Helsel, Lee & Mary: SIO Hall of Fame, CALLERLAB Milestone

Photo Helsel


Bob Brundage – (?) 30th, 1996 and today I’m at Sunlakes Resort in Banning, California. It’s a beautiful day here. It’s going to get hot but it’s a nice air conditioned situation here so there’s no problem there. We’re talking today with Lee Helsel and his wife, Mary and we’re real pleased to be here. So, Lee why don’t you get us started. Tell us where you were born and brought up and tell us about your early square dance experience.

Lee Helsel – OK Bob, it’s real nice to have you here.  Mary and I have enjoyed very much, Brundage. I like the idea of this project you’re doing and I think there has been a lot in square dancing that will be helpful to maintain it as long as we keep the principles of square dancing.  I was born in Mason City, Iowa, March 12th, 1917.  And my father was a school teacher and educator and, he moved out to California in 1924 and he was president of a small school in Los Angeles. It was a college and a high school combined. A church school. At first, I was interested in music and my mother and dad gave me piano lessons which turned out to be kinda the basis of my musical experiences, and I still play piano.  But I got to; I went to Holly High here in the Los Angeles area.  Then, I went to college, three years in Seattle, Pacific College, went to church school there. And then came back and did two more years at USC where my father was teaching at that time. I did a stint in the service and I went in the service working with the Recreation Department of the City of LA and when I got back in 1946 I returned to working with the City and went out to, it was called Rosco Playground and the Valley, San Fernando Valley. And at that time square dancing was just starting to become very popular and Mary and I went down to a square dance class that was being operated both by Virginia Pinterell, the Recreation Director, and Jonsey. We learned in six lessons, all we needed to know. And so I went back to my Recreation place and, where I was working and started a square dance class there.


BB – This must have been late, what, the late 1940’s?


LH – This was in -46.


Mary Helsel – in ’46. The interesting thing about our looking here is that, during the war when all the fellows were gone why, Virginia Dixon was her name at that time she was teaching square dancing and had all women and they would wear, the men’s place was taken by the women they would wear a cap on their head. That’s where we first saw the square dancing. She had done that to keep women busy and everything while their husbands were in the service.


LH – Once again, that’s Mary’s view. She’s my real source of strength in square dancing. We got more intimately involved in square dancing by working with the LA City Recreation Department because they started square dance calling and leadership classes, six of them in the city and we were privileged to go to the one that let’s see, Ralph Maxheimer was then working with the city Recreation and was run by the instructor was Ray Shaw, Pappy Shaw’s brother. He’d been in square and folk dancing for a long time of course, around the city. We then branched out and called for clubs and taught classes and one of the most interesting ones that we had for about two and a half years was a group of motion picture people who had gotten some records with calls on them and had started to teach themselves and they only got so far and then they realized they had to have some more instruction and so they came one night to a dance I was calling in United Magnon.  It’s a Temple on Wilshire Boulevard and they hired us and that started a really nice relationship with a group of, basically a group of about six couples and then they would have dances about once a week for a whole year.  For two and a half years we did at different homes and then invite a lot of the popular friends and actors and people in square dancing or in the movies.


BB – The movie business.


LH – And we got to meet so many of them and it’s so hard to pick out some when. One of the members of the group was Danny Kaye’s accompanist, Sammy Pregorand. He started out by inviting Danny to come and dance with us and then others did the same thing and they didn’t come on a regular basis but the, being we weren’t, any complicated dances at that time they did very well.  In 1951,


MH – Let me interrupt here just a minute.


LH – Go ahead.


MH – Before that we were calling in Van Nuys at a little barn on a let’s see, it was where a school was.


LH – School


MH – And was a little barn on a corner and we had about six squares in that but they’d always way at the no, they’d always end up at the head of the hall and crowd the caller out because the floor slanted.  And then another experience we had there in Van Nuys was at the (?) school and we used to have twenty twenty-five squares that we taught and called for and everything and they made enough money to fix the entire


LH – To pave the parking lot_


MH – And pave the parking lot.


