The song "Come Dancing" belongs to the Kinks. Other disclaimers can be found on the Introduction Page.
I first read about the razing of the Steel Palace in the local paper. I sat in the tiny kitchen of the apartment I shared with my husband and fellow member of our jazz/rock band Puttin' on the Ritz. I was looking for possible club dates and Kris was reading the city section when he brought the article to my attention.
"Man, Sarah, didja read this?" he exclaimed. "They're knocking down the old A&P next week, the one that used to be the Steel Palace. They're gonna put up a parking lot for the new Isabella Street Mall." He grinned. "Do ya remember the Palace, Sarah? That was a great place. My older brother spent so much money there, he probably could have bought it."
The Palace. It used to be our local pally, our place to "hang", to spend time. It was a diner, the Buttery, when my parents met in the early 40s, but by the time I was eight years old, it was a teen club and dance hall.
They put a parking lot on a piece of land.
Where the supermarket used to stand
Before that, they put up a bowling alley
On the site that used to be the local palley.
That's where the big bands used to come and play.
My sister went there on a Saturday.
All her boyfriends used to come and call.
Why not come dancing?
It's total natural.
I didn't think of the Palace again until my sister Agatha called me from Wilmington, where she lived with her husband and two daughters, two days later. Aggie practically lived at the Steel Palace, both when it was a dance hall and later when they converted it into a bowling alley (also called the Steel Palace). She sounded upset, like she was crying. I could hear her husband trying to calm her in the background, and her younger daughter asking what a "palley" was. "I'm going to come down for a few days to visit Mom anyway," Aggie insisted. "All she's had since Dad died last year and Amanda and Charlie moved to Connecticut is Pete, Martha, and the station. She's spent forty years working at WENN. I think she can afford to take a few days off, especially since Pete's doing most of the managing now and Marthie's taken over the midday DJ shift."
"Aggie," I asked, "do you remember how Mom used to freak when you stayed out late?"
"Oh, God, yes," Aggie exclaimed. "And Daddy was worse. He probably would have put me in a convent if he had his way."
"I don't blame him, given what some of your boyfriends were like," I pointed out. "How did you manage to date every Marlon Brando wanna-be in Pittsburgh?"
"Hey, I went out with nice guys, too!"
"You did? Who? I must have missed that one," I teased.
"Very funny, Sarah Margaret Sherwood."
"What were you and Howie Meisner doing that night in the Palace, the night that Mom almost threw you out?"
"Nothing worth worrying about, Pipsqueak," Aggie insisted. "He tried to go too far, and I gave him a kick in the crotch." Her younger daughter piped in again, this time asking her father what a "crotch" was. There was some shuffling and scolding before Agatha came back on. "Sorry, sis. Annie's asking too many questions she shouldn't know the answers to at her age." I heard paper shuffle. Despite her pride over "liberating" herself from Pittsburgh, Aggie still read the Steel City papers. "Darn malls are taking over the world," she muttered.
I decided to get back on the subject. Sherwoods are very good at distracting people from the matter at hand. "That's not what I heard. Dad would have been proud of you defending yourself, not banging the kitchen table so hard it still has the dent. You wouldn't have gone to Susie Devin's house to spend the night, or spent most of the next day conning Mom into forgetting the whole incident."
"Did you do anything when you were a kid besides spy on my love life?" Agatha asked, annoyed. I love annoying her. She's so easy to annoy, and she's so much fun when she blows.
"That's a younger sibling's job, sis," I joked. "Besides, as you may remember, the Steel Palace was a public place. We all went there, including our folks and your other boyfriends. You must have gone through a guy every couple of months."
"I wore them out," Aggie explained. I could almost hear her mischievous Sherwood grin, which she inherited from our former con-artist father. "No, Pipsqueak, we didn't do anything worse than necking. Not at the Palace, anyway."
I grinned. "Do you remember all the great bands that played there on Saturday? We used to spend the whole day dancing and eating and talking."
