Jim and Dottie Hilton
March 30, 1997
(Bob Brundage:) Well, hi again. This is Bob Brundage continuing a little oral history project. Today is March 30, 1997 and we’ve moved from Fremont up to Walnut Creek. And today we are talking to Jim Hilton and his wife Dottie so Jim, tell us a little bit about what life was like before you got into square dancing and where were you born and brought up and here we go.
(Jim Hilton:) OK. I was born in Hays, Kansas on February 5, 1918. I was raised in Kansas, went to Kansas schools, graduated from St. Mary’s High, and spent two years at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Moved to California, I think it was about ’37 and lived out here and when the war started, I volunteered for Signal Corps Training and got a good electronics background and we were supposed to be sent on a special repeater team to take the Philippine Islands back one at a time and we got to New Guinea and were awaiting orders and MacArthur took Manila and we sat there and went fishing and swimming until the war was over.
(BB:) Yea, that wasn’t bad duty.
(JH) So, I had a beautiful electronics training and after I got out of the service, why Dottie and I got married in 1949 and she kept saying we ought to go square dancing or folk dancing and finally we got to folk dancing a little bit and enjoyed the square dancing more. After a year or two I got the bug to learn to call. Then when I learned to call, I found there was a great dirge of good sound equipment and with my electronics background, I started building monitors first just for the old Newcombs and then I put a complete unit together, an old tube unit, weighed about 50 pounds. And a caller came on the program and called with me and he said “where did you get that?” And so, He bought it and I built another one and that’s the beginning of Hilton Audio Products.
(BB:) Right. Well let’s go back a minute though before we get into Hilton. You started folk dancing, but then what was your influence as far as getting into square dancing was concerned. Was there a particular caller that you
(JH:) We enjoyed the actual squares, wasn’t that it, hon.
(Dottie Hilton:) The folk dance leader used to give us two or three squares an evening. (Cuckoo clock sounds two 0′ clock). And we liked the squares better than the folk dancing. And finally we heard where there was a folk dance at a festival so we just went to watch and talked to the people there and they told us where we could find a class.
(JH:) You mean square dance, you said folk dance.
(DH:) Oh, I’m sorry.
(JH:) Yea, we went to a square dance.
(DH:) Well we finally went through all the classes and heard our first, who was it, I guess our first name caller was Joe Lewis.
(BB:) Alright. A pretty good place to start.
(DH:) We danced with Bill Castner for a long time.
(BB:) Oh did you?
(DR:) Right in our area here
(BB:) I loved Bill. O.K. So, now you got into calling and started forming your own clubs and so forth, did you?
[JH:] Well, let’s see. We danced quite a while before we
[DH:] We danced with Castner for quite
(JH:) For quite a while and he was my caller instructor.
(DH:) We inherited his club
(JH:) Eventually, Yea
(DH:) His was the first club that we ran.
(JH:) And we were one of the few clubs in the area that we ran as a caller operated club.
(JH:) Jim Mork and I called for it and the girls did all the catering and
(BB:) O.K. was that Jim York, you say?
(JH:) Mork, M 0 R K
(BB:) I didn’t want to confuse the issue.
(JH:) No, but we danced to Jim York many times over at the Islands ..
(DH:) With Lee Hilson
(BB:) Madeline Allen?
(JH:) Yea, Madeline Allen
(BB:) There you go. There’s a name out of the past.
(JH:) You bet.
(JH:) fantastic times over at their house.
(BB:) I’ll bet. So O.K., and so tell us about some of the big events that you’ve been too like Nationals or whatever, State festivals.
(DH:) First one was Long Beach.
(JH:) First was Long Beach
(BB:) You were at the first one, you were there?
(JH:) Yea, and that was the first big convention where my equipment was used.
(BB:) Oh that’s right too. Yea.
(JH:) And I remember the evening program had a caller by the name of Beryl Main and I said “who in the world is this Beryl Main?” And that Saturday night program, he kicked it off, and Boy, he made the whole convention for us. He was just fantastic. He made my equipment sound real good.
