Dancing Cheek to Cheek at Hotel Washington

The dancing on the Rooftop Garden at the Hotel Washington was hardly of the style and grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it caused a scandal nonetheless.

The dancing on the Roof Garden at the Hotel Washington was hardly of the style and grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it caused a scandal nonetheless.

For a special group of Greenville citizens, the 1920s meant fun, laughter, outlandish pranks, and a break from staid customs of the past. As the popular song of the day suggested, “Anything Goes” and it did in Greenville, Texas. With the Spector of War vanquished, Americans enjoyed automobiles, jazz, dancing, and the luxury of credit buying. Everything was available except alcohol that was banned in 1903. Yet numerous bootleggers remedied that problem easily enough.

However, not every citizen in Greenville lived the Good Life. Only those with hefty bank accounts fit into a class that included bankers, doctors, lawyers, cotton buyers, large landowners, and merchants. Wage earners, African-Americans, and laborers composed a much larger portion of the population but clearly knew they were not in the elite group.

Greenville was a thriving city, boosted along with multiple rail lines, a large cotton compress, a large number of cotton gins throughout the county, and banks with connections to leading financial centers in New York. The elite definitely celebrated the Roaring Twenties. Many young men of the group owned automobiles, all elite women dressed in the latest fashions, and social events filled society pages of local newspapers.

With the arrival of railroads in 1880, Greenville saw a bumper crop of visitors; men such as cotton buyers, financiers, conventions attendees, and salesmen. Large, luxurious hotels became necessary fixtures for the growing city. In 1881 Fred Ende opened the earliest first-rate hotel. But it went up in flames two years later, destroying the courthouse as well as the entire south and west sides of the public square. Shortly after the Beckham Hotel opened on Lee Street. Yet, it too was destroyed by fire a few years later. The Beckham family rebuilt their hotel. In 1925 a group of Greenville businessmen formed a consortium to build the most luxurious, lavish hotel this side of Dallas. Hotel Washington became the social center of town, located on Washington Street.

On Tuesday, August 18, 1926 the Hotel Washington formally opened with a seven-course banquet and late night dancing on the beautifully romantic Roof Garden. Special entertainment at both the banquet and Roof Garden arrived from Dallas as well as some local talent. Doors opened at 7:00 P.M., the Banquet began at 8:00, and dancing lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Some couples may have witnessed the sun rise in the east atop the Roof Garden.

On Sunday, August 16, members of Wesley Methodist Church, a few blocks from the new hotel, heard a hell, fire, and brimstone sermon from Rev. French, their pastor. Methodists at that time were known for their opposition to dancing. Rev. French made a point of the opposition that August Sunday morning. Not only did he let his congregation know his views, he managed to influence one of the local newspapers to print the sermon in two parts on Monday and Tuesday.

What Rev. French proposed was extremely out of the ordinary. Dennis Strickland picked up on a most unusual point and asked me to give my interpretation this Wednesday, April 23 at Hump Day at the Texan Theater at 5:00 P.M. His free entertainment is always fun. So I hope to see as many of you there as can make it.

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