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South Dakota ballroom burned to the ground night after Christmas, 1951

The Ritz Ballroom sat two miles south of Beresford, South Dakota, drawing performers such as Lawrence Welk and other popular, regional acts, until it mysteriously went up in smoke on a cold winter's night.

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A road leads south of Beresford, South Dakota, out in the direction where the dance hall The Ritz used to sit, drawing crowds of dancers from across extreme southeastern South Dakota.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

BERESFORD, S.D. — In the frigid, wee hours of the morning after Christmas 1951, in a country dance hall in rural South Dakota, fewer than 20 miles from Iowa, a fire burned.

Before 5 a.m., a volunteer fire department from Beresford -- pulling on long underwear, still drowsy from Christmas evening sherry -- dispatched to the scene.

But it was too late. The dance hall, once a magnet in farm country for traveling acts, was engulfed in flames.

Thus marked the final night of the Ritz Ballroom.

An article published in The Argus Leader on Friday, Dec. 28 noted the building "had been destroyed before" firefighters arrived. No one was injured. And no one was ever found guilty, either -- of arson or carelessness. But the blaze marked the end of the line for a storied dance hall.

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Dance halls once pockmarked county lines and straddled pastures in South Dakota farm and ranch towns. The most famous was one in Carlock that outlasted the town. But others, from Centerville to Watertown, drew bands and dancers hungry for entertainment, including the Island Park Pavilion on a veritable island in the Jim River, reachable only by bridge or boat.

The acts were as conversely eclectic as the landscape flat: from big band orchestras to accordion-and-drum acts to, in later years, rock 'n' rollers.

Two miles south of Beresford, South Dakota, in Union County, The Ritz Ballroom was merely one of those bulbs in a strand of dance halls that would've burned brightly to any passing planes in those days.

Owned by Carl Lauxman, a local Democratic political organizer, The Ritz attracted touring bands, like, Ruth Colman and Her All Girl Orchestra to Tiny Little and His Toe Teasers -- big band groups hopping from venue to venue.

According to newspaper clippings from the era, one Leonard O'Conner and Dorothy O'Connell even took out an advertisement for their wedding dance in February of 1946. Another advertisement announced on Armistice Day of 1951, just over a month before the fire: The Johnny Soyer Orchestra would start dancing at midnight and carry on until 4 a.m.

Before wedding DJs and iTunes, live bands playing the radio's top tunes beckoned like celebrities in the rural Dakotas. A band mobile invoking the Francis Hess Orchestra shows up in Terry Redlin's 1993 painting, "Harvest Moon Ball." Television big band leader Lawrence Welk performed mornings on WNAX in Yankton and scooted out to country gigs by night.

The South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association inducts venues each year, including The Lake Madison Ballroom and The Hollyhock Ballroom across the Minnesota border in Hatfield.

And music wasn't their only purpose. In 1932, in the heart of the Great Depression, nearly 4,000 people crammed into the Ritz to hear about a speaker with the Farm Holiday Movement, seeking higher prices for farmers, according to an article of South Dakota Magazine .

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An gravel road runs south of Beresford, South Dakota, near the site of the erstwhile dance hall called The Ritz.<br/><br/><br/>
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

But the country ballroom circuit fell on hard times, too. The Ritz wasn't the only one to go up in flames. In Centerville, the SDRRMA notes the ballroom was engulfed in "[g]reat balls of fire."

By 1951, the same year the venue's former frequent performer Welk debuted on television in California, the Ritz ceased being profitable, say locals who spoke with Forum News Service. Some also wondered if a string of lights had been set up for a holiday dance party, either related to Christmas or upcoming New Year's Eve.

And it was also a cold, cold night to fight fires. Historic weather data in Sioux Falls -- 30 miles north -- reports nearly a foot of snow sat on the ground and an additional half-inch dusting fell on Christmas. The mercury also hit a low of minus 4 degrees.

Either way, the dance hall went up in smoke. The fire chief told the Sioux Falls newspaper the loss of the building cost $25,000. And he said the cause of the blaze was "unknown," leaving an empty space in a field that sits there to this day.

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