When Tragedy Strikes a Dance Hall
Polkadate: October 2018. There is plenty of documentation chronicling rural dancing in the mid-1900s, however, most of it is from advertisements containing the who, where, what, and when of the event. Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to gain a little more insight into hall operation. The German Hill Country, centered around Fredericksburg, was in many ways similar to Central Texas in the decades before and after World War II in relation to dance halls. We know about the existence of dance bands and places where they played for the local population. The majority of dance halls were not intended to be everlasting and served their purpose well, that is, to provide a gathering spot for rural folks to meet and entertain themselves and perhaps play a little baseball.
M & M Hall & Pehl’s Hall in Albert, Deike’s Hall in Hye, Tatsch’s Hall in Cain City, Engel Hall in Luckenbach; and in Fredericksburg, there was Schmidt’s Hall, Peter’s Hall, Turner Hall, The Handy Stop, Baron’s Creek Hall, American Legion Hall, Sunnyside Tavern, The Marktplatz, and then there was Seipp’s Park.
Otto Seipp (Sipe), born in 1894, apparently had a passion for two things, music and baseball. Seipp supported baseball leagues and sponsored a team for several decades in Fredericksburg.
In 1916, a men’s chorus for the Bethany Lutheran Church was founded of which he was a charter member and active in German singing societies all his life. He later welcomed the Saengerfest, a German singing convention (600 singers from 21 clubs), to use his hall for their amassed choruses.
In the early 1930s, Otto and his wife, Meta, opened a dance pavilion and a baseball diamond one mile west of Fredericksburg, which became referred to as Seipp’s Park. The term pavilion generally refers to a structure that has a wooden floor and a roof covering it, but no sides.
The Seipps were holding dances in the pavilion by 1935 hosting popular Hill Country bands such as the Rhythm Kings, Pehl’s Orchestra(s) and for a special 4th of July, with a Hawaiian floor show, Jerry McRae & the Texas Rangerettes. The Rangerettes were a national touring band based in San Antonio that consisted of mainly a mother and her four daughters performing various songs for dancing and entertainment skits (vaudeville). Their real claim to fame came when they abruptly quit the music business and entered a monastery in San Antonio to become nuns.
During World War II, the music business slowed as the German Texian men were sent to fight their kinsmen in Europe; and rationing tightened everyone’s belt. Otto used this time to build an enclosed hall from salvaged wood, tin roof, and a Sisalkraft paper-type material for keeping out the wind. The hall was next to the pavilion, concession building, and ball park. Only a few dances seemed to be held at Siepps hall including a Llano-based, patriotic-named band, The American Eagles. The end of the war was celebrated at Seipp’s with a community-wide music event on November 11, 1945. Two weeks later, the American Eagles played for the Seipp’s Silver Anniversary in Seipp’s Dance Hall. Mr. and Mrs. Seipp led the grand march.
Post-war Fredericksburg was returning to the way it was in the late 1930s with dances at numerous halls spread out through town and in the surrounding communities in the German Hill Country. New bands with new sounds that the men returning from the military had been exposed to began integrating into the “Old Time Music.” Bands like the Melody Boys, the Tune Wranglers, and the Texas Ramblers. Seipp’s Park, in 1947, consisted of a ball park, a hall, and a pavilion with weekly dances starting at 9 pm. Once, Seipp’s Hall hosted two dances on the same evening with the Texas Ramblers performing in the pavilion and the Melody Boys in the hall.
Christmas evening dances had, until recently, been a tradition in most German/Czech communities. In 1947 Al & the Highlanders were at Sunnyside Tavern, and the Hill Country Boys were at Spring Creek Hall. Otto had booked the Texas Ramblers for the Thursday night Christmas dance and again on Saturday the 27th. Mr. and Mrs. Albert Petri of San Antonio, formerly of Fredericksburg, had driven in to help out behind the bar as they had for the last 14 years.