LH – That, those were in the days when we used a lot of live music.  We had a wonderful piano player there who, all our square dance calls and then with the round dancing, and one of the things I want to say about rounds, Mary and I always felt that we taught always two squares and one round and we brought all those people into round dancing and it seemed just very natural to them.


BB – Well earlier, Lee, didn’t you tell me that most of the square dancing was associated with the folk dance people?


LH – Oh yes.


MH – That was after we moved to.


BB – Oh was it?


LH – That was particularly in  but even in Los Angeles when we were there the folk dancing was really a strong, stronger movement than square dancing and I think that Bob Osgood and his inviting of Lloyd Shaw to come and give a show as well as a seminar, was one of the things that really helped in Los Angeles, the development of square dancing there and, Bob, of course, started the, on the same day that he had Lloyd Shaw he put out the first issue of the magazine, Sets In Order which he published for so many so many years.  That we had very fine acquaintances with Bob Osgood and Jonsey and Jim York who, you may not know about one of the most tremendous callers I’ve ever heard. He died of a brain a brain tumor but he was a very excellent caller and we were great friends.  He and Jeanie, in 1951, we moved to where I took a job with the State of California Department of Mental Hygiene which operated all the mental hospitals.  And I had an administrative job in charge of head of rehabilitation for the State Hospitals. I traveled a good deal throughout the state with that job but also I  started, kept my calling with my local club, the Pathfinders, with the Highwaymen and later on with another club called the Pathfinders, so I had two clubs there for a good many years, however on the weekends and then started to record with, and that got me some booking dates outside of  and more into California and other parts of the country and that’s how my traveling calling, part of my career started and it was with Bob’s publication of his records, Sets In Order records that got me involved in that.  We spent from 1951 to 1980 in, working for the State of California and I had two or three other jobs I ended up as head of the Medical program for the State of California.  And one of the worst jobs I had ever had because I had a governor, young Jerry Brown didn’t care about saving money or could hardly make a decision except if something was in his best interest. Then I had the two clubs in  and then I started out and we became callers and teachers in weekend institutes starting with Sets In Order with Bob and Asilomar and then a group in Calgary, Canada, we went to Banff which was their full week of square dancing. We did that for twenty-five straight years. We worked there with Nita and Manning Smith and with Joe Lewis and Bruce and Shirley Johnson and LeClair, Johnny and Marge LeClair.  And then, during the time there were Saturdays and very, very often we would take a charter airplane out of Sacramento and go to San Francisco, get on the redeye and do call a Saturday afternoon and Saturday night dance in places such as Washington, D C, Alabama, allover the country we were happy that those folks would invite us and, in fact we did the Washington, DC Festival for about twenty straight years.


BB – Is that right.


LH – And that was the one that had nine callers.  And most of the top callers in the country.


BB – That was what, the Atlantic Convention? Was that what they called it?


LH – No, this was


BB – This was a private


LH – No, this was a private party. Washington, D C they would in the Park Sheraton Hotel and they had about three to four thousand dancers there for the whole weekend.


MH – We only did that about ten


LH – About, we, it was about ten to twelve times that we also were sponsored by the United States Air Force to go to Europe, teaching and calling, sessions that were in Germany and, let’s see, Morocco, we did States, Spain,


MH – London


LH -London, England and in Paris and that was a very interesting thing, what we would do would be to teach their callers and then call a Saturday night dance. And quite a little participation, especially in Germany where we did their European Festivals, we called at the Zoo building in Frankfurt and that was quite interesting.


BB – Lee. I’ve asked everybody that I’ve talked with so far who have been overseas, any experience with non-English speaking


LH – Oh yes


MH – Lot’s of


LH – Yes, a lot of it. We, Germany had more English speaking German nationals in the programs but when we got down to Spain, the American, their program was where Americans were in the Air Force but they didn’t have any wives or girl friends with them and they would bring in dance classes of ladies who were in Spanish Ballet and they had done some teaching and so forth they knew square dance terms, but they could not sit down and converse with you and they knew Allemande Left, Grand Right and Left, Right and Left Through beautifully but they could not say, “How are you” and so forth in English so that was very interesting.


