(reading time approx. 5 minutes)
During WWII in 1942, I was 16. I lived on a small farm in Pennsylvania. I rarely went to the movies, but always went to see Mickey Rooney. Playing at our theater in Ambler, Pa. was a 1939 replay of Babes in Arms. Mickey inspired me to do something special; produce a barn dance. I reasoned that if Mickey Rooney could do that, so could I. We had a nice clean barn with a good dance floor, just right with fresh hay in the lofts.
If it were to be, it was up to me. I had to put it together. We needed musical performers, advertising posters, and transportation for everyone to and from the barn, and chaperones. I never tackled a project this involved before, but it would be a learning experience. “Piece of cake,” I thought!
I was a sophomore in high school. My first challenge was to present the plan to the school Principal, Mr. Baker. He laughed but knowing me and my reputation, he guessed that I would do it regardless of the school’s support. So he said, “Go to it Russ. When you have the total plan completely laid out on paper, let’s talk again. Meanwhile, get back to your school work.” I guess he thought that would be the end of it. I successfully tackled many adult projects before. This didn’t seem any bigger than any other. I was going to make it work and have fun doing it.
The first priority was music. Miss Wilhelm, the music teacher, helped me find musicians from the school band. I was able to get a guitar player, a trumpet player, an accordionist, a drummer, a base fiddle, a violinist, a kazoo player, and a musical spoon performer. There was a month to prepare. Our music teacher liked the idea and would help by rehearsing the students with barn dance music selections, as part of their class curriculum. Parents of the students offered no resistance. Some even volunteered to be chaperons. An unexpected boost was that one of the students was the daughter of the Ambler Gazette newspaper editor. He offered to do a feature story lead in his paper, and would take pictures himself.
Next was transportation of the students to our barn. We were deep into gas rationing during the war. Remember the A, B, & C rationing stickers on the windshields in 1942? Al Zeller was a local apple orchard farmer. He owned a gas station and was our next-door neighbor. He could get gas. Al also offered to arrange a hayride to and from the bus stop, three miles from our farm, with his big 30-foot apple orchard flat bed trailer. A hayride was a highlight of the overall entertainment.
My dad strung Christmas bulbs and floodlights inside the barn. Mom made cookies, lemonade and Cool Aide. Even though WWII was underway, we were still suffering from the tail end of the depression. Money was scarce. We had a zero budget. No cash. It was an all volunteer production. Our art teacher had the students make posters as an art project, including “No Smoking signs”. There would be a special award for the best poster.
We had a month lead time. It was wartime and everyone worked together. A few teachers agreed to support the dance, but only after they inspected the barn, and it looked safe and clean. We passed the test. The last Saturday in May was the date when it would be warmer. A rain date was set for the following Saturday.
The date came. It all happened. The hayride, we danced, had sing alongs with old country music and songs we all knew like: “The Old Gray Mare”, “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Rail Road”, “Ain’t She Sweet”, “Yes Sir She’s My Baby”, “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain”, and every other song of the times. We danced and sang just about everything the musicians could play. There were plenty of refreshments and almost everyone brought snacks. No alcohol, no smoking and no foolin’ around. (We kept an eye on the back of the barn too.) The teachers wore overalls and led the band in the songs they rehearsed. This became a school function and everybody got an A.
We did it! What a great night. The hardest thing was to bring the dance to an end. The ride back in the hay wagon, singing all the way was the finishing touch that tied the ribbons on the most wonderful night we ever had in our high school. It was all because I saw Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, and I said, “I can do that.” And I did.