Nebraska ballroom celebrates 50th anniversary

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WAHOO, Neb. (AP) - Jerry Granger laid it out for his children and grandchildren, who were home for the holidays in December.

“I told them they could do whatever they want,” he said.

Or …

They could join him and his wife, Janet, for the drive from Lincoln to Wahoo to the Starlite Ballroom and dance to polka music.

“They came along,” Granger told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1ifsJcY ). “And they had a blast up there.”

Most people do, especially on Sunday afternoons, when the Starlite is swimming in people sliding, spinning and swinging on the expansive wood dance floor.

The Grangers are Sunday regulars, arriving for the 2 p.m. dances no later than 2:05 and staying until the tuba bellows its final oompah at 5.

They started going in the early 1970s, when some friends of theirs through Cub Scouts invited them to their first dance.

“She was Polish, and he was Bohemian,” Granger said. “We went a couple of times and, more or less, fell in love with it. We’ve been going ever since.”

There hasn’t been a Sunday they’ve missed unless, of course, the weather doesn’t’ cooperate.

“If we weren’t doing it, we would just be sitting around home,” Granger said. “We really enjoy this type of thing. The people are wonderful, and the people running the place are really nice.”

That’s why they will be there again this Sunday for the special event.

This weekend the Starlite will celebrate its 50th anniversary with two free dances.

On Saturday, Kenny James will play rock and country from 8 p.m. to midnight. The night kicks off at 6 p.m. with free dance lessons from the Omaha Country Kickers.

On Sunday, Dean Hansen and Leo Lonnie will play polka and ballroom dance music from 1 to 7 p.m.

“We’ve had a lot of good times out there,” said Hansen, who played his accordion at the Starlite’s second dance in 1964. “There’s no better place around. We’re lucky to have it in the county, and I hope the people in the area appreciate it. It’s been such an asset to the community.”

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Built on five acres, the 15,000-square-foot insulated Behlen metal building, with its 5,000-square-foot wood dance floor, sits on the south side of Nebraska 92 three miles west of Wahoo, with its doors facing the highway.

In 1964, on Memorial Day weekend, couples Adrian and Betty Rezac, and Joe and Marie Cherovsky opened the ballroom, calling it the Starlite.

“I think Marie thought of it, probably because of the sparkles in the ceiling,” said Wahoo’s Betty Rezac, 82.

The Rezacs and the Cherovskys opened it because they loved to dance to the music of Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo and more. But they had to drive to David City, Lincoln or elsewhere to do so.

“We decided we needed a ballroom,” Rezac said.

And so they built one big enough to accommodate 700 to 800 people. It often reached its capacity.

“When it was a brand-new place, it was the place to go and the place to be,” said Steve Hough of the rock cover band The Rumbles, which played there often after coming together the year before in 1963. “It was such a unique, nice place . and in the middle of nowhere.”

In 1970, a summer storm with volatile winds damaged the building, which eventually forced the couples to put it up for sale.

“It was a sad time for us,” Rezac said “It really was starting to boom, but the roof blew off and did us in.”

Phil Bates, a sometime trumpet player and tire salesman, took it over in 1976, sharing ownership with his father, Jerry, and father-in-law Rudy Penke, both of Ashland. More tragedy struck the ballroom in February 1980 when a fire caused extensive smoke damage and destroyed the stage, part of the dance floor and some booths. Bates reopened the Starlite three months later, but it closed in 1986, with Penke as the owner.

In September 1990, the Valparaiso Knights of Columbus purchased the ballroom at an auction. But after the club’s membership voted down the purchase, several of the Knights decided to buy it instead for themselves. Ten couples and three bachelors - among them Ron and Darlene Kliment - became the new owners, and after several weeks of renovation, the Starlite reopened on New Year’s Eve. Its official grand opening happened Feb. 2, 1991.

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The ballroom, with the Kliments as its managers, is now used for craft shows, wedding receptions, anniversary parties and specialty events (Elvis tribute artist Joe Hall performs at least twice a year).

Still, it’s best known as a dance club, with rock and country music booked for the younger generation, and polka and dance bands for the older folks.

“We have people here every Sunday, who drive two to three hours to get here,” Darlene Kliment said of the polka dancers. “They don’t think anything of it. There’s no other place.”

Norm Kavan, 83, who lives in nearby Colon, doesn’t have as far to drive as some. He’s been a regular since 1964, even after his wife passed away 16 years ago.

“I have a lot of friends there,” Kavan said. “I’ve met a lot of people. I would like for it to stay open.”

So would Rezac, who hoped, but never guessed, the Starlite would still be around 50 years after she, Adrian and the Cherovksys opened it. She’ll miss this weekend’s celebration. Adrian Rezac is confined to a wheelchair after an accident, and the Cherovskys died in an auto accident years ago.

But she’ll send good thoughts that way.

“It was just something we decided out of the blue,” Rezac said about building it. “We knew there was a dancing community for it. I’m happy it’s still going. We’re proud we started something. I hope it keeps on going.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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