OSA MATTHEWS INTERVIEW
August 29, 1996
Bob Brundage: Well, here we are, August 29, and right now I am in Palm Springs, California, talking to Osa Matthews, and it’s a beautiful day outside, very, very hot, which is unusual for Palm Springs for as long as they’ve had it, 3 months. So, Osa, you’ve certainly had an interesting life, and we’d like to hear a little bit about it. Tell us where you got started, and how you got started, and so forth.
Osa Matthews: Well, I got started in Red Lands, California, but before that, we had, my husband and I had moved to New Mexico, and we kept getting letters from our friends, with big pictures of square dancers in the park in Red Lands. And Ed Gilmore was the teacher at that time, and they kept telling us what a wonderful activity this was, and how we needed to come back, and they wanted us in the square dance program, and my husband would always laugh and say, oh, no, I don’t think we’re going to get me in that. But we did move back then and after a couple of years in Farmington, New Mexico, and immediately they took us down to the park. It was in the summer time. There were 400 dancers learning to square dance under Ed Gilmore in that park. The price of admission was 25 ¢ a person. And we went down to watch the first time, and my husband, Cliff, said, oh, no, I don’t think I’m going to do that, I can’t tell what that guy’s saying up there, and the, our friends kept saying, you’re going to learn step by step. You just get in a new beginners class, and they teach you right from the start. So, our beginner classes at that time were 10 weeks. We had 10 basics to learn. And so we had one new basic to learn each night.
BB: So what year did you say this was?
OM: This was in ’49.
BB: ’49, okay.
OM: And so we went down, and my husband said, well, I’ll try it, but what if I don’t like it? And I said, try it 3 weeks. If you really don’t like it, I won’t insist. Well, come the fourth week, and I said, are we going square dancing? And he said, yes, he said, I want to see what comes next. Of course, he didn’t realize what that little phrase was going to mean to him the rest of his life. Because we got into to it, and, of course, I’ve always loved music. My family was very musical, and I loved the dancing, I loved the challenge of learning and then not knowing what was coming next. It was really, and I still say this, square dancing is a challenge game to music. And it exercises your mind and your body both. But we had such a wonderful time, learning and after two series of lessons, I decided that I would like to learn to call. And so at that time, Ed Gilmore had to go to Riverside to teach, and because there were not too many callers at that time, and we had another caller come in to teach us and to call for us. So I went up and asked him if he would tell me just how I went about getting material and records, and he said, oh, your husband wants to learn to call? And I said, no, I want to learn to call. And he said, what? A girl caller? I don’t know about that. And I said, well, I want to try. And he said, okay, but I’m not going to be easy on you. I’m going to tell you every time you make a mistake. So, fine, that’s fine. And he was an excellent teacher, he really was a very good teacher. He no longer, he hasn’t called for years and years, and he was only, you know, only called locally. So that’s how I got started. And after calling in Red Lands for about 5 years, I, we started a club, I started a class first, and then we started a club, and we called it Who Goofed Squares. And then I also was hired to do a club in Coalton, and it was called Circle City Squares, and then, of course, it was a novelty really for people to, to have a lady calling. At that time, because there were not very many lady callers, very, very few. I think two, three in this area, and then two or three up in the northern area, Northern California. So I called and taught Who Goofed classes for 30 years. But in the meantime, after about 5 years of calling, the caller in Palm Springs had to retire because of throat trouble. And his name, Walt Baughman. I don’t know whether you remember him or not.
BB: No, I don’t.
OM: But, a really wonderful person, and a very nice, and he wanted me to come down and see the recreation director, and see about teaching down here. Well, that’s 50 miles Red Lands to Palm Springs. And, I came down, and the man interviewed me, and he said, well, yes, he’d hire me. So I started teaching class in Palm Springs, and by that time, the classes were 15 weeks long. And he wanted me to start a class every, he wanted me to let new people come in every night because this was a recreation area. And after the first season, the season is October through June, generally, and after that first season, I went to him and said, I need to close my class after 3 weeks because you’re just doing like 1-night parties every week. The people are not progressing. And, oh, we can’t do that, he said. We’ve got people coming in all the time. And I said, we advertise that it will work. So, he said, well, we’ll try. We started out and we had for years, we had any where from 15 squares. My largest class was 18 squares. And, but we’d have any where from 12 to 15 squares every year. They’d, people would come in early so they could get here by that last entrance week. And we, after several years, we started our own club which we called Circle 0 Squares, and that means both round and square dances. And, of course, it has the first name of the first letter of my name.
BB: There you go.