They were organizing the large electric ice box, the beer and cold drink coolers, which held 300 cases of beer and over 80 cases of soda water for the evening’s celebration. Mrs. Alma Eckhardt, who operated the hamburger concession, was getting the food out of the cooler and preparing to cook for those who might still be hungry after a Christmas dinner. Eleven years earlier, Mrs. Eckhardt and her husband had celebrated their Silver Wedding anniversary with a free dance given by the Seipps at their pavilion.
The Texas Ramblers had all arrived except for one and were setting up their equipment and instruments. Otto was probably making sure that the $200 in cash and large amount of silver coins were accounted for in order to make change and feed the four nickelodeons around the pavilion and hall area. The hall was so popular that reservations for the 71 tables with three benches each had to be marked, and Mrs. Albert Schnerr’s job was to ensure that the several hundred reservations were correctly placed. The butane heater in the back of the hall by the stage was on, though it is doubtful of its effectiveness in this thin-walled building.
Sometime just before 8 pm, folks began coming into the hall early. Two of them, Leslie Phillips and Doyle Everett, came into the hall to check it out before they went to pick up their dates in town. Two other couples came in - William Doyle Biddy, 22, and his wife Iowne, 17; and Gene Deatherage, 22, with his date Maybelle Watts, age 22. Apparently, some unpleasant words were exchanged between Otto and the four visitors. They were from Llano and Lampasas and unknown to the Seipps. Perhaps they wanted to dance but didn’t have reservations, or possibly Biddy was just being rowdy (he was AWOL from his Navy post in San Diego). The conversation was never publicly disclosed. The foursome left.
Shortly after their leaving, Phillips said, “A lady came to us and said there was a fire near the orchestra stand at the west end of the hall.” Phillips said the blaze between the butane heater and the wall didn’t look vicious at all when it was first noticed but that it spread as “quick as lightening once it got underway.
"We ran back to where the gas heater was standing and noticed a small blaze near the floor. Someone went for a bucket of water and threw it on the fire, but it didn’t put it out.”
Phillips continued, “Then someone came with several fire bombs, but by this time the blaze had started up the wall. One bomb was thrown at the wall and another at the ceiling, but they failed to check the spread of the flames and then someone tore at the ceiling in order to tear down the flaming material at that point.” A fire bomb is a sack of fire retardant with a small explosive device in it to spread the retardant.
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!
Otto and others in the hall attempted to squelch the flames but failed in their efforts, and he began ordering everyone out of the hall. Phillips recalled, “Just as we started down the steps in the concession hallway, the lights went out. Most everyone was out of the hall and we heard no screaming and there was practically no yelling, other than that of some children and others telling everyone to get out of the hall.
“Just as we got to the door there was a terrific woosh and flames shot to every corner of the building and raced all the way to the front. The last person I saw leaving the building was a member of the orchestra (band leader Alvin Hohenberger) carrying drums, some microphones, and other paraphernalia that belonged to the orchestra. Shortly after we got out of the building the roof collapsed.”
Hohenberger was assembling his amplifier when the fire started. He ran for the exit when Otto told everybody to run for their lives, completely loaded down with the instruments and amplifying equipment.
Between the heater feeding the fire, the toxic gasses from the Sisalkraft-paper walls, the smoke from everywhere, the four exits could not be located. Mrs. Seipp, the Petris and Mrs. Eckhardt were trapped inside. The quick collapse of the roof sealed their horrible fate. Their bodies were found burned beyond recognition, except by dental records, later that night after the wreckage had cooled down. Mrs. Schnerr was probably the last one to leave and was burned about the face and body and her heavy coat was badly singed. She is the one who notified the fire department.
Fredericksburg fire sirens sounded at 7:50 pm just as citizens were leaving their churches after the traditional Christmas Night children’s programs. Every available fireman (34) in Fredericksburg (pop. 3700) responded as well as citizens. By their arrival, the building was so hot that getting near it with hoses was difficult. Twelve hundred feet of hose was laid from the trench dug in Baron’s Creek to the hall with the pumper truck stationed at the creek to force the water up the hill to the fire.
