The Prom Ballroom on University Avenue

(Prom Ballroom marquis, 1190 University Ave - MNHS)
The Prom Ballroom, a grandiose blue and white building located on the corner of University Avenue and Dunlap, opened its doors to the public on March 26, 1941. The $250,000 dollar structure boasted a prime location along the avenue, one that was easily accessible by streetcar from both St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns. The success of this “Wonder Showplace of the Northwest” was immediate.

On opening night 6000 people packed the dance floor at 1190 University Avenue and danced the night away to the sounds of Glenn Miller and his Orchestra. An additional 3000 people had to be turned away. This was only the beginning. Soon people came from all over the Twin Cities to dance to the sounds of the Prom’s house band, the Northwest Orchestra, every Wednesday through Sunday night. Acclaimed bands, local and national, played the Prom on special nights.

The Prom was so popular so quickly that soon packed streetcars pulled up from downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul every dance night. Those same cars often left empty as throngs of people made their way inside and onto the dance floor. On many nights extra streetcars had to be sent out to make sure that everyone that came to the Prom was able to make the necessary transfer downtown to get home safely.

(Prom Ballroom, 1190 University Avenue - MNHS)
In 1952 the Jules Herman Orchestra was asked to be the house band at the Prom. The eleven piece troupe was led by Lawrence Welk’s former trumpet player Jules Herman and included his wife Lois (Best). Lois, who sang and played the organ, was Welk’s first official ‘Champagne Lady.’  Herman would front the Prom Orchestra for the next 35 years.

The Prom was always synonymous with great music. Throughout its storied history it was home to some of the greatest musical acts of the era. People came and danced to Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and many, many more. They saw Buddy Holly play in one of his last shows before his death.

The Prom was also known for the outlandish promotions of Harry Given Jr., seemingly none more famous that the ‘Live Baby Dance.’ The Prom offered to raffle a newborn baby to one lucky (and married) Minnesota couple (eligible to adopt) during one of their shows. A nurse was on stage as the winning raffle ticket was announced, and the City Welfare Department was in the crowd ready to arrest promoter Harry Givens. The ‘baby’ turned out to be a piglet. 

As the Prom entered the 1960s attendance began to fall. The Interstate Highway System moved people into the suburbs and away from the city. Those that lived beyond the city limits could now commute into downtown to work and drive back home at the end of the day. To the immediate south, Interstate 94 pulled large amounts of auto traffic off of University and onto the freeway.

(Prom Ballroom dance floor on New Year's Eve - MNHS)
The Big Band sounds of an earlier generation had also become less popular. The Prom had to make changes. The  owners, under the direction of Harry Given Jr., began to offer a catering business. Dances, once five nights a week, were now scheduled with much less frequency.

Sunday nights became orchestra nights, and special events were held during the week. In the eyes of the owners of the Prom the “tail (had been) wagging the dog” and the proposed changes would end up being good for business. In short time the Prom Catering business expanded, and mobile kitchens and off-site catering popped up in the Twin Cities.

As time wore on the building began to show its age. (Now) owner Harry Given Jr. was required by the city of St. Paul to make restorations that amounted to nearly a million dollars to bring it up to code. That, along with exorbitant property taxes, more than $80,000 in 1983 and nearly $55,000 in 1984, spelled the end of the Prom.

Given Jr. tried to sell the building to an owner that would carry on the legacy of the Prom but was unable to find a taker. Unsuccessful he sold to Rainbow Foods founder Sid Applebaum, who later sold to Ryan Companies. They soon after slated the building for demolition and the area for redevelopment.  A week before the closing of the Prom the legendary ‘Cab' Calloway performed for a crowded dance floor at the aptly named "Wrecking Ball" event. 

The last dance at the Prom Ballroom was on April 26, 1987. 700 people came from all over to spend one last night at the place that had “introduced them to each other.” The last song ever played at the Prom on University Avenue was “Thanks for the Memories.” Long-time orchestra director Jules Herman led a 10-piece troupe through the final song. At 11 o’clock that night crowds began to leave the Prom Ballroom on University Avenue for the last time. Later in 1987 the building that was home to nearly fifty years of music history was torn down. (See the news story of the demolition here.)

Works Cited:

“Cab’ to Stop at Prom,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, April 16, 1987

Fuller, Jim and Staff Writer. "Prom Fans Say: `Thanks for the Memories'." Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Apr 25, 1987.

Meryhew, Richard and Staff Writer. "The Party's Over as Prom Center Closes Doors for Good." Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Apr 27, 1987.
 
Myers, Peter. “University Avenue: One Street, a Thousand Dreams” (video). 

NDSU North Dakota State Libraries. “Finding Aid to the Jules and Lois Herman Photograph Collection.” http://library.ndsu.edu/repository/bitstream/handle/10365/17553/WelkPhoto004.pdf.

“Prom Ballroom Opens March 26,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, March 9. 1941.

“Prom Evokes a Great Store of Fond Memories (Letter to the Editor),” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, May 2, 1987.

“Prom’s Last Dance a Bittersweet Refrain,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, April 27, 1987.
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