RICHMOND, Va. -- Near the intersection of N. Hamilton Street and W. Broad Street in Richmond, not much catches the eye or ear. But turn back the clock 80 years and this corner hummed as an entertainment destination. Generations of Richmonders flocked to the Great Tantilla Ballroom to cut a rug night after night.
“It was the place to go for a big date," Richmond Magazine senior writer Harry Kollatz Jr. said. "The place to go, to see, and be seen.”
Tantilla Garden was billed as the South’s most beautiful dance hall.
“It was lit up. It was neon. It was sitting there. And you could hear the music coming out of it,” Kollatz said.
Starting in the 1930s through the 1950s legendary big bands from the all-female Coquettes to Tommy Dorsey attracted big crowds dressed to the nines, Kollatz said.
“If you were coming to Tantilla it was kind of formal. It was the big date,” he said.
The ballroom’s main attraction was a retractable roof.
“And that was a huge deal for those attending Tantilla. On a clear night you could dance under the stars,” Kollatz said.
Charlotte Via and Linda Bassett remember the wonder of Tantilla as wide-eyed teens.
“Oh yes. Every time I drive by there I look and say well, that is where it was,” Via said.
There was dancing on the second level and bowling at Tiny Town on the first.
“Everyone loved it because it was a beautiful place. Just stunning,” Bassett added.
For these cousins, Tantilla was a family affair.
Charlotte Via’s father-in-law Bill Via was the Ballroom’s general manager.
Linda Bassett's dad Willie Crafton served as the nightspot’s doorman.
“They would wear tuxedoes to work. It reminded me of Frank Sinatra days yeah,” Bassett said.
Both women enjoyed a front-row seat.
“People knew how to dance back then. Ballroom dancing,” Via said.
Via is the caretaker of rare Tantilla memorabilia once owned by her late-father-in-law.
The collection includes dozens of rare images and autographed photos from legendary bandleaders from Tommy Dorsey to Guy Lombardo.
She also cherishes Tantilla’s original cash box.
“Wednesday night was I think they called it 'Singles Night.' My husband used to work the box office,” Via said.
She also credited Tantilla Garden for, well, being born.
“So that is where my dad met my mother,” she said.
Willie fell in love and would marry Juanita who was a regular performer at Tantilla.
“And they did the swing,” Via said. “It was when people danced together and looked at each other in their eyes.”
But as the years wore on ballroom dancing fell out of tune and on the floor the aging crowds thinned. Management tried attracting younger customers with rock and roll shows, but the magic was slipping away. The music ended for good in 1969. Tantilla was torn down. The bricks were auctioned off.
“Dad was very sad about that,” Via said. “People were sad. People didn’t understand why it was gone.”
For Charlotte and Linda the loss of the landmark still stings 53 years later.
“Like I say they paved paradise to put up a parking lot,” Bassett said.
For historian Harry Kollatz, the end of Tantilla Garden was more than just the demolition of a music venue. We lost a link to our cultural past.
“This is paradise torn down for a parking lot,” Kollatz agreed. “Had this place been able to exist it would have been Richmond’s Fillmore East it would have been Richmond’s Roxy it could have been anything. But rubble which is what it turned into.”
Tantilla Garden may have vanished, but if you visit Hamilton and Broad. Listen closely you just may hear the big band era echoing across the asphalt one more time.
“If someone is with me I’ll tell them the story,” Bassett said. “Tantilla used to be there. You don’t know Tantilla? I tell them the story. Yeah. Yeah. It is very special.”
If you would like to learn more about Tantilla Garden Harry Kollatz wrote about the venue in his book True Richmond Stories: Historic Tales from Virginia's Capital.
You can also watch Greg McQuade's "Heroes Among Us" reports Thursdays on CBS 6 News at 6 p.m.
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