"Yeah, even Mom and Dad went to hear them," Aggie agreed. "They had rock acts before they were popular, and some of the best big bands on the east coast in the fifties and early sixties."
"Dad always said he was looking for new bands to introduce on WENN," I remembered. "I think he was a closet rock and swing fan. Mom still has some of her old albums from that era."
Aggie sighed. "I remember the name of the band that played the night I got in trouble with Mom. Do you remember the Swinging Kings?"
"I sure do!" I exclaimed. "Nick Cole was the sexiest lead singer to ever play the Palace. I had such a crush on him when I was thirteen."
"Every girl at the Palace had a crush on him, including our mother," Aggie said. "He had that much animal magnetism." A teen girl's voice invaded our conversation, whining about using the phone and that her mom had been on with Aunt Sarah for hours. "Sorry, Pipsqueak," Aggie grumbled, "the fifteen-year-old will die if she doesn't call her best friend and discuss the new episode of 'Simon & Simon'." I nodded and put the phone back on its cradle.
I was supposed to be getting ready for our next gig at the Sparkling Lights dance club, but my mind was on the past. I picked up the photo of my family that I kept on my desk. The photo was taken in April 1962, a few days before Aggie came home late from the Steel Palace, without her then-boyfriend Howie Meisner. It wasn't until recently that Aggie or Mom would talk about what happened that night, but I knew most of the story anyhow. I was there, even if my folks and Aggie weren't aware of it.
Another Saturday, another date
She would be ready, but she'd always make him wait
In the hallway in anticipation
He didn't know the night would end up in frustration.
He'd end up blowing all his wages for the week
All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek
That's how they did it when I was just a kid
Don't be afraid to come dancing
My sister always did.
I sat in the room I shared with eighteen-year-old Agatha and fourteen-year-old Amanda. Amanda read Seventeen Magazine while Aggie prepared for her date with Howie Meisner and I watched her. They were going to the local palley, the Steel Palace. My parents were working their shifts at our family's radio station, WENN, but would be back to see Aggie off.
Aggie has a different boyfriend every week. She says she gets tired of them. They want more than she's willing to give. She wants to go to college and see the world, not be attached to the same guy for the rest of her life.
I don't see what's so big about guys. My girlfriends at school giggle over actors like Rock Hudson, but I'd rather listen to music. Aggie never cared about guys before she turned into a teenager. She only liked to play ball with them. At least she's not as moony as her best friend Ophelia Singer, who's been dating the same boy, Jerry Keller, for about a year. Peter, who was baby-sitting us until Mom and Dad arrived, came running upstairs. "Aggie, it's your lover boy," he teased. She grabbed the phone from him and nearly tripped over the cord.
"Hey, Howie," she said as she powdered her nose. Aggie hates looking fancy. She would wear slacks and shorts every day if she could. She won't wear high heels or jewelry, and only wears a little make-up. She says it takes too much effort and is too uncomfortable when she dances. "Are we still going to the Palace?" I peered at the powders and eye shadows on Aggie's dresser as she talked to Howie. Mom says I can start using those when I'm sixteen.
I don't like Howie. He's been a bully since he and Aggie were six. He used to take little kids' lunch money. Mom and Dad don't like him, either. They say he's a bad influence on Aggie, and that he's too fast for her. He runs with a gang called the Rovers. I think it sounds like fun, but Mom says they steal cars for joy rides and rob stores.
Aggie sighed. "If that's what you want, Howie, we'll meet the guys there. I was really hoping to have tonight to ourselves, though." She opened the closet. "Howie, don't go there. That's not what I meant." She started to throw clothes and stuffed animals all over the room. I found the pair of saddle shoes she was looking for under her one-eyed teddy bear Grover. She took them from me and pulled them on. "See you in fifteen minutes, right?"
Aggie was ready in five minutes, but it was a full half-hour before she and Howie left for the Palace. Mom and Dad were home by then. They both looked tired. Mom and Dad are the managers and owners of WENN. It's not a popular station, but it does have its' fans, and it's well-known as a place that will hire young and creative talent. Aggie's friend Ann was doing the evening shift at the station, playing "folk" music and chatting with listeners.
