RGV young men saw a need for entertainment during the “Depression.”
After the stock market crash of 1929 many in this country experienced a dramatic change in their lives. The economic downfall which lasted about ten years caused a downgrade of lifestyle, as many lost their jobs, and some had no choice but to live in shanty towns. Some of the well-to-do of the roaring twenties were reduced to selling apples and pencils on street corners.
The Valley was home to many of those bums and drifters created by the era. “They came in record numbers—more than this region had seen before,” said local police.
Word spread among the down and out that the Valley was prosperous, with a mild climate, and that you could eat as many grapefruits as your stomach could hold. A newspaper of then reported, “The highways of the Valley are literally lined with human driftwood, hobbling along the side of the road or footing along the railroad tracks.”
It was written that we went from the land of hope to the land of despair and people did what they could to make their lives bearable.
A need for entertainment was apparent
In the Valley no “Depression” was going to damper the spirit of the people and what better way to depart from the pains of their daily routines— than to dance the night away. Listening to the radio offered some escape, but dancing to the Latin rhythms, swinging to the Shim Sham Shimmy, Charleston and the rest brought instant romance.
So, the idea of forming a social dance club in San Benito during the “Depression” had its skeptics, but that did not deter twenty local young men to do what seemed the impossible.
The people of this era were typically entertained by sporting events like baseball and/or girls’ softball games, high school football, boxing, wrestling, horse racing, cock fighting and the more influential were playing golf and tennis—and of course the movies were hot. Reading and board games were popular as well.
“The San Benito Twenty,” envisioned more, by bringing the sounds of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey from the radio to the local ballroom, so in 1934 they formed the Bohemian Recreational Club. The club elected Edmundo Leandro, president, Oscar Gomez, vice-president, Oscar Lozano, secretary and Ramon Trevino as treasure.
The club’s purpose was to organize three dances a year that would be open to the public. But a couple could not just show up and pay their three dollars (equivalent to $48 today) and get in. The club followed the same rules established by other Bohemian Clubs of the Valley that required an invitation to attend.
Under Leandro’s leadership and club officials, the organization soon established itself as a viable club within not only the Latin-American community of San Benito but recognized throughout the Valley as well. The San Benito chapter was now rubbing elbows with other Bohemia Clubs that were established in Brownsville, McAllen, Mercedes and Harlingen.
Since money was scarce during this era, raising it was a major stumbling block, so collecting a one dollar membership fee was necessary. The club had its headquarters at Daniel Chapa’s store, formerly owned by the Corkill family, where they met every Thursday evening. It was there that members were also expected to donate at least another dollar to be used to finance the dances.
It was a consensus, the Aztec Building in San Benito, which still stands today, rented for $25.00 a night, provided the perfect place for dancing the nights and sorrows away. Being that the dance floor was on the roof top—provided a unique dancing climate under the stars. And if you think that the rental fee was affordable, think again, as according to the consumer price index twenty-five dollars would be the equivalent of $400 today.
On a cool and fair night of moonlight in November, the sounds of boleros and/or big band music could be heard for long distances throughout the streets and alleys of San Benito. “The dances were well attended with guests coming from throughout the Valley. “It was not uncommon to have up to 300 couples,” said a frequent swinger.
After several successful events the club was healthy enough to hire big-name orchestras. One of those groups was Peg Lyndon’s band from Philadelphia which performed from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. for $350. The highlight of the year was when Lee Prowse’s band, one of the most renowned bands of the 1930s, (which charged $600 a night) swung south to perform for each of the Bohemian Clubs of the Valley.
Thanks to the ‘San Benito Twenty,’ who because of them, many were given the opportunity to enjoy their youth and to form lasting friendships through dancing. It was an era when young single girls danced out their teenage years into the dawning pleasures of young ladyhood— and of course, with a chaperon close by, in most cases, their mother.
And if you wanted to impress your date, after a night of dancing, you could take her for supper— which in the 1930s, you could take her to dinner for 50 cents. For instance, at Keno’s Café in Weslaco, they had a special plate that included a choice of one: chicken fried steak, grilled pork chop, calf liver & onions, fried chicken and roast beef served with two vegetables and a drink for 25 cents.
The original members of the 1934 San Benito Bohemian Club included: Jose Garcia, Juan Villarreal, Antonio de los Santos, Guadalupe Aguirre, Enrique Zepeda, Jesus E. Gonzalez, Carlos Zepeda, Alberto Villarreal, Rafael Cantu, Jesus Garza Leal, Ramon Cavazos, Jose Amador, Ramon Trevino, Luis Garcia, Oscar Gomez, Rodolfo Guerra, Juan Conde, Lazaro Izaguirre, Edmundo Leandro, and Oscar Lozano.
Bailamos “Mi Amor”?
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Rio Grande Valley historian and writer René Torres. The above column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Torres can be reached by email via: [email protected]
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