BB – I always found that intriguing.  I can’t imagine how these people were taught by someone speaking Spanish and then teaching an English command.


LH – Well now, they had local, some local callers that knew some Spanish or had gotten an interpreter and so they could dangle through it and they were very, very sharp students these gals and a few men


BB – The Japanese I guess were very adept,


LH – We never got to Japan.


MH – One of the interesting things, though in Morocco, let’s see what Air Base was that


LH – Oh, that was (?) Air Base


MH – Yeah, Air Base and they had a lot of wives over there with them and so they decided to give us a good southern dinner, you know fried chicken, biscuits and all that sort of thing. And then they decided to invite the, well I call them the Blue People, they were the local


LH – Morocco


MH – And but the reason they were called the Blue People is because they’re what they, the clothes they wore in order to get them the color they wanted they had to die them. They died them blue and then the blue wore off onto the person that was wearing them.


BB – I’ll be darned.


MH – And so they decided to invite them to dinner and let them do some of their local dances for us.  Well, that was quite an experience because here they have all this fried chicken, all these biscuits and all this other goody stuff and they let the Moroccans go first. Well the Moroccans, you know, they had never seen anything like this and, of course, they had silverware out there for them to use but they didn’t know how to use silverware so what they did they just went through and they just with their hands and they picked up this and that where


LH – stuffing it in their clothes


MH – putting it in their pockets and clothes and everything and putting it on their plates and then, of course, nobody wanted to go through.  They put on a nice little dance and then they enjoyed what we did too so that was an interesting.


BB – Very interesting, right.


LH – Yeah, they, the Air Force Special Services did a real nice job with that and we had followed a couple of other couples, let’s see, Bruce and Shirley Johnson and


MH – and Bob Van and


LH – Nita and Manning Smith and Bob and Becky Osgood. I can’t remember.


MH – I can’t remember.


LH – The other thing that I have become, or I became very interested in my calling career was the teaching of square dance callers and I have written some materials some of this for teaching even before I left Los Angeles in ’46 and that I have worked on and used in great many seminars that I did allover the United States and I, we had traveled, I think through well, let’s see, we hadn’t been to Hawaii, through practically every state in the Union, through square dancing and varied a great deal but we were very appreciative of the work the local callers were doing and they didn’t get out and make records or anything of that sort but they were very, very committed to giving square dance experience.

MH – He called and taught in most of the provinces in Canada.


LH – Oh, yeah we


MH – and Alaska.


LH – Including the French provinces. Oh yes, we were in Alaska before the Air Force them, too.


MH – We were there the weekend after they had the big earthquake.


LH – I really became very interested in, and Bob Osgood had his Sets In Order Institute in Asilomar both for summer and winter sessions and we did callers classes during the day and was very, very satisfactory. Some of those sessions we had excellent companionship with Bob and Becky and also Nita and Manning Smith, Bruce and Shirley and Bob Van Antwerp who, incidentally, shares a lot of my basic philosophy that square dancing is really a recreational activity and Bob, moved to, well he was in Long Beach, when I first met him and then he moved to Tahoe and we were very close and still are very close friends with them in the square dance field but he’s not I think he’s not calling and is very close to


BB – Pretty much, yeah.


LH – And we stopped calling in 1980, It was a


MH – ’86 or ’87


LH – 1980 because I retired from the state in 1979 and then I called one year afterwards and our last dance was held on the fourth Saturday in June in 1980 and we were happy to have Bob Osgood there at the dance. OK, we, along with Bruce and Shirley Johnson and Jean and, what was his first name? Brooks


BB – Jim.


LH – Jim Brooks.


MH – Jim and Ginny,


LH – Jim Brooks, Jim and Ginny Brooks did a number of years, I guess we must have gone at least ten or twelve years with them in institutes in Northern part of the United States anywhere from Spokane over to the coast, at what was that Indian Reservation?