Dad interrogated Howie while Peter and ten-year-old Tommy watched "Maverick" and Mom worked on her stories. Howie was tall and thin. He had a lot of grease in his brown hair, and he smoked cigarettes. He could drive a car and a motorcycle, though he had the car tonight. He usually wore dirty jeans, a leather jacket, and mumbled a lot, but tonight he sported a clean, though worn, suit.
"So, Howie," Dad began, "how's work at the Cafe New Orleans?"
"Work," Howie replied sullenly.
"How's Judy?" Mom called from the table. "Is she still going out with that pediatrician?"
"Ma's ok," Howie muttered. "She ain't going out with anyone right now. She's too old."
"She's not that old," Dad protested. "She can't keep mourning George for the rest of her life."
Mom and Dad blame a lot of Howie's problems on his dad dying in the Korean War. They say he doesn't have a male role model at home. I don't see what good it would do. Howie's just bad news.
Dad cleared his throat. "What are you going to do after high school? Are you going to take over Cafe New Orleans?"
Howie shook his head. "Sleep, I guess. I ain't interested in washing dishes and making other people's food 'till I'm eighty."
"What about college?" suggest Mom, who went to the University of Indiana. Dad went to college but never finished. "Are you going to get a degree?"
"I ain't that smart, Mrs. S. 'Sides, that's for squares."
"I'm ready," Aggie called, much to my relief. She flew downstairs, barely pausing to give Dad a kiss on the cheek and Mom a squeeze before they were out the door and in Howie's car, cuddling each other the whole way. Dad watched, a little jealously, I think. Aggie was always his little girl, and she could do no wrong in his eyes, but I think he would have chosen her boyfriends for her if he could.
My sister should have come in at midnight
And my mom would always sit up and wait
It always ended up in a big row
And my sister used to get her own way
Out of my window I could see them in the moonlight
Saying good-bye by the garden gate...
I was supposed to have gone to bed at ten, but I didn't really feel like it. Aggie hadn't come home. She wasn't home by midnight. She wasn't home by one. I heard Mom and Dad downstairs. Daddy was watching the late show, some early talkie called "Glorifying the American Girl", and complaining about how bad it was. Mom was still typing. Dad kept telling her to go to bed, but she wanted to make sure Aggie was ok.
I was worried, too. I didn't like the way Howie looked at Aggie when they left. I've heard stories about what boys do to girls at this hour. Itís not like Aggie isnít perfectly capable of defending herself. She's been delivering right hooks to Howie since grade school. If anything, he'd be the one who came home with bruises and tears.
Some of Aggie's friends aren't the nicest people. They read biker magazines and imitate Marlon Brando. They walk around with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and don't watch where they're going on their motorcycle. They steal car parts and pick on little kids. Howie and two of his friends once set someone's garage on fire for fun. Aggie said that no one was hurt, but Howie's mom had to pay for the damages.
That was when I heard a car slam and two voices by the garden gate, one louder than the other. I peered out the window next to my bed. I could see two silhouettes in the waning moonlight. "The nerve of Howie! Trying to put his hands there!" the shorter one exclaimed. "I should have done a lot more than kicked him. I should have knocked him clear to the moon! I'm not that kind of girl!"
"Aggie," warned the taller figure, "shouting will only draw unwanted attention. We're both late getting home as it is. My mother will probably ground me, or worse. Thank goodness Ann gave us a ride home from the station."
"Nahh, Dave, I'll talk her out of it," Aggie assured him as she brushed herself off. She turned to him and smiled. David Comstock is sixteen, two years younger than Aggie, and he worships the ground she stands on. He always has. His parents moved back to Pittsburgh three years ago so Uncle Victor could manage the CBS station here and Aunt Maple could appear in a local soap, "The Light of Love." "Thanks for coming home with me."
