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Tim Woodward: Celebrating 100 years at the Mardi Gras

Anyone who knows Lydia Merrill knows she isn’t one to blather on about herself. She wanted this to be about the Mardi Gras Ballroom that has been such an important part of her life — not about her.

Fine. It will be about the Mardi Gras.

And, with due respect, about Lydia. It can’t not be about her and her late husband, Orson Merrill. They and their stories are as much a part of the Mardi Gras as its hard-rock maple dance floor.

To say nothing of the fact that Lydia is celebrating her 100th birthday and tonight her family and friends are throwing her a birthday bash in the old ballroom.

The Mardi Gras, for newcomers and others who may not be familiar with it, was a Boise institution long before many of today’s Boiseans were born.

It opened in 1928 as the Riverside Pavilion, an open-air dance hall near the intersection of Ninth and River streets.

Bootleggers did a thriving business there during Prohibition. Gib Hochstrasser, who went on to become a local institution as the leader of an iconic big band, made a nuisance of himself in his youth by climbing the perimeter walls to watch the orchestras he idolized.

Until the cops ran him off.

Orson Merrill, a high-school dropout, erstwhile hobo and successful beautician, bought the dance hall (by then it had a roof) on impulse in 1958.

“His insurance agent said, ‘Why don’t you buy the old Riverside?’ ” Lydia recalled. “Orson said, ‘OK. I know it’s big. I’ll buy it.’ ”

His reasoning was that the ballroom was big enough to attract large, admission-paying crowds. It took a while to happen, but in time the crowds would exceed his wildest imaginings.

Dancing wasn’t initially what he had in mind. Orson loved to pick up hitchhikers. (He drove one miles out of their way on his and Lydia’s wedding night.) When he picked up an airman hitchhiking from Mountain Home to the military skating rink at Gowen Field, he figured that if people went that far to skate, a roller rink in Downtown Boise would be a money maker.

“He went out and bought a bunch of skates and we had a skating rink,” Lydia said.

Skating didn’t prove to be as popular as he thought, so he returned to the original formula.

“He started having dance music again,” their son, Tim Merrill, said. “He got a band called Manny and the Crystals. Manny would slide across the stage and play the guitar with his teeth. (This was nearly a decade before such behavior was popularized by Jimi Hendrix.) Dad set them up with sound equipment in exchange for getting Manny’s pistol in trade.”

Orson was nothing if not colorful. When a college student who was sitting on one of the tables next to the dance floor refused to move, Orson stuck him with a hat pin. Mistakenly thinking it was his, he used a nail to scratch his name onto a band member’s expensive microphone. He was known to stop the music during a dance to clean spills off of his beloved dance floor, which he installed himself. He also dug the ballroom’s basement.

With a shovel.

The Merrills changed the name from the Riverside Ballroom to the Uptown Ballroom and ultimately to the Mardi Gras, Lydia said, “because Mardi Gras meant fun.”

No argument. Musicians who played there during the Merrills’ heyday included Buddy Rich (who praised its acoustics on the Tonight Show), John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins, the Ventures, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Leon Russell and Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, David Lindley, R.E.M.

I was there the night Buddy Guy played for 1,200 people, packed elbow to elbow.

“Bobby Vee played there on my 15th birthday,” Lana McCullough, Lydia’s daughter, said. “He wanted to dance with me, but I was too shy.”

The Basques used to have their annual Sheepherders Balls there.

“We had sheep in here,” Lydia said, wincing.

These days the Mardi Gras is best known for ethnic dances, square dances, swing dances, parties and the occasional rock or blues show.

And, of course, Lydia — an institution her in own right. While Orson was busy digging the basement, fussing over the dance floor and being generally colorful, Lydia’s was the quiet presence and cool hand that helped keep the place running, especially following his death in 2003.

At 100, she has no intention of retiring.

“She works in the office, and she’s here every Sunday vacuuming and washing tables,” McCullough said. “There’s nowhere else she’d rather be.”

“And I like being at the dances,” Lydia added. “I love seeing people having a good time on our dance floor.

“ I’ve only been in the hospital once. I told the doctor if I made it to 100 I’d go for 110. And who knows? I feel good, and I still enjoy spending time in this old place. I just might make it to 110.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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