Willoughby: Dancing the night away

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Popular Aspen dance band of the 1920s-30s. Photo Courtesy og Willoughby Collection

Dancing changed over the decades in Aspen but was always the primary draw for events. In the 1890s they went by the name balls and featured large orchestras. In the 1920s and 1930s they were called dances featuring smaller groups and a whole new set of dance moves.

My mother was the piano player in two of the groups, one called the Wa Wa’s Frisky Five from 1924 to around 1927, better known as the Wa Wa’s. The other formed in 1926 and played through most of the 1930s had an official name of Roamers Rhythm Kings but known more commonly as the Roamers.

The Wa Was’s grew out of high school associations. Bill Harrington the saxophone player and Mike Smulling the drummer were, with my mother, in the class of 1926. Mother’s sister Edwina, a year younger, played violin in the group.

An ad for the Roamers billed them as a “six-piece orchestra with 12-piece kick” that played “brand new tunes with syncopations that will keep you roaming.” The group for most of the years had seven players.

Local events featured a dance -Hard Times dance in Minturn, Apple Pie Day in Rifle, Arbor Day and the Patriotic Dance ( 4th of July)in Basalt and the Truck Drivers Ball in Meeker.

Mother worked at Kobey’s Clothing store weekdays and played in the band Friday nights and weekends. They were on the road at least two weekends a month playing in: Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood, Gypsum, Grand Valley, Rifle, Silt and Palisade. Roads were gravel in those days and mother’s memory included frequent flat tires that either made them late arriving or late getting home.

There were plenty of local dances to play for too. You can get an idea of a Roaring Twenties flavor as one of them was titled Big Whoppee Dance. Most local dances during that period were held at Fraternity Hall, now City Hall, and Brand Hall. The Brand Hall was the second floor of the Brand Building with a wood floor perfect for dancing.

In the 1930s the Roamers held frequent dances they sponsored themselves. It was a mile out of town at what was then called Stillwater Country Club. Throughout that whole period the entry price at nearly every venue was the same, $1.00, around $12.00 in today’s dollars.

While some cities banned it, the Charleston became ‘the dance’ around 1926 in Aspen. One advantage to the local dance bands was that their patrons came to dance and had their favorites requesting the same songs several times in an evening.

Three of the most popular songs of 1930 were Happy Days are Here Again, Puttin’ on the Ritz, and When It’s Springtime in the Rockies. There was no singer for Mother’s bands, they just did danceable instrumental versions. I remember my mother hearing my generation’s version of Happy Days Are Here Again and commenting, “in my time that was not played somber, it was for dancing.”

Playing in the dance band honed Mother’s skills but she also developed the habit of playing as loud as a piano could deliver since that is what was required to be heard on old banged-up pianos in large rooms full of noisy patrons. Fortunately, her later keyboard assignment was to play the organ for St. Mary’s where the volume could be set without altering her fingering technique.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at