(BB:) Any other state festivals or anything
(JH:) We did lots of state festivals. I’d have to try and wrack my brain to name many. We did Atlantic City once.
(DH:) We did the Reno Silver State for many years.
(JH:) Many years. Hilton Audio doing now and this is their fiftieth now and I think we started up there on their second or third one. We came in doing their sound. So, that was the major festival in our area is, you know, the Silver State.
(BB:) Right. Well, of course Hilton Audio turned into a very, very successful business.
And you know, its, I don’t know that anybody uses any other equipment any more it now
(JH:) Very little, its the advent of the minidisk is kinda, everybody wants to get something lighter and smaller now so
(BB:) Right. Well, is Hilton Audio going to get into that eventually?
(JH:) I really don’t know. I haven’t been too close to it. Dick has done a beautiful job, paid me off and never missed a payment or anything and he is running a fine company now.
(BB:) He is. Right. So, well I remember my equipment, my, I started out with a little 8 watt box and one speaker and carried them separately, of course and one microphone and that was it. And gradually graduated into Califone. And they had a tendency not to last too long, Califone. But it served the purpose at the time. And that was before I ever heard of Hiltons. By the time I heard of Hilton, compared to other pieces of equipment, was a little more expensive, and rightly so, because it did the job that you wanted it to do. And I have a Hilton to this day, but be that as it may. Can you tell us a little bit more about your equipment. It must be quite a complication to set up for some of these big festivals. And
(JH:) It was complicated in one way and in other ways it was just a heck of a lot of common sense. Yea. The big purveyors of auditory and sound equipment had absolutely no conception of what we needed. They didn’t realize the importance of the speech over the music, or how to regulate the quality of the music, separate from the quality of the voice. The voice had to be sharp and clean and the music with the bass beat and the commercial boys don’t have any conception of that. And that’s one reason we were successful. We took pains to go in and look at a place over and tried to analyze it well and see if we could do a job. If we felt we couldn’t do a job for various reasons, once in a while, we ran into politics didn’t want to get involved.
BB:) Well, you were using your own speakers at that time?
(BB:) Yea, O.K … In conjunction with your turntable and amplifier. So
JH:) I learned some of that from Woody Helstrom when I first got started. He wouldn’t fool with anything but Lansing speakers and it taught me a lesson that they would do a job and so that got me on the idea of building a top quality and not trying to build anything cheap. Several others did, but
(BB:) Did you ever get into the column business?
(JH:) Very briefly. We built a small column, but, traditionally the manufacturers of columns were building it primarily to make some money and weren’t too much interested in the quality and the speakers they use did not have enough high frequency response to cover well. And that was one of their selling points. They would say well you can stand right in front of this column here and it won’t feedback Sure it won’t feedback, there’s no high frequency response. So, but they had a good marketing program. I suspected there was something going on that working with the callers that they sold them. I never knew and I never got involved with it, but they became very popular and whenever we set up AB listening tests, we were pretty sure which ones would come out on top.
(BB:) I see, O.K. But Hilton Audio is still putting speakers, I mean the sound equipment in the Nationals and probably other festivals today.
(JH:) I think Palomino Records is actually doing the jobs and Hilton Audio furnishes the equipment to ’em. They buy it and then turn around and sell it to callers after
(BB:) After the convention.
(JH:) I believe that’s what they do.
(BB:) Well they were at Callerlab and they sounded every room. Yea.
(JH:) Oh at Callerlab, yes, but not at Nationals. I don’t think the Nationals are being run by Hilton Audio. I think, I forget his name from Palomino records. What’s his name?
(BB:) Ted Dillander, Tom
(JH:) Tom Dillander, Yea
(BB:) Tom Dillander, Yea
(JH:) Yea, I guess he’s got a pretty large organization now.
(BB:) Yea, must be.