MH – I knew you were going to ask me that


LH – laughter – I forgot


MH It was right near the rain forest.


LH – It was right near the rain rain forest and, ah


MH – Quinalt


LH – Quinalt, Washington. We, in our teaching with the callers we were privileged to be invited so many times to come and call a dance on Saturday night with people in Alabama or Montana or Oregon or somebody else someplace else and then, in the afternoon or sometime even preceding that on Friday night and then Saturday afternoon we had callers sessions where we would take ten, twelve sometimes twenty callers sometimes, two or three and try and give them some of our experience, that we’d had in square dancing.


BB – Did you bump into Red Henderson up there?


LH – Red?


BB – Yeah, Spokane.


LH – Oh yea oh, yes yes, Oh, yeah, Spokane. We called once in the auditorium the main auditorium in Spokane, Washington and the lights went out. Laughter. Never forget that, yeah,


BB – You saw the Silver Spurs, then.


LH – Yep.


BB – Their dance troupe


LH    Yeah, they were very excellent, excellent exhibition groups.  We feel that square dancing, and it goes back I think, if I mentioned a moment ago that Bob Van Antwerp shares almost the identical feeling about square dancing and his place in our society and I was educated at USC in recreation and rehabilitation and I’d worked in that field for many years but, we felt that square dancing was strictly a recreational activity which essentially the dance was a vehicle for bringing people together socially and keeping the fact that we were very impressed with the recreation concepts in square dancing and that there is no liquor and people really came there as a celebration of their love for other people and dancing was a thing that really kinda tied the whole thing together and the recreational principles I think.  Some of the square dancing I’ve seen and heard since my retirement have not followed those concepts. I think they’ve gotten too expansive in the fact that the dance is the total reason for them being there and that they’re really doing, marching to something that was not designed for the mental processes that are going on now with all of their, everybody seems to think he makes his fame and fortune by developing a new movement and we’ve gotten many, many more movements than we’ll ever need and will serve the purpose. I feel very strongly about that and I also feel that the separation of round dancing with square dancing in terms of the leadership of it, is a bad thing and I think that a caller or teacher should teach both squares and rounds and look for the recreation purposes rather than the, just the idea of doing the dance.


BB – Choreography.


LH – Choreography, yes


BB – Lee, I want to go back a little bit back years ago you told me that you were interested in getting the best possible sound and you got interested in that and built some sound equipment. Would you tell us about that?



LH – Well, that was part of my life that I, when we started out the old Newcomb was the only square dance sound_ And I felt very, very strongly that I could do a better job getting the sound and the proper sound to to my square dancers and one of the things just having the sound out there without having all of the frequencies that you have at your disposal on records, that is the low frequencies as well as the high frequencies was something that wasn’t happening so I started experimenting with building my own sound equipment, not totally but I would use some of the better amplifiers like McIntosh, I used to carry around to all my dances and big, heavy speakers I did I think I’ve always been noted for having good sound but it also got me in trouble because it was heavy and I strained my back I put sound in such places as San Francisco auditorium, the Oakland auditorium and Sacramento auditorium. I helped do one of the Nationals in Southern California and I’m paying for it now with my bad back and so I’ve had three back operations and the last one was a fusion which I had done pretty well with but I’ve, the last eight, six eight years I’ve had to take narcotic pain pills and I take a lot of them.


BB – When did you convert over to the column idea, the column speakers?


LH – I first saw what I thought was an excellent use of columns in Washington, DC by the people who put in the sound at the Washington State, Washington Festival and they used columns and their principle was, a soft back on a column and, yet, having good high fidelity in it you could get real good bass out of it and real good highs and square dance sound is different than anything else you have to understand the caller and the understandability of it is very, very important as far as I’m concerned. And some of the new columns, like Yak Stak is an excellent, excellent sound. It’s not large but it puts out very good sound.


