If this was the last dance at the Withrow Ballroom, it went out swingin'.
The first notes of "At the Hop" had barely sounded Saturday night before hundreds of dancers jammed the floor, spinning and shaking as the Rockin' Hollywoods blasted through one oldie after another.
It was a scene that once was common in Minnesota, when the state was dotted with ballrooms like the Blue Moon in Marshall, the Hollyhock in Pipestone and the Palms in Renville. In the Twin Cities, dancers thronged the Bel Rae in Mounds View, the Majestic in Cottage Grove and the Prom in St. Paul.
As recently as 30 years ago, Minnesota had more active ballrooms than any other state, according to the Minnesota Ballroom Operators Association.
Now they're nearly all gone. And the oldest of them all, the Withrow, is up for sale. Opened in 1928 among the farm fields of Washington County outside the town of Hugo, the Withrow has hosted big bands, polka bands, country bands and rockers — as well as weddings, class reunions and school dances.
An online auction of the property is planned for Nov. 11, and the current owner hopes the 11-acre spread will be bought by someone who will keep the ballroom open. But Saturday's Halloween party, for now, rang down the curtain on nearly 90 years of entertainment that many say will never be equaled.
"The younger generation aren't dancing," said Carol Kensy, who drove an hour from near Owatonna with her husband, Richard Hanson. Kensy has been coming to the Withrow for more than 50 years, ever since her dad, Walter Kensy, played there with his polka band.
"You go out for entertainment now," Kensy said, "they want you to sit on your rear end and eat."
The Withrow actually closed once before, in 2008. Paul Bergmann bought it and brought it back to life. Now, Bergmann said, he's simply too busy with his family's nursery and garden center business, his 500-acre farm — and his grandchildren.
"I've been the caretaker of it," he said. "It's been a good run. Now, I've got things in my life I've got to take care of, and it's time to move on."
Another previous owner is Mark Babcock, better known to local music fans by his stage name, Dash Riprock. Babcock played regularly at the Withrow and eventually bought it in the '80s from Ed Zahler Jr., a family member of founder Ben Zahler.
Business was great, Babcock said, until Minnesota's first casinos opened in 1991.
"When the casinos opened up, it was a death stroke to ballrooms," he said. "In three dances, we went from 1,100 people to 135."
The unofficial house band at the Withrow has been the Rockin' Hollywoods, who have played the venue more than 400 times since 1973. With a dance floor about the size of a basketball court, it's not a place where people sit still, said Rockin' Hollywoods frontman Steve Ghizoni.
"It's obviously a dance hall, and people are here to dance," Ghizoni said. "In a nightclub, people are there to drink.
"People congregate and connect," he said. "That's the beauty of a ballroom."
Diane and Leon Pearson were high school sweethearts in Benson, Minn. They used to dance at the Fiesta in Montevideo and the Lakeside in Glenwood, where they once saw the Everly Brothers. Now living in White Bear Lake, the couple couldn't pass up one last night at the Withrow.
"It's so much fun," Diane Pearson said. "When we saw this, we were like, 'Hey, we gotta go.' "
The Rockin' Hollywoods played until after midnight, then closed out the Withrow's last dance with Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll."
"It seemed like the right way to go out," Ghizoni said. "Now I just hope it can keep going."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402