Saving the last dance

Illustration by Nate Otto

Businesses that have been around for at least a quarter century, like the ones we feature on The Distance, often build relationships with their customers that last decades. But what happens when a business owner’s need to evolve and keep growing threatens to leave behind legacy customers? The newest episode of The Distance looks at how one 95-year-old business has grappled with that question.

When Birute and Gediminas Jodwalis bought the Willowbrook Ballroom from the business’ founding family nearly 20 years ago, they inherited an intensely loyal but shrinking customer base of Sunday afternoon dancers. The Willowbrook is one of the area’s last remaining traditional ballrooms, and while the pastime continues to slowly fade away, the Jodwalis’ commitment to their longstanding customers hasn’t wavered. They have adapted the event space for a modern clientele while honoring a promise they made to the founding family to keep the Sunday dancers on their feet and the big bands on stage.


Transcript

WAILIN: Birute Jodwalis left Poland for the U.S. when she was 19 years old.

BIRUTE: We built everything what we have from nothing. I came with a one suitcase. First job was cleaning the houses. The second job I work at a tobacco farm. Then third job was I start working in a kitchen at a deli.

WAILIN: Birute met her husband, Gediminas, at that third job. He owned a bakery and delivered the bread to the deli where she worked. After they got married, they ran the bakery together and expanded it into a catering business.

BIRUTE: We run that for 13 years. It was very hard because catering business is very hard, so we start looking for do something on a smaller scale, do like a banquet which it will be in one building, everything. And that’s how we came for the Willowbrook Ballroom, and the dance was bonus for us.

Sound of music and applause

LONNY LYNN: Oh, good afternoon and isn’t it nice to be here at the Willowbrook Ballroom…

WAILIN: There aren’t many places left in the U.S. where you can regularly dance the waltz or rumba or foxtrot, gliding across the floor in your Sunday best as a live band plays on stage. The Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs, Illinois, is one of those places, and it’s all because of a promise that Birute Jodwalis and her husband made almost twenty years ago, when they bought the business from its founding family. They agreed to continue the tradition of holding ballroom dances at the Willowbrook, even as the pastime was already becoming obsolete.

BIRUTE: I love my ballroom dancers. They’re older but they’re so cute, you know. Most of them they not couples anymore, they just you know, dance partners, but they so cute. Most are coming dressed up with their long gowns and the guys with the tuxedos. It’s very, very nice affairs.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, you’ll hear the story of a promise made by one business owner to another, and how the Jodwalises meet the needs of a modern clientele while taking care of their loyal but dwindling base of legacy customers. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

RANDY MARTIN: Met a first wife here who died about five years later, met my second wife here about two years later, been married for 10 years to her. Both of my wives were very very good dancers. I am not.

WAILIN: That’s Randy Martin, a Willowbrook Ballroom regular. He first took dancing lessons when he was 19 years old, hoping to meet girls. Many years later, he took up lessons again and was told the Willowbrook Ballroom was the place to practice.

RANDY: I would come frequently for a long time, yeah, because it was a social thing and I was trying to dance and so on and so on and once I got married, my current wife likes to dance a lot and I’m working on this film about ballroom and me and Willowbrook Ballroom. Willowbrook is a much more interesting story than I am, let me tell you.

WAILIN: The Willowbrook opened in 1921 as an outdoor dance pavilion and picnic area called Oh Henry Park, named after the candy bar. Over the next decade, the space was enclosed, expanded, burned down in a fire and rebuilt. In the 1940s, 10 thousand people would visit the ballroom every week. The business was owned by a family called the Verderbars, who changed the name from Oh Henry to Willowbrook in 1959. Three generations of Verderbars ran the ballroom before Birute and her husband learned about it from a friend who worked in real estate. Birute remembers the day she visited the Willowbrook for the first time, taking in the 48,000-square foot building, which has hosted acts like Count Basie and Dolly Parton.

BIRUTE: That was in January and it was very cold outside and actually, you know, when we walked in, it was very scary because I said, I don’t know if we can manage because this building. It’s huge, it’s old and it needs to have lots of repairs and took us actually three months to realize if we wanted to purchase it or not, but then finally we decided, you know, we can do it and we approached them with a contract to buy and took them a year to decide if they want to sell to us.

WAILIN: It took a year of negotiations between the Jodwalises and the Verderbars because the founding family was very firm that their successors would continue the ballroom dancing. Every Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people fill the dance floor at the Willowbrook. Many of them have been coming regularly for decades. When the Jodwalises took over the business, they introduced themselves to the dancers and served free drinks and coffee. And they assured them that the Sunday afternoons would continue unchanged.

BIRUTE: That’s what they did for their whole life. That’s their like second home. You know, we have the people on the Sunday ballroom—we open at one o’clock. They will sit in the car from eleven o’clock in the parking lot to wait til we open the doors.

WAILIN: Birute, who’s known by her staff and customers as Ms. B, says the Willowbrook is the only place left in the United States that still hosts live bands for ballroom dancing on a regular basis. The musicians wear tuxedos and share the stage with a gleaming white grand piano.

TEDDY LEE: Hello, my name’s Teddy Lee as a band leader and as my real self, I’m Ted Lega. I inherited that from my father because he was Teddy Lee. His real name was Henry Theodore, or Henry Ted, Lega. But a lot of band leaders at that time, if they have Kowalski or a long name or whatever, they’d change it and make it different.

WAILIN: Teddy Lee’s father started playing at the Willowbrook around 1960 and the Teddy Lee Orchestra became as much of a fixture as the Sunday dancers, playing there up to five nights a week during the heyday of big band music. After the elder Teddy Lee retired in 1990, his son took over and continued the tradition.

