that door in 1965," says Margie Prosinski, who grew up "right around the corner" in Oaklyn.

"My girlfriends and I were a little fashion crew," says the Somers Point resident and retired administrative assistant, who's 67.

Love matches

"People came from everywhere," says Glenn Davis, 61, who lives in Somerdale and grew up in Hi-Nella. He hitchhiked up the White Horse Pike to Dancette "every Saturday night" in the late 1960s.

"I remember it had a great sound system and a nice crowd. I met my first wife there," adds Davis, a carpenter.

He was not alone in finding love at the Dancette.

"I must've married off more people than all the ministers in South Jersey," longtime owner Webster "Mac" McCloskey told The Inquirer not long before his death in 1996.

'An iron fist'

Not that Dancette was wild, mind you. "Even working in the coat check, we wore jackets and ties," says Bill Cattell, 70, of West Deptford.

"I ran that place with an iron fist and a velvet glove," McCloskey told The Inquirer. "Fathers used to bring their daughters over and drop them off, and there was never a worry."

Eugene and Nancy Toni met at Dancette in 1968. They've been married for 43 years, have three grown daughters and three grandchildren, and live in Alexandria, Va.

When they met, he was working as a Dancette DJ, and she was a 16-year-old high schooler from Haddon Heights.

"She was wearing a white dress, and I was trying to be cool," recalls Eugene, 66, a federal worker. "The light was on her. It was like a scene with Maria in West Side Story."

Although a dozen former Dancette patrons and employees I spoke to had vivid memories of the place, few photographs, documents, or accounts of its history are readily available.

Lehman's collection of borough memorabilia includes a photo album showing the building under construction in 1935 by the South Jersey Suburban Police Association, a 250-member organization that needed a training academy.

The firing range was in the basement, and a second-floor gymnasium/auditorium with big windows and a stage opened as the "Dansorium" in 1935.

A brief item in a 1942 edition of Billboard magazine says a promoter had begun Friday and Saturday night dances there.

And in October 1949, the magazine reported that Dancette was operating a "teen-and-20 club featuring the milk bar instead of the harder stuff."

By the mid-1970s, changing tastes, security concerns, and the departure of McCloskey (who ran the hall from 1947 until 1973) spelled the end of Dancette.

But this Sunday, says Lehman, "we're going to have a longtime Oaklyn resident, Mike Enos, as the disc jockey. He has a prodigious collection of music. And my daughter, Julia Lehman, is going to give an impromptu dance lesson."

Hopefully, people will get up and join in, he adds.

"I can't wait."