The Crystal Ballroom, located at NW 14th and Burnside in downtown Portland is a very grand ballroom. Wow, if the walls could talk we would sure be listening! Imagine for a moment what took place over the years in this beautiful almost 100 year old building. Countless first loves unfolding, police raids, visits by silent screen idols, beat poets, psychedelic light shows, narrow escapes from fire, demolition and neglect, live music, dancing and countless memorable experiences. The Crystal holds a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Crystal first opened its doors in 1914, as World War I began. It was known then as the Cotillion Hall. It was designed by architect Robert f. Tegan. The style is called Romanesque Revival. In those days frolicsome, lighthearted, and spirited Portlanders could still be arrested for dancing the Tango! While the laws have changed, Portlanders are still pretty much the same free spirited folks, which in many ways, helps make Portland itself so infectious, and most likely why the ballroom is still going strong after all these years.
During the Great Depression, a gentleman known as “Dad” Watson, presented popular old-time dance revivals at the Crystal as well as square dancing, as an attempt to raise people’s spirits. Special African American formal dances were held there as well but were rare due to segregation. There are lots of romantic tales about dance partners ending up becoming spouses, and of course in the 60’s, as one would expect, the Crystal was the supreme rock palace. A few of the great bands that played there during this time were The Grateful Dead, Ike & Tina Turner, Country Joe & the Fish, Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young & Stephen Stills, and Jimi Hendrix just to name a few. In addition to these great bands of the 60’s, also performing there were a lot of Gypsy brass bands as well as R & B artists such as the great James Brown, and Marvin Gaye. The 60’s was an up and down time for the Crystal. In the late 60’s the Crystal held mostly psychedelic acts such as Blue Cheer, Electric Prunes, Kaleidoscope, Moby Grape, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Weeds, and even Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, which, by the way, happens to be the artist of my very 1st record purchase! I had no idea who they were or what I was getting into! I must admit it was quite a surprise! If you are familiar with this band you will know what I’m talking about here!
One of the most interesting and fun features of the Crystal, is the floor in the main ballroom on the third floor. It’s a mechanical dance floor. It is thought to be the only one of its kind left in the United States. It’s called a sprung floor. It absorbs shocks, giving it a softer feel like dancing on clouds! Sometimes it’s referred to as a floating floor. This type of floor is perfect for dancing. As soon as you enter the ballroom and walk on this amazing wood floor you can feel the unusual sensation it offers. It’s a bit magical! The other thing that makes the Crystal so special would be the ambiance of the place. There is a feeling you get the minute you enter into the huge space. It’s a feeling of going back in time, of history, and a sense of wonder washes over you, a total sense of awe! With its very high ceilings, grand chandeliers, beautiful murals, which McMenamins is famous for, and floor to ceiling, wide arched windows, its breathtaking! If you ever go to the Crystal I would recommend you get there early. Experiencing the 3rd floor ball room empty, before the crowds arrive, is a wonderful thing! It’s then; you get the full impact of the massive space.
Over the years the ballroom changed hands quite a few times. Originally it was owned by Montrose Ringler, who lost the ballroom in the early 1920’s. It was then bought by Dad Watson in the mid 20’s. After Watsons death in the 30’s, Ralph Farrier bought the ballroom and that is when it was renamed the Crystal Ballroom.
The Crystal was a busy and wondrous place through the years. However, in 1968, the dance hall was shut down to all public events. The hall was silent for the most part of 30 years! During this time, from the 70’s through the 90’s, it became a residence for squatters, bohemians, and artists. They used the space as a studio, and occasionally held private parties there. Finally, in 1997, the fabulous McMenamin Brothers stepped in. They brought the place back to life after a major overhaul and it was reopened as the now famous Crystal Ballroom. Since reopening, some great bands have, and continue to perform there. The brothers host everything from rock n’ roll, country, hip hop, to big band swing, and even a famous marching band known as March Fourth Marching Band performs there. They are quite famous now and perform all over the world. Hands down, it’s one of my favorite shows at the Crystal. I’ve been to see them several times and it’s so much fun it feels…. almost illegal!
Brian adds: take a look at the jesters high up on the columns. You might be forgiven to think that these were added by McMenamins, but they are in fact original. Maybe the place was custom built for them 100 years ago.
Words by Glenda, pictures by Brian