BB – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story of Earl Johnston.  I want to be sure to get this on tape sometime_ He went to Canada for a festival and saw the first column he’d ever seen came back and developed what turned out to be the Yak Stak. And someone said to him one time at a callers meeting, Earl, he said, how did you know the proper size dynamically and so forth.  And Earl said “That was the easy part” What do you mean, he said, “I measured my trunk”.


LH – Laughter – Well I tell you many a time when


MH – When you get a call, too.


LH – Oh yeah, I had, ah


MH – And then, ah


LH – I had columns


MH – He worked with Hilton a little bit on his, Jim had finally developed a very good staff.


LH – I, of course, traveled a good deal when I was square dancing even around California and we would drive to Canada and southeast or Southwest and every time I’d get a new car I’d always take my sound equipment with me and see if it fit in the trunk of the new car.


BB – I had the same experience, I was trying out a new car and I, he gave me a demonstration ride I immediately parked beside mine and I’m trying, and the salesman came out, “I’ve got this one sold”


LH – Yeah, well we did that too and we, of course, had to go to the bigger cars because larger sound, better sound comes from a little bit larger speakers and so, we drove Cadillacs for years and years and years.


MH – They had big trunks, yeah, right.  Well, no another thing that, a lot of (?) used to talk about it being a recreation activity and everything it’s supposed to be for fun and it, you know, so many callers get up there and they think, well if they stop the floor boy, they think I’m good.  Well, anybody can stop the floor but it takes a good caller to keep that floor moving.


BB – Jon Jones told me about, his mentor was Ray Smith.  They were at a festival and the caller before them was really throwing everything at ‘em, the floor stopped dancing and Ray said to Jon “Look at that, that guy’s such a good caller nobody can dance to him”.


LH – You’re right. Oh, Jon was very, remembered him (?) very wonderful guy.


BB – Yep. One interesting little antidote you told me about calling at Bob Osgood’s house at the celebration of the opening of Sets In Order magazine.


LH – Oh, yeah. Bob and,


BB – Becky


LH – No this was before Becky.  Bob lived in, on, I think it was Swan Avenue in Beverly Hills. And he had a house which had a detached garage and from the street to the garage were two strips of concrete so the car could roll on (?) in the garage.  In the middle was grass or something else and Bob had his open house at his house and we had dancing and he had all the callers there get a chance to call and, which, we were trying to show our egos off.  Everybody was, and the dancers, the only place they had to dance was a little bit of spot in the garage and then up at


MH – Driveway.


LH – driveway with the two strips of concrete and the grass and so forth around it and that was really call above (laughter) duty.


BB – Yeah, you get to dance in some peculiar places, probably did overseas too.


LH – Yes, we did, oh I’ve had some, here in the United States that were worse than the  overseas wasn’t too bad because our trip was sponsored by Air Force and we used Air Force facilities but I think Mary didn’t she just mention about the log cabin at


MH – here in Van Nuys.


LH – where the (laughs) dancers were essentially were in your lap all the time they had to.  in fact, and the floor was slanted, it was an old interesting building. It was (?)


BB – Did you take part in that Diamond Jubilee on Wilshire?

LH – No, I did not call. We were just, ah getting started.  We attended but not calling.


BB – Well, one incident that you related to earlier, ah I thought people would like to hear about is Truth Or Consequences.


LH – Oh yeah. The movie group that I mentioned, had a number of people, Bob, in it and  one time, well the secretary to Ralph Edwards who is Truth Or Consequences Master of Ceremonies, she and her husband danced with us and he also was a movie star on, No, he was a doctor on,


BB – Old Gunsmoke.