"Any time, Agatha," he said. "I'll never let anyone hurt you."
She gave him a kiss on his cheek. "That's ok, Charlton Heston. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. But thanks, anyway." Even in the dark, I could tell that his face was as red as his hair. It practically glowed.
I feel bad for Dave. He adores Aggie, but she sees him as another sibling, and most of her friends think he's a nerd. They laugh at him behind his back and taunt him at school. It's not fair. Just because he's smart and reads a lot, they act like he's diseased.
Dave turned to go home and Aggie hurried inside, probably hoping to fool Mom and Dad into thinking she came home on time. I had to see this. I met Tommy at the stairwell. "Aggie's gonna get in trouble," he whispered.
"It's her own fault," I pointed out as we knelt by the stairs. "She should have come home at midnight."
Mom and Dad weren't happy. We couldn't see everything, but Dad's face was flushed. "Where have you been all night, young lady?" Dad shouted. "Your mother has been worried sick about you!"
"Scott, keep your voice down," Mom insisted. "We have four other children sleeping upstairs, not to mention neighbors all around us."
Dad pounded the table so hard, the house shook. "Agatha Celeste Sherwood, we said for you to be home at MIDNIGHT!!"
"Daaaaaddd," Aggie began, "I'm only an hour late."
"Only an hour?" Mom exclaimed. "Agatha, when we give you a curfew, we expect you to honor it."
"I'm too old for curfews," Aggie muttered. "I'm eighteen years old. I'll be going to the University of California in the fall, for crying out loud. I've been a DJ at your station for two years. I buy my own clothes and my records. When are you two going to stop treating me like a kid?"
"Why did you come home with Ann and David?" Dad asked. "Where's Howie?"
"Lying in a gutter, for all I care," Aggie snapped.
"What did Howie do to you?" Mom asked. "What were you two doing at the Palace?"
"Nothing every other kid wasn't doing," Aggie said. She looked at her watch. "Oh, would you look at the time? I have to be at the station tomorrow by ten..."
"Nice try, Aggie," Dad said, "but I've used that line too much to fall for it." His voice went up to a growl. "What did Meisner do to you?"
Aggie and Dad pulled out of our line of view. Tommy looked scared. "We should go down there," he whispered. "I don't want Daddy to hit Aggie."
"He won't," I said firmly. "Aggie's too old - and big - for spankings. She'll talk her way out of this. She always does."
"Scott, calm down," Mom repeated. "You're making things worse." We heard a chair scrape against the kitchen floor. "Agatha, we just want to know where you've been all night."
"At the Palace," Aggie said. They must have given her their "we don't believe a word of this" looks, because she added, "No, really, that's where I've been. We spent most of the night dancing, but Howie wanted to go too far. He grabbed me in places you don't touch unless you want kids by the time you're twenty."
"Did you let him?" Mom asked.
"At first. I thought it would be fun. Different, you know. It wasn't. He was all over me, and he slobbered."
Dad shouted some things Tommy and I probably shouldn't have heard. He only said them when he was extremely angry. "YOU LET HIM?!!!"
"I didn't know he wanted to do that!" Aggie shot back. "When he tried to get really hot and heavy, I kicked him in a sensitive spot and went to see Ann at the station."
"Scott, watch your language," Mom scolded. "As for you, Agatha, you are in very big trouble. You're grounded for the next month. You're not going anywhere except for school and work."
"I'm too old to be grounded!" Aggie screamed. "I wish you two would stop acting like I'm a little five year old who needs protection. I can protect myself, thank you!"
"You're not acting like it!" Mom snapped. "You run around with every gang member and up-and-coming shoplifter in town! You think they don't take all their girls that far? You think Howie doesn't take all his girls that far? He probably has a few pregnant as we speak!"
"Mom, I would never do that!" Aggie protested. "I want to go to college. I want to be someone. I don't need a family dragging me down." She shrugged. "I just hang out with those kids for kicks. They do a lot of very exciting stuff."