(JH:) I guess the only one bigger than that is Supreme, huh
(BB:) Yes, I guess, well, they’re nip and tuck as far as I know.
(JH:) Is it?
(BB:) Yea. Well, I’m going down to the National in Orlando and I’ll
(JH:) Are you?
(BB:) I’ll see what its like. I never, I haven’t been to a National in several years. I hadn’t been to Callerlab in several years either. So, Alright well, what about local caller’s associations. You had to be part of that.
(JH:) We belonged
(DH:) We were for a long time.
(JH:) For a long time.
(DH:) But it dwindled down to practically nothing.
(BB:) Is that right?
(JH:) We haven’t been active in it for over ten years.
(BB:) It’s still active though. I mean, you still
(JH:) Very small
(BB:) Is that so?
(JH:) Very small
(BB:) ‘Cause this is such a tremendous, you know, you have such a population potential here that compared to some places. How about, I run across, at the archives, I keep running across considerable notes from the Northern California Square Dance Callers Association. Is that the
(JH:) That’s the one we belonged to.
(BB:) That’s O.K. That’s dwindled down to, that’s amazing because we have volumes of notes that came out of those meetings, and your workshops and so forth and
(JH:) Sure, Yea
(BB:) There was another from Southern California.
(JH:) They was very big, Southern California had a tremendous number of callers in it.
(BB:) Then I found I almost intermixed the two without realizing it because of the name. The Southern California Dancers Association.
(JH:) That was very large too.
(BB:) Also put out very extensive notes and so forth. So, O.K. Getting away from square dancing for a minute, have you ever gotten in any other hobbies? Jim, I just passed a beautiful golf course down there and you say you don’t play golf. Well, what are you going to do.
(JH:) No, I, my first love, of course, is electronics and over the ten years that I retired, why I built a few things and gave to Dick. I developed the big wide angle speaker for him and turned that over to him, and built some cases and things for him. I am a supervisor here at the Rossmore Wood Shop. They have a complete wood shop facility.
(BB:) That’s great. That’s nice
(JH:) And I putter around there a lot, and quite lately I’ve been, a lady here in Rossmore who teaches line dancing has come and pleaded with me to put something together that would let her be heard instead of the boom box she’s using so, I showed her a minidisk and she fell in love with it. And so I’m in the process of putting something together for her. So
(BB:) In a Minidisk? Like a Minidisk. Is that right? Oh, there you go. First thing you know, Jim, you are going to develop another company here if you’re not careful.
(JH:) You just never know, but there are two types of mini disks. I guess you knew that.
(BB:) No, I didn’t know that.
(JH:) OK. The little ones that the callers carry around are little hand held.
(BB:) That’s made by Sony.
(JH:) Yea, most of them are made by Sony. The ones the round dancers use are about eleven inches long and so wide and full remote control. They can start and stop them from the floor. And your tape recorder when you play a selection through you have to wait until it rewinds, you know. But with a minidisk, when its through, you push the button and bang, its there ready to go again. So there are some tremendous advantages in it. You can put 27 selections on one minidisk. So size-wise you can carry a whole lot of material with you. And there is a need to develop something lighter and portable to go along with it that’s got a lot of power, so I’m puttering, you know. And another hobby is our motor home. We have a motor home and when we first retired we traveled quite a bit in the United States. We loved Mesa’s dancing and we used to go down to Mesa.
(BB:) Oh did you?
(DH:) Jim had an uncle in Phoenix. And for one year we went around repairing equipment in Mesa. Jim put a workshop in the motor home and went around and repaired equipment and that was fun meeting all the callers.
(BB:) Oh, O.K., A portable repair shop.
(JH:) Yea, it was
(BB:) Son of a gun. So you probably got to dance with Wade Driver and Bob Fisk
(DH:) Yea, All of them.
(JH:) All the stars
(DH:) We loved them
(BB:) And Randy Dougherty
(JH:) It was great.
(DH:) It was great
(BB:) Concerning some of these larger weekends and week long events like Asilomar and you know, Steamboat Springs and things like that. You’ve been affiliated with some of them.