TEDDY: She’s been wonderful, Birute and her husband, in keeping the bands—what started this whole Willowbrook and O’Henry. She’s one rare ballroom in the whole country, period. There are some VFWs or other kinds of places like that and that’s just fine too. But regular ballroom dancing, mmm, not much. But the Willowbrook again is doing a yeoman job. We had people here, as you can see today, came in from Iowa and came in from Nebraska, Southern Illinois. I have people come in from Wisconsin and Michigan and I even had some fly in a few times from California.

WAILIN: Sunday afternoons are a virtually sacred time at the Willowbrook, but there’s no ambiguity about the state of ballroom dancing. It’s not a lucrative activity for the business. The crowds are getting smaller as the ages of the dancers keep advancing, and there aren’t new people coming in to keep the numbers up. Younger visitors to the Willowbrook prefer swing and salsa, which are offered on other nights throughout the month. Birute says not even the popularity of Dancing with the Stars has helped because newcomers often feel intimidated when they turn up on Sundays and see the regulars. All this means that traditional ballroom dancing with big bands continues to slowly fade away.

BIRUTE: I need to say it’s declined, it’s declined. Because the young people, they’re not dance anymore. They will do um occasions only, which our regulars, they are steady but they passing away. That’s the sad part.

WAILIN: And yet, Birute and her husband are committed to keeping it going. It’s about the promise they made to the Verderbars two decades ago, but it’s also about the relationship they have with their dancers. These are their most loyal customers, the ones who show up every week and wait in the parking lot for the doors to open. Birute sees herself in a caretaker role, providing enjoyment and a sense of community for the dancers who come on Sundays. She’s seen her dancers and their families through courtships, marriages, second marriages, third marriages, illness and death. One of her customers put in his will that he wanted his ashes spread by a particular tree in the back of the Willowbrook parking lot.

BIRUTE: They getting older and we have incidents. People will slip, people will trip and feel bad. We’ve had even deaths here, so. But that’s the life. That’s the life, you know, after somebody will die, you know, the family will call and say, we really appreciate what you did, and Dad or Mom went in a happy way.

RANDY: It’s kind of the soul of this place, ballroom dancing and the live orchestras. The original owners—I’ve talked to them. They would have cut it out, Sunday afternoons, because sometimes the crowds are very small, but there’s a chance that it might come back if certain stars line up or something, you know, align in the heavens, whatever.

WAILIN: But Birute and her husband can’t wait around to see if ballroom dancing gets a revival. They have a business to run. So they keep a busy schedule of other events — weddings, corporate parties, funeral luncheons and fundraisers. There’s the holiday season and New Year’s, which are busy times for the ballroom. After that, they start fielding inquiries from couples who got engaged over the holidays and want to have their weddings at the Willowbrook. They host an annual tribute to Buddy Holly in January — that’s one of Birute’s favorite events — as well as salsa competitions, country line dancing, and something called a good time Charley’s Singles Dance.

BIRUTE: We’re doing even cage fighting.

WAILIN: You’re doing what?

BIRUTE: Cage fighting.

WAILIN: Yup, there’s cage fighting at the Willowbrook Ballroom, in the same location where the Sunday dancers do their waltzes and tangos. The organizers put down carpet to protect the dance floor.

BIRUTE: We don’t want to damage to the building of course. But income is very important because everything going up, you know, taxes, insurance and that stuff ,and we need to have income so you know, if we have a day open, why not not to try? We’ll not always will agree but if the customer will follow our rules and requests then we will work with them.

WAILIN: The Jodwalises have also updated the Willowbrook and put their own stamp on the business. In a nod to the changing demographics of the area, the chef and kitchen staff at the ballroom can do pretty much any kind of cuisine. Not just your typical London broil and mashed potatoes type banquet food, but also spanakopita and beef fajitas and sauerkraut. And there’s a basement party room that Birute renovated in black and silver. She named it Bunkeris, which means bunker in Lithuanian. It used to be called the Flamingo Room.

BIRUTE: When we took over, there was flamingo. The walls and everything in the pink. Why we did this room and called it Bunkeris because we’re Lithuanian and in the late 90s, when Lithuania got its freedom, there were lots of people coming from Lithuania and they stayed in here but they missed their music, that whole thing, so they start asking why we cannot do something and so we change. We did more like a nightclub type of room, but we still using now for the weddings and parties.

WAILIN: Did it remind you of being young?

BIRUTE: Yeah, night clubs, yes, especially the music, you see they have homesick once in a while and you like what you grew up with.

WAILIN: You like what you grew up with. That’s the same with the Sunday dancers, many of whom came of age in the era of big bands and used to have their pick of Chicago ballrooms. There were legendary places like the Aragon Ballroom on the city’s north side, which is now a concert venue, and the Melody Mill, a dance hall in a nearby suburb that was torn down after more than 50 years in business. The Teddy Lee Orchestra actually got its start at the Melody Mill, back in 1958, when the ballroom’s owners asked Teddy Lee’s father to start his own band. And now Teddy Lee the son is leading the orchestra at the Willowbrook, the last ballroom standing. He’ll play for as long as the dancers keep showing up.

TEDDY: You can count on them. They love to dance and they make all the effort they can to be here and dance and it’s just a life thing. Some other kinds of music can get different ways, you know, and they’re kind of strong on the ears and all that, but the music that we play, a lot of it can be a thing of beauty.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Andy Richardson, as well as Bonnie Classen for her book on the Willowbrook Ballroom. You can find our show at thedistance.com, on iTunes, where we would love it if you rated and reviewed us, and now on Google Play Music. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

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