The name alone promised exotic events.
George Arcy, a staff artist for Walter L. Coulter's Byrd Theatre Corp., which built the Tantilla Garden dance hall at 3817 W. Broad St. in 1933, chose the moniker over the equally lush Venetian Gardens.
Tantilla opened during the Depression, its closest neighbors a horse farm and an orphanage. Billed as "The South's Most Beautiful Ballroom," it boasted velvet swags; burgundy, brown and gold décor; and a polished dance floor. A rollaway ceiling opened on hot, clear nights.
The $300,000 building was originally intended as an indoor golf range, evolving instead into the Tiny Town miniature bowling alley, backdrop of many children's parties. The second floor became the dance hall.
Performers Duke Ellington, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, megaphone crooner Rudy Vallee and more brought crowds. Lead singer Harriet Hilliard of Ozzie Nelson's band entered by the back stairs to avoid clamoring male fans. Television later enshrined them as Ozzie and Harriet.
Richmond saxophonist Saxy Dowell played with Hal Kemp. Buddy Morrow featured Richmond chanteuse Betty Anne Steele, who made "Mr. Wonderful" a hit, and Richmonder Carole Noland sang with Les Elgart's band.
Tantilla's capacity was around 1,800 people, and approximately 750 couples could simultaneously dance.
"Girls wore their best dresses and put on bright red lipstick and nail polish," Style Weekly noted in 1987. "Men dressed in coats and ties, and the band members wore tuxedos." Friends gathered at tables on the mezzanine or the floor. Liquor by the drink wasn't legal, making brown bags de rigueur.
World War II servicemen stationed around Richmond eagerly attended Tantilla dances. Management's strong opinion that "local acts have no attention" ended after conscription dissolved touring bands.
Local acts included Babe Barnes and the Rythmaires, Guy Kilgore, blind pianist Charlie Wakefield, the Jimmy Hamner Orchestra with saxophonist Norman "Jeep" Bennett, and the great Bill Zicakfoose with his Continentals. Dancer Pleasants "Snowball" Crump arrived, often unannounced, performing while the audience tossed money at his feet.
For a dollar, a roaming photographer commemorated a couple's special evening. Kissing on the dark Broad Street balcony sometimes led to marriage proposals. When accepted, an announcement was made from the bandstand, and the lovers danced at center to "Stranger in Paradise."
Stan Kenton and 1950s jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Maynard Ferguson played there. Tantilla manager C.B. Bishop booked rock acts on nights opposite the traditional dance bands. During the 1960s Richmonders Tom Maeder and business partner Bob Collins, as Maeco Productions, brought beach music, rhythm and blues, and soul acts to Tantilla. Bill Deal and the Rondells, Moody and The Centaurs, and The Tams ("Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy") played.
Richmond musician Gary Gerloff recalls the Tams show as an extraordinary moment, "climbing the stairs of the Tantilla Ballroom … and witnessing the power of the Tams … propel and mesmerize the sold-out dance floor." He'd never seen how "the authority of joyous, happy, big rhythm and blues music could hold sway over the crowd. That was a moment of transcendence."
In 1967 eventual Richmond music impresario Chuck Wrenn helped orchestrate a proto-rave called the "Tantilla Psychedelic Beach Party," featuring the band Actual Mushroom, which drew a capacity crowd of hippies.
What should have occurred, like a changing passage of music, was Tantilla's rise as a regional music Mecca. "It could've been our Filmore, our Roxy," Gerloff says wearily. "It's a travesty that it isn't there today," adds Maeder.
Instead, citing a cost of up to $400,000 for renovations, Tantilla was sold to Home Beneficial Life Insurance Co. Echoing Joni Mitchell, Gerloff says, "They really did tear down paradise and put up a parking lot."
Tantilla's last dance was March 22, 1969, with Babe Barnes and The
Rythmaires playing for 1,300 people. At 1 a.m., Barnes struck up "Auld Lang Syne."
Internationally touring, Richmond-born duo Johnny Hott and Bryan Harvey, aka House of Freaks, immortalized the dance hall with their 1989 sophomore album, "Tantilla," which depicted two figures walking along a rain-slicked sidewalk toward the dance hall's marquee.
The image evoked the longing and loss in the music, and, Hott says, "the name conveyed Richmond to us." He'd bowled as a child at the Tiny Town bowling alley. The album made it seem "like somehow [Tantilla] still existed."
While other venues rose, each commendable in their own way, none could surpass dancing under the stars at Tantilla Garden.