Where to go in Montcalm County to hear the great Satchmo Louis Armstrong on trumpet or the Harlem Cotton Club sensation Cabe Carlo “Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway?
Where can you hear Les Brown and his famous band or the orchestra led by the incomparable Guy Lombardo?
Plus, you can be one of a thousand dancers trying out the latest trendy moves on a dance floor half the size of a football field, whether it’s the Charleston, the Lindy, the foxtrot or the jitterbug?
There’s only one place in Montcalm County where all of this can happen, and that’s the Palladium on Crystal Lake in the hamlet of Crystal, Michigan.
What exactly is “palladium,” you may ask?
It’s not that shiny, silvery-white metal that’s more valuable than gold and is the 46th metal on the periodic table. In our case, the term derives from an architectural style that exhibits symmetry, arches and classical lines, inspired by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.
The Crystal Palladium was built in 1921 and has a great location. Crystal Village is about an hour’s drive from both Lansing and Grand Rapids, allowing couples from both cities to head there and dance on the Palladium’s polished floors.
A vacationer’s destination even before the 1920’s, Crystal Lake is the largest lake in Montcalm County at nearly 800 acres (more than twice the size of Lake Tamarack across from our Lake View home).
Located on the eastern shore of Crystal Lake, the Palladium’s two-story lakeside façade features arched balconies, perfect for watching the sunset. Electric lights then illuminated the balcony, a spectacle that lasted long after dark. Viewed from the town side, its façade reflects the symmetry with the same two-storey balconies topped by a long row of arches. Inside, the ground floor is dedicated to the cafeteria, a spacious marble cooler, restrooms, changing rooms and two automatic electric popcorn machines. Then, ascend the grand staircase and you enter the ballroom: 124 x 118 feet, surrounded by red velvet ropes. Steel supports reduce the number of columns needed and give the room a spacious feel.
The Roaring Twenties saw a boom in dance hall construction across America. On the website of the National Banquet Halls and Entertainment Association, Michigan lists two dozen such halls, most of them in Detroit. There is only one Crystal Palladium in Montcalm County. The fact that it draws people from all over central Michigan was evident the summer after it opened. In 1922, Crystal’s National Day attendance topped 25,000. When the best bands plan a Michigan tour, they have to include at least two destinations: Detroit’s clubs and the Crystal Palladium.
In a July 1987 review in the Lansing State Journal, longtime Crystal resident Robert LaSalle remembered seeing the ballroom being built. On the night of Cab Calloway’s show, a young LaSalle climbed a water slide on the side of the building to peer into the dance floor, which was so crowded it could barely move.
“Dancing was a big thing,” he recalls. “The girls were dressed beautifully. The guys looked cool in white flannel pants, navy sport coats and black and white shoes.”
From the ’20s to the mid-’50s, big bands and celebrities flocked to the village, whose population never exceeded 1,000. (On any given night, there are more dancers on the dance floor than people living in the village!)
As I mentioned in my opening question, some of the most famous performers are black musicians and bandleaders. Louis Armstrong has been hailed as the greatest trumpet player in the world, thrilling audiences wherever he went.
Cab Calloway’s famous single “Minnie the Moocher” sold more than 1 million records, the first for a black musician. What’s interesting and sobering about their performance, however, is the fact that in many, if not most, of the dance halls where they appear, black people are not welcome unless they are there to entertain.
Whether by norm or culture, the dance floor is only for white people, fueled by an irrational fear of intermarriage or racial mixing. From this biased perspective, a biracial couple on the dance floor can cause trouble. (Keep in mind that interracial marriage was illegal in many parts of the U.S. until the Supreme Court struck down those state statues in Lovin v. Virginia in 1967. Fortunately, Michigan was one of the few One of the states that allowed interracial marriage since late 1967. 19th century, but popular attitudes remained a hindrance. Until 1958, national opinion polls showed that more than 90 percent of Americans opposed interracial marriage. However, by the 1960s, There have been dramatic shifts in public opinion, like the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that approved same-sex marriage.)
Given the racial makeup of the thousand or so dancers at the Crystal Palladium, I think we’re more enlightened here in Michigan. Maybe someone remembers the 1950s and can answer my musings.
After all, the Pioneer Black family lived near the crystal. Among them are Latvians who have a famous American ancestor: Benjamin Banneker, a brilliant mathematician and surveyor who helped plan our nation’s capital. At the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Lett and Henrietta Lett were an important part of the Bloomer Township community in Crystal to the south.
After Samuel’s death in 1903, their son Ira took over the farm and looked after his widowed mother. She lived another 30 years before dying in 1932 at the age of 86. I wonder if Ira, who didn’t marry until 1926, ever took someone out to dance at the Crystal Palladium and listen to Satchmo or Cab Calloway? I think so.
(Postscript: One of Michigan’s most popular dance halls, the Crystal Palladium Ballroom operated for decades before being converted into a furniture and appliance store. Tragically, on December 23, 1974, a destruction Sexual fires, leaving only ashes and memories. I would like to thank the Crystal Historical Society and its president, David Wight, for helping me research this article, and for their excellent record keeping history alive and drawing from it Lesson learned.)
Steve Charnley is a retired pastor in Lake View. From 2008 to 2014, he served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Greenville. He teaches college history courses and is passionate about local history and loves to share it with others.