"Like burning down garages?" Mom hissed. "Agatha, stop being naive. These kids you hang around with are dangerous, the girls and the boys. They have nothing in their lives and are going nowhere. You have a future. You're not like them."
"Who I hang out with is none of your business!" Aggie snarled.
"As long as you live under my roof, it is!" Daddy roared.
"Well, then," Aggie said, "I'm not going to live under your roof anymore."
"Fine!" Mom exclaimed. "Go live with your friends, if you can call them that. They don't care about you, Aggie. They don't know how to care about anyone."
Tommy and I heard Aggie run out of the kitchen and upstairs. We rushed into our rooms. I jumped into bed and hid under the covers. Amanda snored in her top bunk. I don't think she heard a word of what went on downstairs.
Aggie grabbed her school bag and threw some clothes and toiletries into it, as well as old one-eyed Grover. "Aggie, where are you going?" I asked.
"Anywhere but here," she muttered. She kissed me on the cheek. "Don't worry about it, Pipsqueak. None of this concerns you. Go back to bed."
Tommy stood in the doorway. Tears fell down his plump cheeks. "Aggie, I don't want you to go!" he sobbed. He pressed her into a big bear hug. "Please stay!"
She stroked his chestnut curls. "Honey, I'll be all right. I just want to let Mommy and Daddy calm down. I don't think they want me here right now."
"I want you here!" Tommy wailed. "I love you! You're my biggest sister!"
She wiped his eyes. "I'll be back after work tomorrow, little bro. We'll play Tickle Bee then, ok?" He nodded and sniffled. "Now, go back to bed. Everything will be fine in the morning."
I watched her walk out the door and down the street. This wasn't the first time Mom and Dad confronted Aggie about her choice of friends, but it was the loudest, and it wasn't the last.
The day they knocked down the palley
My sister stood and cried
The day they knocked down the palley
Part of my childhood died
I was with Mom the day the Palace was scheduled to be demolished. We were in the office, working on some commercials for the Deb shop down the street that finally replaced the Tailored Woman, and my brother Pete's wife Marthie was on the air. Mom was telling me about the time she dressed as a spinster to get an apartment when Aggie arrived.
"That's not right, Mom," I insisted. "They should have let you live anywhere you wanted. You were a consenting adult."
Mom shook her head. "It didn't work that way in those days, Sarah. The Barbican was very strict. You had to prove that you were a 'good' woman to be able to live there, and they didn't take kindly to show buisness folk, even those in radio."
Aggie walked in, wearing black and looking upset. "Did I miss it?"
"They haven't knocked down the A&P, if that's what you mean," Mom assured her. "The demolition is scheduled for noon."
"Mom," Aggie started, "how are you, well, since..."
"Since Dad died?" Mom started filing papers. "I'll live. I miss him. I lived with him for more than fifty years, and I loved him. I miss a lot of things about him, Aggie, but life goes on." She smiled sadly. "He used to love the Palace, Aggie, even though he couldn't dance a lot because of his leg. He'd drag me there to see some band or the other, supposedly to showcase them on WENN. He really just wanted to hear them and be near the kids." She laughed. "He was a huge fan of the Swinging Kings. I think he bought that one album they released before Nick Cole dropped out. The Kings just weren't the same after that."
"Yeah, and I bought the other copy," I joked. "I had a giant crush on Nick Cole. I was devastated when he married Peggy Sue Turner."
We sat quietly for a moment, each of us lost in our memories. It was a few moments before I asked "Aggie, what did Howie Meisner try to do to you that night?"
"Which night?" my older sister asked innocently.
"The night Dad put the dent in the kitchen table," I replied sweetly.
Mom looked surprised. "You know about that?"
"Mom, half of Pittsburgh heard Dad bellowing," I reminded her. "And you two weren't any quieter." I sighed. "Tommy knew, too. He was really upset. Amanda slept the whole time. I don't know if Pete heard. He never said anything to me."