(JH:) We attended many Asilomars
(DH) Many of them.
(BB:) as dancers?
(JH:) As dancers
(DH:) That was great.
(JH:) Oh, those were beautiful times there at Asilomar. Those were some of our most fun dancing.
(BB:) Right, right. How about other week ends like Steamboat Springs or …
(JH:) We never got there.
(DH:) Oh, we went to the Santa Fe weekend where you did sound and we danced, and festivals, yearly things.
(JH:) Yearly festivals, or where was that place back in Omaha or someplace where they put us up in the attic? I don’t remember.
(DH:) Oh, that was Bill Davis and Peter
(JH 🙂 Bill Peters
(BB:) Bill Peters, oh yes.
(DH:) Fun Valley
(JH:) Fun Valley, Yea
(BB:) Fun Valley, O.K. I remember talking about that. Right, so
(JH:) We did festivals in Seattle and Oregon and a National or two in Seattle. Seattle was a nice National.
(BB:) Well are you still “RV”ing or not?
(JH:) Yes, we have our RV. We take shorter trips now. We like to go up to the coast. We love the water. We also go to a little town called Via Vista which is on the Sacramento River and we park there and watch the boats go by.
(BB:) O.K. Did you ever do any recording yourself, Jim.
(BB:) No, I thought you might have done a little of the Sets in Order or something.
(JH:) No, I never got in that phase of it. Those were the big time boys I was small potatoes.
(BB:) Well, you certainly were not small potatoes in the sound business. That’s for sure
(JH:) Thank you
(BB:) And tell us about your association with Callerlab.
(JH:) Oh, it was not really very eventful other than that I think I joined when it started. I was one of the original members. And I certainly subscribe to their policies. It is just a shame that we can’t get square dancing hack on its feet but
(BB:) Well we’re going to be coming to that. I have a couple profound questions for you.
(JH:) Alright, O.K.
(BB:) One of the things that’s under discussion these days around the country is the costume. Do you have any thoughts? Some people are saying that we are over dressed and some are lamenting the fact that many people are giving up the typical square dance dress and are going back to the Prairie skirts and, do you have any thoughts along that line?
(DH:) We always enjoyed the square dance costumes.
(JH:) We loved the costumes. We loved the clothes. I loved the Western suits. Dottie loved the full skirts and pretty dresses and
(DH:) But actually, when we started, my skirts were ankle length.
(BB:) Oh yes, right, Sure
(DH:) They were ankle length then. And then they started going up.(laughs)
(BB:) Full length pantaloons and the whole thing.
(DH:) Yea, that’s right
(JH:) But I really think it is an essential part of the square dance activity. I really do.
It bothers me to see ’em coming in leotards and I think it is the caller’s responsibility to request his people to follow it. Not to try to order it, but to promote it by saying don’t they look nice and making examples of people who look nice. To try to badger them, I don’t think it will ever happen.
(BB:) Well, the people that see, some people are saying, well, I’ve talked to people that are not square dancers and they’ll say “Well, you’ll never get me in those clothes.” But you know the same people who are saying that, they probably wouldn’t square dance anyway.
(JH:) Well, either that or they’ll go someplace and have a good time and a year later you’ll see them in the dress.
(DH:) If caller’s wives uphold the dress, ] think that helps also.
(JH:) That helps a lot.
(BB:) That’s very helpfuL That’s true. So, well, let’s think about the serious side of square dancing now. Do you maybe like to expound on one of the questions I ask in … Where do you think square dancing has been, and where do you think it is, and where do you think it’s going.
(JH:) Well, It has been one the most fabulous activities that I’ve ever been involved in.
(DH:) Actually our whole life revolved around it for many years.
(JH:) For many, many years it revolved around it and a totally wholesome, wonderful, beautiful activity. We got out in ’86 at just about the peak of it. And I did a little bit of calling in the ’90’s here, but not very much.
