John Hendron – November 23, 1996
Bob Brundage – Well hi again, this is Bob Brundage, and today we’re in the big city if Hartford, Connecticut. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to stop by and see John in his home town of Framingham, Massachusetts, but we’re talking today with John Hendron, and John has certainly been around for a long time, and we want to get his thoughts about his very exciting career. So John, let’s see, the date, by the way, is November the 23rd, 1996. We’ll probably be interrupted from time to time because we’re trying to get a bite to eat while all this is going on before John goes to work tonight with, what is it, Windsor Old Towners John?
John Hendron – Yes, Windsor Old Towners.
BB – OK, well why don’t you tell us where you were born and brought up and I understand it was out in the mid-west somewhere,
JH – Yes, born out in Chicago, Illinois, back on August 23rd, 1924.
BB – Wow.
JH – Yeah, wow. Time does go ….
BB – So, did you do any square dancing out there? How did you get interested in square dancing?
JH – Yes, I got started in the mid-west in fact. My wife and I started square dancing I believe in year about 1948 – ’49, somewhere around there and danced – I think my first caller was Russ Bone out in Illinois. Square danced for four or five years before the calling bug did bite.
BB – How did you get onto your first – how did you get into calling per se.
JH – There weren’t that many callers in our vicinity and, of course, being over enthusiastic I felt like if they couldn’t come to me then I don’t have to bring the dancers to me right there. So I started calling to a small group. I guess we both learned with each other like many have done, and that happened around, probably ‘53, ‘54, somewhere in there and that’s how I got into the calling bit of it. Had my first club, I think, in ‘54.
BB – You’re still out there in Illinois now.
JH – Still out in Illinois, yes. Stayed there in Illinois calling – working club dates, small festivals, attending the Nationals. It was early ‘63 the company I worked for transferred me to New England.
BB – Oh, I see. That’s how you got out here.
JH – That’s how I got out here.
BB – You’re company was based where?
JH – They were based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with the branch I worked for in Kankakee, Illinois.
BB – OK, and where was the place out here in New England?
JH – Out here I became the District Sales Manager in ‘63 with home offices in Springfield, Mass.
BB – I see, OK. Well, I know, from having known you for so many years, that you were busy, busy, busy all day long and were busy, busy, busy almost every night that I knew of.
JH – The biggest problem I had was juggling the two schedules and make them jibe.
BB – Right. So, well, you moved out here about what time?
JH – March. I came out here by myself to look for a home in March of ‘63, and my wife and family came out in July of ‘63.
BB – OK. Speaking of family, did you come from a musical family John?
JH – Not really. My mother – that side of the family, kind of were old church singers, but I did play the guitar in high school. I did have lessons on the drums and lessons on the trombone.
BB – Right. Well, I know it was a big change for you to get away from your own clubs out in Illinois. How did you get started out here in New England?
JH – Well, it was kind of a lucky break, I guess, for me because I got out here just at the time of the western square dance explosion took place. A lot of the callers were just learning it so I was kind of even with them at that point because we were all learning ….
BB – True. True.
JH – I got out here – I drove up from New York City with a company car – stopped off in Springfield because it was in April – I remember that – and they had – the New England Square Dance Convention was going on. So, I lucked into that and I walked in that place on a Saturday morning – tape clicks off.
BB – We were interrupted there for a second. You said you were at the New England Convention and this was a Saturday morning. So, go ahead John.
JH – Yeah. Well, I think one of the first callers I met was Earl Johnston. So, I struck up a conversation with Earl, and he invited me to stay and have dinner with him since Marian wasn’t there for dinner that night and I could take her place (?). I didn’t have a care in the world.
BB – There you go.
JH – But I wasn’t able to call because I wasn’t a New England caller, and I wasn’t established out here yet. So, I didn’t have the opportunity to call at that time.
BB – Yeah. It must have been kind of a chore to get working with some of the square dance clubs. You probably started with a new group.
