The Last Waltz

After 75 years of dancing, the Formals at Oglebay group will hold its final event next weekend.

The board of directors of the nonprofit organization announced that their last dinner-dance will take place in Oglebay Park’s Pine Room Saturday, Dec. 1 Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m. Dancing to music provided by the Wally Merriman band will be offered from 8-11 p.m.

A number of factors prompted the board to make the difficult decision to end the longstanding affair. Over the years, the number of participants has dropped steadily, as some members have developed medical problems and as others have died. Trends such as changing tastes in music and lifestyles also contributed to the event’s decline, board members said.

Over the years, as dancers have come and gone, some aspects of the event have remained constant: the music played is predominantly in the big band style and the required attire is formal – evening gowns for the women and tuxedos for the men.

The regularly scheduled dances began in 1937, when the offering was known as Waltz Night. In 1995, the name of the event was changed to Formals at Oglebay, to signal that other types of dances besides waltzes were offered, in an effort to attract younger participants. Four dances a year were offered.

The current board members are Mary and Steve Bokone of St. Clairsville, Jo Anne Calfa of Rayland, Jane and Les Cline of Wheeling, Margaret Cooke of Wheeling and Sue and Bill Patsche of Colerain. Longtime participant Paul Palkovich of Wheeling is an honorary board member. The Patsches and Cooke are co-chairmen for the dances.

The Clines and Calfa have been members of the group for about 40 years. Cooke and her husband, the late Bill Cooke, were invited to join in 1984. The Patsches joined in 1992-93.

“We had a wonderful time and met so many nice people,” Sue Patsche commented.

Bill Patsche added, “I remember when we had larger dances and we had more profits.” The profits from the formal dances were donated to enhance Oglebay Park’s facilities over the years.

Doug Dalby, president and chief executive officer of the Wheeling Park Commission, said Formals at Oglebay has helped make the Pine Room an exceptional venue for all guests.

“We appreciate the long-term relationship we have enjoyed with Formals of Oglebay and thank the group for their financial support of the Pine Room throughout the years,” Dalby said.

Several years ago, the Formals at Oglebay experience was immortalized in a lighting display – depicting a waltzing couple – erected near the entrance road leading to the Pine Room during the Winter Festival of Lights.

From the early days, Jane Cline remembers “a lot of people dancing.” Sue Patsche said the dancers always seemed happy. Mary Bokone recalled the beautiful decorations in the Pine Room, particularly during the holiday season when large snowflakes would be hung from the ceiling.

“It was more like a romantic dance” than other social events, Sue Patsche said, as her husband recalled the “Gone With the Wind” gowns with big skirts that some women wore to the events. “It’s a nice date,” Bokone said, describing the atmosphere at the dances.

“We met a lot of nice people,” Sue Patsche commented, adding, “You can’t be angry when you’re in your husband’s arms, dancing.”

In the heyday of the dances, Les Cline said, “Earlier, we had so many dancers that we overflowed into the outer rooms (of the Pine Room).”

Cooke and Jane Cline noted that, because of the high demand for membership, couples had to receive an invitation before they could join the group. During the years when 200 to 300 people attended each dance, the names of prospective members had to be placed on a waiting list.

The worst experience, Les Cline said, “was the night the orchestra didn’t show up.” That dilemma was remedied when dancers went to their cars and retrieved compact discs to play for dancing. “They brought their CDs and had a blast,” Bill Patsche said, laughing at the memory.

“Once, the band was late because they got stuck in the Festival of Lights traffic,” Sue Patsche said. After that incident, organizers made sure that band members were alerted to allow extra time because of traffic delays caused by the lighting festival’s crowds.

Citing another change, Sue Patsche said, “We started out with 12- or 13-piece orchestras, but now we’re down to four or five pieces because of the expense.”

The style of music, though, has remained familiar. “It always had a big band sound,” Calfa said. “It was always big band music.”

On the down side, Calfa observed, “The older dancers have died or gotten sick. The young people don’t dance to big band music. They don’t care about getting dressed up. Getting dressed up was the fun,” she added.

Sue Patsche said that she and her husband joined the group after taking dance lessons with Barbara Blanchard. “We started out with nine couples,” she said. “We’re the only couple left who’s still alive or can still dance.”

In the 1990s, Sue Patsche said, “Dance instructors came to dances and helped people.” Teachers who shared their expertise were Joe Gogol, Blanchard and Paul and Barbara Palkovich, she related.

“It felt grand,” Calfa recalled. “The band usually started off with waltzes. They played waltzes first. It was called Waltz Night.” The board later changed the name to Formals at Oglebay because they “thought it would appeal to younger people,” Calfa said.

For the ardent fans of Formals at Oglebay, the fun often began before the dinner-dance and might continue long into the night after the band stopped playing. Calfa said, “We had cocktail parties at someone’s home before the dance.” Post-Formals parties also were popular, she added.

After the dances, Sue Patsche said, “We used to go to the Alpha for breakfast. We had a blast.”

Between scheduled dances, Sue Patsche said, “We met people and would go to each other’s house for dinner. It was nice.”

Now, Sue Patsche remarked, “It’s a shame to end it, but you can’t draw people out.”

Calfa reflected, “Lifestyles have changed. It’s not the thing to do anymore. It used to be exciting to dress up. It was fun shopping for gowns. The men looked suave in their tuxes.”

As membership has dropped, Sue Patsche said, “The saddest thing is watching people fade and losing people.”

Calfa added, “But dancing does keep you young. It keeps the parts moving.”

Some of the Formals at Oglebay members plan to join the Big Band 200 Club, Bill Patsche said. He explained that the boards of the two nonprofit corporations “tried to combine, but it couldn’t work out.”

Profits from Formals at Oglebay dances were used to supply the Pine Room with air conditioning and new windows and to buy tables, chairs and draperies for the building, Bill Patsche said. Sue Patsche added that, about five years ago, the Formals at Oglebay organization had the Pine Room’s floor refinished for the second time.

Waltz Night at the park began in 1937, with dancing in the Mansion Museum guest house. The dances were moved to the Pine Room when it was completed in 1938. In fact, the Pine Room’s official opening event was a Waltz Night dance on July 25, 1938.

Originally, 11 members of the Wheeling Symphony provided music for the waltzes. After World War II, big bands played music appropriate for various styles of dancing.

Friendships and even romances flourished at the dances. A 1974 feature spread in the News-Register noted that Joseph and Caroline Hoffmann became engaged at a Waltz Night dance in 1948. The Hoffmanns, both now deceased, were longtime Wheeling residents; Joe was the garden editor of the News-Register and Caroline was a designer for Boury Inc.

In a 1988 article published in the Sunday News-Register to mark the 50th anniversary of the Pine Room, Bill Johnston, an employee of Oglebay’s sales staff and president of the Waltz Night committee, noted the group’s contributions to the park over the years. At that time, he said, the Waltz Night committee had given about $200,000 for improvements and replacement projects at the Crispin Center facility.

As of 1988, Johnston said, the Waltz Night committee had provided all the draperies and carpeting in the Pine Room; bought furniture, public address systems and a piano; helped finance the installation of air conditioning, the conversion from coal to gas heating, installation of new windows and renovation of restrooms. The committee also paid for paving and lighting of the Crispin Center parking lot, he said.