No firemen were injured despite the hot sheet metal and popping bottles. The firemen were onsite from 8 pm to 12 am fighting it. The state fire inspector stated that a hazard created during the fire was the phosgene gas from the Sisalkraft paper and was a major contributing factor to the loss of life.
COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
When questioned on the events prior to the fire, Otto recounted the unpleasantness with the two couples. Knowing the Seipps' concern for conducting their business in a thorough and proper matter, the suspicion fell upon the foursome. An all-points bulletin was issued, and they were soon located in town and arrested. At the jail they were all booked on suspicion of murder and Biddy was additionally charged with arson. It was alleged the four, after having visited Seipp’s Hall earlier in the evening, prior to leaving, had turned up a butane heater and shoved it near the wall, where the fire started. Their bond was set at $5,000 each. The newspaper photo of the two men showed Biddy wearing his Navy uniform and both in handcuffs. Unable to post bond, they sat in jail.
Soon afterward, the local radio station obtained the confessions of the group and broadcast it over the air without the district attorney’s knowledge or approval, thus making it difficult to obtain a fair trial in Gillespie County. In a further media mishap, a letter from the D.A. was printed stating that it had been done with his approval, which would have been a legal blunder of the first degree. The next issue of the paper printed a retraction apologizing for deleting the word “out” after “with” in the phrase “with his approval.”
When it came time to pick an impartial jury, everyone called for duty in two separate calls had a partial opinion. The district judge called for a new trial in a different location. The trial was moved to San Saba (70 miles). A jury was seated and after the testimony of 18 witnesses, the jury deliberated and found Biddy, not guilty of arson, which negated the murder charges. There was no reason for the verdict printed in the papers.
Otto Seipp, despite the loss of his wife and friends, was thankful that the fire didn’t start an hour later with several hundred people in the hall, the consequences of which would have been too horrible to contemplate.
BACK TO DANCING
Otto decided to rebuild. In early February 1948, the concrete foundation for the refreshment stand had been poured. The Fredericksburg Standard reported, "The stand as well as the dance hall are to be built of hollow tile. The stand will be the same as before, and the new hall will be 64 feet by 80 feet. The dance hall proper will have a maple floor with a concrete floor to be poured for the boot area of the building. The roof of the building is to be supported with steel beams and the entire structure will be made as fireproof as possible."
On September 25, 1948, the new hall opened with music by Al and the Highlanders, with Betty Jo Maddox and Little Gloria Keller giving special entertainment during intermission. Admission price was 75 cents for men, and 50 cents for ladies. To reserve a table cost $1.
In October, Otto advertised: “Big Hallowe’en Dance, Saturday Night, October, 30 Seipp’s New Hall. Girls get you a mask or cap and I’ll let you in free and your mother too. No charge for table. Let’s have some fun. Men pay 75c, Ladies free—Music by “the Melody Boys”—One of the Nicest Dance Halls in the State of Texas.” When Christmas, 1948 rolled around Otto ran advertisement simply stating that there will not be a dance on Christmas.
Otto continued in several other businesses, all designed to bring people happiness, like nickelodeons. He remarried and later moved to New Braunfels. Clinton Ellebracht, an occasional columnist for TPN, grew up near Fredericksburg, and recalls hearing about the fire as a youngster, and later played baseball on Seipp’s ball field. When Clinton was living in Seguin in the later 1950s, his family went on a picnic and chose a pretty spot on River Road beside the Guadalupe River referred to as Hueco Falls. A gentleman came along and informed them politely that this was his park and he charged them a modest fee. His name, Otto Seipp.
Postscript: This tragic event shed some light into the operations of an old dance hall that hadn’t been shone before. But I would rather still be wondering what went on inside than feeling sorrow for the loss of these four individuals who enjoyed giving joy to dancers.