JH – Yeah. It hit I suppose but, as I say, I couldn’t call – I couldn’t call on the program on my first night there. Somebody told me – I forget who it was – that there were a number of barns throughout New England, as you well know – Bay Path being one of them with Chet Smith, and it was right at the Exit line of the Boston Motel where I was staying. So, I zinged into the Bay Path Barn. Barbara was at the door and she asked me if I was a caller and I said, “Yes”, and she said, “Come on in”, and she said, “Chet will be happy”, because he was calling that night. So, Chet came over and I introduced myself, and he invited me to call a guest tip, and I did that. I got a pretty good reception from it and so he said, “Hey, it’s about a quarter to ten. Why don’t you finish off the night”. I said, “I’d love that”. So, I finished off the night, and as a result of that first fifteen or twenty minutes, you know, I picked up one club that was just starting out. This was the Lamplighters in Springfield, and I picked up one hundred and sixty-seven dances based over a one year period in that – just that one night. I was amazed really.
BB – Overnight success.
JH – Then, the next day, I had a call from Dick Doyle – invited me to go with him for the next week and call a guest tip, and then he suggested I contact Charlie Baldwin, which I did. Charlie said, “I’ll take you over to Square Acres and the famous Hayloft”, and that he did. I didn’t get to call a guest tip at Kramer’s, but I did get to call with Dick Steele at Square Acres. I got another twenty or thirty dances based in that, so I was off and rolling with out even getting – buying a home yet. So, as I say, I kind of lucked out there.
BB – Well, at least you didn’t have to commute to Illinois.
JH – No, I got to fly home every third weekend. I kind of kept my dates back in Illinois for the third week and I had dates back here for the other two weeks I was out this way.
BB – That’s fantastic.
JH – So, I kind of meshed them in between there.
BB – All right. Well, I know you have been really, really busy ever since you finally got established and got settled in Framingham, and I know you and I shared a weekend together one time down in Connecticut.
JH – I remember. (Both laugh)
BB – We had one experience there that we could never duplicate anywhere but, be that as it may. What are some of the other callers you’ve been affiliated with?
JH – Well, a number of very fine callers. I think probably the one caller that really in my career that I thought very highly of was Ed Gilmore. I was impressed with his timing and his phrasing and his music. His music was so great. I was impressed by the life of Joe Lewis because he was a one-man band and Joe was an entertainer. The people had a good time. I was quite impressed when I came to New England with Al Brundage. I had to have a chance to call with Al at the Atlantic Festival in Atlantic City, and I think he was probably right at the top of the crest at that time because, I’ll tell you, Al had – this is no news to anybody who had been in square dancing very long – Al had the most – I had anybody nor seen anybody before or anybody since that had the rhythmic, syncopated style that he had. I was impressed. I couldn’t copy it – I wasn’t smart enough to copy it but, nobody else will either. I was lucky enough to get affiliated with Al on a number of weekends and a number of overseas trips.
BB – OK. I was going to ask you about all the sea trips you made with Al. Tell us a little about that.
JH – We were together – Al had it together and at his request we made four of five trips to Hawaii. We went to Jamaica twice, I believe. We went to Bermuda once or twice. We had scheduled a trip to Las Vegas which didn’t go quite as well as we liked. It had a down side and I didn’t make that one. But, those were the overseas that I can remember. I remember that the first time we went to Hawaii we had I think twenty-two squares. I had a job, that was keeping track of the people.
BB – Oh, I imagine. You kept traveling between islands, right? It had to be a job. Well, at least you didn’t have to swim. What about National Conventions? I know you mentioned them earlier, before you moved out here.
JH – Yeah, we attended every National Convention as dancers, and I did for the first three or four years as a caller but , I think that early on the callers who established good calling schedules for travel throughout the whole United States based upon that and, my job did not lend itself to letting me plan that kind of schedule so I kind of – as I got busier I wasn’t able to make those Nationals. The last One I think I went to was in Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan.
BB – OK, that was a biggie.
JH – That was a biggie.
BB – That was a real biggie. Yeah, I was there. So, now you’ve been running several weekends yourself.
JH – Yes, I do probably, eight or ten weekends a year. In New England I put on myself along with the help of other callers. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with the likes of Jim Mayo, Red Bates, just to name a few. For a number of years I worked Hidden Valley Dude Ranch with Ken Anderson and Dick Jones and Red Bates. I’m still doing those, and have done for thirty-three years now with Red Bates.
BB – Well, you’re a multifaceted caller too, where you call practically all the levels.
JH – I call all the levels up through C1. That’s about as far as I want to go.