LH – Gunsmoke. Yeah, yeah, yeah and, so, Ralph came and danced with us with the group and they thought well, that’s a good idea we’ll put it on TV. What I had done is, I had worked out like you’re always doing a few gimmicks to just give people more fun why we had taken four brooms and put a face on them and the handle end out of wood and had ladies with a mop for hair and then with a little skirt on them and the men would have to take those four broomsticks and move them around Circle, Grand Right and Left or Circle Left, and so forth, and it worked out very well and Ralph wanted those on his show so I put ‘em on his show in some place, in some dark, (laughs) acid recess I (?) out a copy of a tape that he’d sent me the movie that he sent me, of a loser on Truth Or Consequences or a winner, whatever it was, with three of our square dancers helping him in a square and then I was calling for them and I remember that because each one of the dancers got a real nice watch and, so, they gave me one also and at the end of the show after it was over why one of the TV guys came and said ” I want the watch back”. I says “Well, why is that”?  He says” You’re getting paid” (laughter). So I got paid for that. But it was really interesting and that was (?) a lot of fun, too. I had made up one time a square dance wedding where I had dancers that would, a whole square would participate, and I married them with movements, you know, having a bride and a groom and the wedding party with them and we put that out (?)  I did that in an old barn that they had out in Burbank, which started out as a very, very important place for dancing in Southern California, similar to the barn they had in your old orange grove packing.  An area here where , Los Angeles, I forget the name.


MH – The Packing House.


LH – No, well, it would have been something else. Somebody’s Barn but it;  Well, we got a lot more out of square dancing than we ever put in because we feel the friendships and meeting of people was really the greatest reward that We got out of square dancing. We miss it but we’re through.


BB – Right. Right, tell me your affiliation with Callerlab, Lee.


LH – I am, well let’s see, in Callerlab I was the recipient of the, now just a minute,  recipient of a couple of awards, one of which is the Gold Card membership of which there are five people, at the present time five or six, who are recipients of that and I was one of the group who helped organize Callerlab and I think probably my greatest contribution was to develop and, the elements of putting in shape a structure, organizational structure for Callerlab and as an example, one of the early things I had thought of and put in but they never accepted it until twenty years later, ­was having  associate membership so people could become associate members so those who couldn’t go to the conventions could get the material and so forth so but, I have a great many friends in that organization and feel I had in making it, get it started.


BB – Right. Well I seem to be kind of winding down here, Lee.  I wonder if you would give us a sort of overview of where you think we’ve been and where are we even though you’re have not been active for twenty years.  Where is square dancing going?


LH – Well, I’ve been active in it from a passive point of view.  As a Gold Card member I get all of the publications and, from Callerlab and I have been, I think we have had a wonderful experience in, when I say we I’m talking about the American people in trying to preserve a part of our ancestors, development of their social activities in, through square dancing and although, getting in some areas, very, very complicated and taxing on an individual by, to learn and retain all of the new movements and so forth.  I think there’s still a cadre out there of people who are square dancing and are being carried on not by our national callers who are traveling and they always have the feeling that they’ve got to give something new to people all the time.  But by people who are the local caller who, once or twice a week in his hometown are teaching square dancing to a group of three, five, ten squares that are not into the complicated maneuvers and so forth but yet they’re having, I think, a lot more fun and without taxing themselves mentally, because the recreation is something that should be done and enjoyed without all of the activity being a mind game and,


BB – How do you feel about the CPT program, the Community Dance Program?


LH – Well, I think it’s in the area that I would support strongly.  Regardless of the name that you put it on is still involved in square dancing but it does limit the objectives to those more simple and, I feel more helpful objectives of relationships of recreation and,


BB – Well, getting back to dancing with the music and so forth.  Which brings up contra dancing. Have you ever


LH – Oh yes, yes we taught some contras and enjoyed them and the thing about contra dances is they’re so well phrased.  And I know we got an awful lot from people like Paul Page and, contras are really are, I think the, and you come originally from an area in the Northeast where they really have benefited so much from the contra dancing and  western square dancing has, you know is, an offshoot of that if you keep to the music and


BB – Right, right and we’re, well, I think we’re just about done, we’re down about the end of the tape and I certainly want to thank you for your hospitality here today, Lee and Mary and we’ll look forward to seeing you again real soon so


LH – OK, we enjoy very much your coming and as I, as even this tape shows, I have a strong feeling that leadership in square dancing is both the caller and his partner.


BB – Right, you got that right.  So, thank you very much Lee.

LH – Oh, you’re welcome.

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