by Carol Sokolsky
I’m a newcomer to Tulsa. As I’m still trying to find my center, so to speak, I am curious about the uniqueness of Tulsa and especially why everyone keeps saying, “You have to experience Cain’s Ballroom.”
After seven months in Tulsa, and only driving past the historic venue, I finally had the opportunity to breathe in the place that won my heart in 60 seconds flat.
Most people attend a concert at this venue; however, I was invited to a wedding, to be held at the historic, 91-year-old Cain’s Ballroom. l could not wait to walk on the “original maple spring loaded floor designed in a ‘log cabin’ or concentric square pattern.” (cainsballrom.com) I wish everyone could meet Cain’s as I did, with lights strung across the dance floor that created a fairy tale experience. The tables were set up on both sides of the dance floor, forming an aisle that would accommodate the bridal party’s entrance to the stage area, where a beautifully lit “forest” made for a photographer’s dream.
On the ceiling, above the lights strung over the tables, was a four-foot neon star and a silver disco ball, which was “quiet” during the ceremony, but added ambiance for the rest of the evening. But my heart was stolen by the oversized photographs of country stars and other musicians who had played Cain’s over the years, including my personal favorite, Roy Rogers. Each of the large pictures were hand signed by the artist. Gene Autry, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Tex Ritter, Kay Starr, and so many more, all played on the very floor where I was standing. The music playing, before, during, and after the ceremony, was perfect–chosen well by the bride and groom to represent the historic ballroom and the many artists who called it home. As a northerner for my entire life, until recently, I wasn’t raised on country music, but I always enjoyed the classic country music artists, and never more so than that moment.
As the bride and groom avowed their love to each other, I was struck by the complete visual of that moment–literally picture-perfect; a fairy tale come true for the beautiful couple. But, every wedding is beautiful; it’s the one day in a marriage that is just perfect, right? Maybe, but this wedding experienced several moments that most would consider less-than-perfect, yet nothing could sabotage the evening. Not even the four inches of rain flooding Tulsa’s streets, the tornado warnings, or the collapse of the cake table, which created what the bride called, “floor cake”!
I noticed several exploring the balcony, so my sister and I decided to take that excursion. From that view, the dance floor was nothing shy of spectacular, especially with the extremely tall, white, back-lit “I DO” letters that adorned the stage, creating a white aura in what looked like a purple forest of rafters and strung lights over the candle-lit tables. It screamed “spectacular”! But at the bottom of the stairway, lying against the wall, as though needing a permanent home, was another treasure….a framed concrete plaque with the signature, hand and footprints of the legendary Merle Haggard, signed in 2004. This wasn’t just a dance hall, it was a museum of legends, of artists, and of cowboys who have been a huge part of Oklahoma history, and especially, of Cain’s Ballroom.
A forthcoming book will share the story of Cain’s Ballroom, but until it is finalized cainsballroom.com sheds more light on what makes Cain’s so unique. It turns out, Bob Willis had a significant influence on what Cain’s would become. Willis learned to play the fiddle and mandolin as a boy; as a young man he performed on the radio and at house dances. Willis’ debut at Cain’s took place on New Year’s Night of 1935. From 1935 to 1942, Cain’s was the “Home of Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys.” He played for weekly dances at Cain’s and played a midnight radio show and a daily noon-hour program. During these years, Cain’s was part the popularization of “western swing,” a new form of country and western that combined jazz, hillbilly, boogie, blues, big band swing, rhumba, mariachi and jitterbug music.
Willis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2007 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to American music from the 30s through the 60s. During his career, Willis wrote and recorded 470 songs, including “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “San Antonio Rose”; he influenced such artists as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel. Because of Willis and the other artists that are so prominently displayed on the walls of this magnificent ballroom, Cain’s is known throughout the music industry as the “Carnegie Hall of Western Swing.”
I discovered a treasure when I walked through the doors at Cain’s Ballroom, but what I really witnessed was an enchanting evening as two people said “I do” in that hallowed country hall.
Carol Sokolsky is a newcomer to Tulsa. She relocated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 2014 after retiring from FedEx Services, Global Account Management. She spent most of her 33 FedEx years as a road warrior, leading a large global management team and serving one global customer for over 20 years. Her passion for blogging began in 2010 as she launched a two-year blog that chronicled the journey of her husband’s valiant fight with cancer and ultimately the end of his journey. Her blog became a book, “Sid’s Journey”. She continues to journal daily on just about everything!