(BB:) Are you dancing at all today?
(JH:) No, Dottie broke her hip.
(DH:) I’ve broken both of my hips.
(BB:) Oh, great
(JH:) Not at the same time.
(BB:) (laughs) Fortunately, right.
(JH:) Your next question was now, was it. Square dancing now?
(BB:) Where are we now and
(JH:) Well we’re in pretty much a stagnant stage now as near as I can tell. I’m not too close to it. I see more activity round dancing. Round dancing is holding its own better than square dancing. And I’m going to just meddle a little bit in some line dancing with this lady that I’m working with. But as far as the future goes, I believe that the callers are going to have to get off the dime and do more of the work and let the dancers have more of the fun. Politics in square dancing activities is just ruining, the political strata that you find in square dance clubs, it’s ridiculous. And you’ll find that the clubs that are caller run in the major cities, just doin’ great. People come and have a good time and leave and they don’t worry about politics. In the future, something has got to change about the politics at the dancer level and the caller is going to have to get on the ball and spend, work a lot harder. And the hardest job and the job he’s got to do is to bring beginners into it. That’s the key to it.
(BB:) Right, Well, which brings up the point, do you have any secrets for recruiting that you want to share with the rest of the world?
(JH:) Sure. Start a beginner class every 12 weeks. And have a place where those people can dance without having to be invited. Where they can dance and be welcome every 12 weeks. And at the end of about 4 or 5 12 week periods, you’ll have a beautiful club.
(BB:) If its not spoiled by the present day dancers who are trying to steal them out of that class.
(JH:) That’s right. Of course, I was fortunate here in this community where outside people did not have access to come and dance with us so we didn’t, we were pretty well insulated. So that’s a secret that will work I know in a completely enclosed activity, but it will also work in others.
(BB:) Right. Well, I always said that someday I am going to find a little village up on top of a mountain. And I’m going to go up there and start a club and I’m never going to tell them that there is a square dance shop. Or I’m never going to tell them that anybody else in the world ever square dances except them. And teach them the way I want them, but of course I never have.
(JH:) Never found that spot huh?
(BB:) Right. But I, of course I’ve been an advocate all my life of teaching other forms, other things besides square dancing to my basic square dancers. A little bit of round dancing, a little bit of contra dancing and that type of thing. I really think that probably we are going to have to get around to that again some day.
(JH:) I wouldn’t be surprised. That would certainly give some variety to it.
(BB:) Have you ever done any Contra calling?
(JH:) Very, one or two times. Nothing where I really knew what I was doing.
(BB:) Yea, right, I hear ya’. So, one of the questions I’ve been asking recently is do you have any regrets? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
(DH:) I don’t think so. We’ve been pretty pleased with
(BB:) Yea, that’s what most people say. Wouldn’t change a thing.
(JH:) I wouldn’t change it.
DH:) No, no
(JH:) If Dottie wouldn’t have broke her hip, we’d have been in it longer
(DH:) Yea, that’s right.
(BB:) Yea. OK. Well, I think we’re pretty well down the line, I, unless you have any thoughts you think you’d like to save for posterity.
(JH:) will posterity?
(DH:) I can’t think of anything else. It’s a wonderful activity. We enjoyed it for many, many years. I hate to see it dwindle down.
(BB:) Yes, right. You’re so right. Well, time will tell and as I’ve been saying for quite a while, a hundred years from now we won’t particularly care. A hundred years from now, if someone is listening to this tape, I hope you have a renovated new square dance program going on.
(DH:) Yes, I surely do hope.
(BB:) Right. Well, Jim and Dottie, thank you so very much for letting me steal a few moments of your time and putting this on tape.
(JH:) Oh, It’s a pleasure to have you here.
(BB:) So, I’m going to head on down the road. I have a couple of other people I have to see before I head back to Albuquerque. And people will be hearing about them I’m sure. So once again thank you very much, Jim, so much and we’ll see you around a square.
(JH:) You sure will.