BB – I don’t know if I ever mentioned it to you, but you are probably one of my favorite all-time callers, primarily because of your rhythm, your timing , and the phrasing. One of the problems that I found when I moved out to Albuquerque was that the tempo is very, very fast. To this old plod-along New Englander it just never seemed to jibe with me, and I know your tempo is pretty slow compared to that.
JH – You know, I’d like to say that while I was able to do less from the start but I was probably brought up in that fast, fast trend early on in my career. When I first got out here – (voice fades out) – and, of course, the dancers were a lot younger, and they didn’t complain as much as they would normally complain now if you tried to do that same thing. I’ve seen other callers come in and try to do that same thing and I’ve never (voice fades). I think I was able to control my tempo. I remember a number of years back you had to let the dancers win and as they got older you had to change with them so that people could win.
BB – Right. Well, this is really very, very true, I’m sure and, I wish we could find more of it around here and there. Do you have any other hobbies John? You don’t have any time probably ….
JH – Well, I don’t have a lot of time but I am an avid genealogist – family research and have been for about thirty years, and I’ve also been a baseball card collector since I was seven years old. It’s a very expensive hobby.
BB – Have you gotten involved in round dancing at all?
JH – Early in my calling career I did teach rounds, as we all had to do – and contras, the line dancing, the squares – we had to do everything. One of those little misunderstandings between husband and wife early on where you don’t agree on how to teach a round cut short – made that part of my career short-lived.
BB – Well, it was along about that time that we started getting exclusive cuers anyway, and I think we all changed out of that about that time. What about Callerlab?
JH – You know, I have never been a joiner, and it’s not because I didn’t believe in things like that but, because of the work schedule that I had during the day, especially in New England, where they expected me to be Johnny On The Spot at any given time. I’d been contacted at Kirkwood Lodge, I’d been contacted in Canada, and it was a little touch and go there. So, I didn’t really have that kind of time. I was calling twenty-two, twenty-five, twenty-seven nights a month sometimes and working a full eight to ten hour day schedule, so it was kind of tough to – Callerlab, when they first started – I think I was within the first fourteen to twenty-five – Al Brundage was instrumental in getting me a letter from them asking me to join them, which was very early on but, I couldn’t make the mandatory commitment that you had to make to fly out here and to go there. I just couldn’t do it, but I do believe in Callerlab. I think they’ve done a fine job. I believe in all the things they have attempted and done and attempted and haven’t done.
BB – How about recordings John?
JH – Yes, I’ve recorded on probably five or six different labels over the years – about thirty-five, thirty-seven records starting way back with Flip Records in Chicago, Illinois. Horace Hall, a caller from up in the north side of Chicago – we recorded ‘Sauerkraut’ I think – terrible, terrible record. If anybody finds one out there, destroy it immediately. (Both laugh.)
BB – That’s like Al. I remember Al saying he wished he could find some. He’d like to buy them up and use them for skeet practice. One of the things that I’ve been asking people is – how do you feel about costuming? You know the trend that square dancing is going today, and a lot of the younger people are reluctant to get into square dancing because they feel they have to wear a funny-looking dress.
JH – Well you know, I’ve always felt strongly about square dance attire, and I don’t look upon it as funny square dancing apparel. I think that men look great. I think that callers, especially, should look greater all the time. I think they should always wear a coat and a suit if possible, a clean shirt and a tie, and a spit shine on their boots. I think that square dancing – I think men should have long sleeved shirts and a tie that is appropriate. I think that women look wonderful in squaw dresses. Back in the early days, crinolines and full skirts – now, that’s not mandatory – I think women with a long dress or long skirt look fine. I don’t think there’s any place in square dancing for shorts and jeans and that kind of stuff.
BB – Having looked at a few samples around the country ….
JH – Oh gee, yeah. And, you know, I see on television the country dancing and all this stuff, and I see some outfits there that must have cost some money and look kind of funny too. They look funnier than hell on some of our older citizens right now – staunch followers and believers in square dancing for the forty or fifty years. (Tape clicks off temporarily.)
BB – Well John, one of the things that I’ve been asking people – do you think is the appeal to calling square dancing ? What do you find appealing about it?
JH – From my own personal standpoint – from a caller’s standpoint?
BB – Yep.