Agatha shrugged. "Howie wanted sex, hot, heavy, and loud. I let him, when he was just nibbling my ear in the back booth of the Palace. I thought it was intriguing, and I was trying to be a rebel. We didn't do much besides cuddle and dance to the Swinging Kings until quarter of midnight. Nick Cole was a pal of his, and he'd get us free drinks and fries and stuff like that. After the Swinging Kings finished their sets and The Miller Sisters came in, Howie pulled me under the table in the back booth and tried to get my panties off. I told him that I wasn't that kind of girl. He assumed I was like every other bitch he dated. He quit assuming when I gave him a quick kick in his most prized possession."
"How did you end up getting a ride from Ann Malone and David Comstock?" Mom wanted to know.
"Ann was the DJ at WENN that night, remember? Dave saw me climb out from under the table and reached the obvious conclusion. He hit Howie squarely on the chin, right there in the Palace, though I think it hurt him more than Howie. It's the only time I've ever seen him resort to violence. We hid in WENN to get away from Howie and his pals. Ann just got off the air then. We sat in the green room and talked until Dave realized how late it was."
Now I'm grown up and playing in a band
And there's a parking lot where the palley used to stand
My sister's married and she lives out of state
Her girls will go out, now it's her turn to wait
She lets them get away with things she never could
But if I asked her, I wonder if she would
"My oldest girl is dating now," Aggie said with a smile. "She's got better taste in men than I did. I was pretty much a bum magnet. Jenny just got her curfew extended to midnight. She's a good kid, and not a nut, like I was. She's taking sex ed in school now. Wish they had that when I was her age." She laughed. "Would you believe I wait up for her? She's usually home on time, but old habits die hard." She sighed. "What ever happened to Howie? I never heard from him after I left for college."
Mom grinned. "I hear from him all the time. He has commercials on WENN. He runs a used car lot. Last I checked, he was on his fourth wife and his third alimony payment."
I turned and looked out the office window. "Mom, I think they're starting," I said quietly. The three of us watched out the window as cranes and balls gathered around the somewhat decayed Palace. It didn't look like the Steel Palace anymore. Graffiti covered several of its walls, and you could see where the old neon sign from the A&P once was. It only took a few minutes to destroy the structure, but it felt like an eternity.
Come on sister, have yourself a ball
It's only natural
We kept staring at the rubble, even after it was gone. It used to be the Palace, I thought. We used to dance there. Mom and Dad and the old WENN staff used to eat there. Mom shopped at the A&P for years. My band got its first real gig there, playing for the Saturday night bowlers and pool sharks. The Swinging Kings appeared there more than any club or theater in the city.
I heard a sob. Aggie was crying, and Mom held her. It was my turn to be surprised. Aggie never cried, and when she was sad or frightened, she turned to Dad, not Mom. "M...Mom," Aggie gulped, "I can't believe they did it. Stupid malls! That was my adolescence there! Those were my memories, your memories, Dave's memories..."
"Yes, but we still have them," Mom insisted. "They can't destroy them, Aggie."
I put my arms around my sister. "I know, Aggie. I feel like part of my childhood's died with the Palace." I looked up at Mom. "Do you still have Dad's Swinging Kings record?"
She nodded. "Yes, I do." She grinned. "I'll go get it."
I turned on the radio while Aggie sniffled. "Hey, sis, how long has it been since you've gone dancing?"
She blew her nose. "Oh, I don't know, Sarah. Years, I guess. I've been busy with my travel show on PBS in Wilmington."
I smiled as Marthie announced the new Kinks song and Mom came back with the record. "Come dancing with me, big sister!" I pulled her out of her seat and swung into the new song. Mom joined us after she put the record on the turntable.
We still had our memories, and that was the important part. Dad may have been gone, the Swinging Kings were gone, the Steel Palace was gone, but we were here, WENN was here, our music was here, and we were still dancing.
Just like the palley on a Saturday
I'm not afraid to come dancing
Where the big bands used to play...
On the Edge of the Precipice Series
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