JH – Well, I think that probably different callers have a different appeal. For me, personally, it was the music to start with. I have always loved Country/Western music. I guess that’s the cowboy in me. I sang with a Country/Western band before I started calling out in Chicago, and I sang with an eleven-piece orchestra out in Illinois before moving out here. So, the music aspect always was a draw for me. Yeah, I’ve always been a people person before calling. I’d been associated with people all my working career in sales. My company sent me to about three different toastmaster and public speaking courses for their benefit as well as mine. So, I’ve always been at ease around people and enjoyed people. The calling aspect lends itself to that just like in sales, and the caller has to sell himself to the dancer. If they don’t want to buy you then they don’t want to buy what you’re selling either.
BB – Right. Right. What do you think is the situation today with square dancing? Where do you think square dancing has been, and where do you think it is now, and what’s going to happen in the future?
JH – Well, I think as you look back over the years square dancing has always been a peak and valley thing to some extent, but as far back as I can remember I’ve never seen the valley as deep as the one we’re in right now, and I think that, as anybody else probably would say, due to – you’re not feeding it into the bottom to let it find it’s way up through the system. Classes are down – in most cases it’s just not there for whatever reason. No replacement for the dancers who, over the last thirty, forty, forty-five years have retired, lost a spouse, moved to Florida, moved to Arizona, moved to California, and as they go, so goes the activity. We look out on the floor now at the people that we are calling to now are in the age bracket of fifty-five to eighty-five and at the top of that, that’s seventy-five to eighty-five – they’re drifting away slowly but surely too. So, I see us at probably the lowest ebb that we’ve had as an activity for the years that I’ve been in it, and I think that we’re going to continue in that direction until it hits bottom. The bottom line means to where you’re losing club material officers – they don’t want to run the club after so many years of doing the same thing and nobody else wants to take the job. Two clubs folded last week – last month I should say – up in the North Shore. They had plenty of money in the kitty, they get fifteen, eighteen squares for their Saturday night dances, but nobody wants to take the responsibility to run the club. So, I see the activity as being now and in the immediate future of two to four or five years caller run. They’ll be smaller groups. They’ll be run by a caller. He’ll take the money, pay the rent, do the advertising and take what’s left, if there’s any left. There won’t be much left.
BB – There won’t be much left. Right.
JH – If it’s to continue as it is right now that’s what’s going to happen. I think that when we get to the bottom of the valley that we’re going to have to start over, and we’re going to have to make sure, hopefully, that this time around we will have learned from the last time around. Let’s not rush to kill ourselves, and let’s get the Broom Dance back, and let’s have the pie nights, and let’s let them have some fun. These young people will have fun with it again if we let them, but we have to let them have fun again. I looked back on the years I danced and I still had a ball. I just laughed myself crazy in the Broom Dance. The music stopped and you didn’t get the chair, and you’re out, or you passed the broom and you were out. The pie nights, and the polkas, and the line dances. Not a lot of any one thing, but a mixture of all of it, but it let’s you have fun. So, I think we’ve lost sight of that.
BB – Well, that was the sociable aspect of the activity, which we’ve kind of lost. Jim Mayo has been saying that he thinks there are three aspects – that’s the sensual, which we are completely disregarding today, the intellectual, which goes into the challenge aspect, plus the social. He says we’re allowing the social aspect of it to be taken care of by the dancers, forgetting the sensual part and concentrating on the intellectual part.
JH – Well, I suppose there’s a lot of merit to what he says. The intellectual part, I wouldn’t necessarily want the dancer to think that he wasn’t too intellectual if all he wanted to do was Plus, because I know some pretty smart people doing Plus out there. Once again, it’s what you want as a dancer or what you as a caller want.
BB – Right. Well, I’m afraid that the musical portion of square dancing has kind of gotten out of hand.
JH – That’s the part I hate to see disappear. Some of the records I hear put out today are really, really repetitious. Some of the records that they are reproducing or are re-re-reproducing I can remember doing thirty years ago – thirty-five years ago. They don’t sound a hell of a lot better now than they did then.
BB – They changed the orchestration and the instrumentation and that’s about it. Well John, I know you’ve got to go to work here pretty quick and I don’t want you get over stuffed in front of the microphone, so I want to really thank you very, very much for taking the time to get off the highway and sit down for a few minutes and let us have the benefit of your expertise. I really appreciate it John and I’ll look forward to seeing you around here and there.
JH – Very good. I do appreciate it and thank you very much Bob.
BB – OK. (Tape clicks off)
End of Side A – End of interview with John Hendron