OM: And the city has absolutely been wonderful to me, and, of course, in return, I’ve been good to them too, because I’ve taken much advertisement all over the world where I’ve gone to call and put it out so people would come to Palm Springs. We run a class here, Then I had to give up Who Goofed after a while, because I started calling and teaching a new class in Palm Desert which I taught for 15 years, and called for them. I was the sole caller for Circle O’s for many years, Every Saturday night. And we would have big bus loads coming in all, just all during the season, And, of course, that was an advantage for me because many of these people that come to Palm Springs are from other states. So consequently, I was hired in the summer time, I could make my loop through Oregon, Washington, and Canada, and every year for 36 years, we did this loop, and I called on Pennticktin largest outdoor square dance. It is the largest Canadian outdoor square dance. And I was the first lady caller ever to Emcee up there. They were not geared for lady callers either, and it was quite a surprise to them. Then, I would do a lot of different dances in Vancouver and, in Vancouver when I was hired one November, the people met me at the plane, and said, Osa, we have to make an apology. We put out tickets for 400 dancers. We have a large hall, and we’ve sold them all. But our tickets, we hope you won’t be mad. And I said, let me see the ticket, and the ticket said featuring Palm Springs’ Call Girl, Osa Matthews. Instead of saying square dance caller, they said, call girl. So, of course, Bob Van Antwerp tagged that little line off to me forever. But it’s just been fun for everyone. I belong to Southern California Callers Association, and I belong to Orange County Callers Association, which was 25 callers invited. We didn’t have any more than that Uh and I was on the board at Southern California Callers, and I was president of Orange County Callers, and I belong to Cal County Callers Association, and have been president of that club three times. And I can honestly say that the fellas, the callers, the men callers, have treated me absolutely wonderful.
BB: Well that’s great
OM: They have, I’ve never, ever been left off a program for any reason, or I always felt that if I was a caller, it was up to me to take whatever spot on the festivals that was given to me. Just because I was a woman, I didn’t think that I should have the top spot for the evening. So that was one thing that some of the callers said, you know, they always had such respect because wherever I was booked, I was there, and I did the best I could. And I’ve worked for the city for 42 years, actually a little longer because we didn’t, you know, count the ones when I was just in and out. I’ve worked for every trailer mobile home park in this town. And I’ve called in, we took groups to Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti and Fiji, to Spain. We got to see the Rock of
OM: Gibraltar. And we got to go to Kazba. We went to Japan and a part of China. We’ve gone to Alaska four times on the ship, to Mexico, through the Caribbean six times, to Hawaii 14 times. So, we had a chance to, and all those places we called and all those places we left material about Palm Springs.
BB: There you go. Well, that’s great.
OM: And I still love to square dance. I really do. I enjoy dancing and, when I can, and I still enjoy calling. I don’t teach any more classes. Cliff’s health is not the greatest so, that means a commitment every week, you know, and everything, so. But I do still call on festivals and do 1 night parties and still belong to the callers associations, still belong to Callerlab which is the greatest thing that callers ever had. If they would just realize and know what went before, they would appreciate that organization. The newer callers need to know the history of that organization.
BB: Well, that’s part of the reason for this series. We call it an oral history project. So, now let’s go back a little ways. I know that you were instrumental in working at the first National Square Dance Convention.
BB: Tell us a little bit about that.
OM: That was so exciting. We were having a callers’ meeting, and Ed Gilmore and Andersons, Carl and Varene Anderson, and Walt Baughman, he was the caller at that time for Carl and Varene’s club. And they came into the Callers Association, and they said, we have a great idea. And we hope that you will back us with that idea. We want to have a national convention. Now Bob Osgood had also, he had his magazine going at that time, and he had agreed to advertise it, and, of course, every caller in the place was excited as could be. And it took a lot of work. They did a lot leg work. And we did a lot of preparation for it, decorating, sweeping floors, putting up equipment and taking it down, all that sort of thing. We had Riverside police would go to an intersection and stop all traffic, and we had a PA that ran on a battery, and our caller and a square, and we went to that intersection and danced for, they would allow us to dance for 4 minutes. And then we had to go to the next one, you know, so they didn’t tie up traffic.
OM: And that was so exciting. And we had a very successful first national.
B: I understand there’s about 5,000 people.
OM: Yes, yes. And now the National Convention is big business. They bid for it a number of years ahead. And Anaheim has it in 2001.
BB: Right Yeah, that’ll be another biggie.
OM: That’s 50 years.
BB: Right. That’s 5 years away because l just attended the 45th in San Antonio.
BB: That’s where I got some of my first interviews. But, I know it’s difficult for a lady caller to find records that fit her range. Was that ever a problem with you, like singing calls.
OM: Yes. At first it wasn’t because for 15 years, I had live music. And I could do it, you know, in any, I could set the key I wanted. But then I had to start being very picky because I have many records in a box that are brand new that I thought I would be able to do and found that it was not in my key. The right key. But mostly Windsor, Bob Van Antwerp’s records, Ed Gilmore records, were all very good. It was very good music. And I, it was the right keys for me.
BB: Oh, that’s great
OM: And I think the nicest compliment I ever got was Bob Van Antwerp said, Osa, all I can say is you just sound like a man caller.
BB: Well, I know you have a strong voice. Did you ever do any recording?
OM: Just for Bob Osgood on his
BB: Sets in Order.
OM: Sets in Order long play. And he did ask me, Bob was very sweet, he did ask me to come to Hollywood and record. Somehow, I don’t know why, but I never thought I would sound very great on a record. I just thought, no, I don’t think so. So, l just didn’t do it. I’ve got some tapes that sound pretty good now, but that was one of my setbacks. Cliff has often said, Osa I wish you had gone and done that, but I just didn’t.
BB: Well, looking back, we often wish that
OM: That we’d
BB: We’d done some other things.
BB: I know when I was on the Arthur Godfrey Show, I kicked myself for years that I didn’t ask him to call a square dance, but, be that as it may. In your programs, you mentioned that your club that you’ve been with for so long does squares and rounds. Did you teach rounds yourself?
OM: Yes. For a long time I taught rounds also. And then, as they added more basics and more basics to our square dance program, and then Callerlab set up Mainstream and Plus, and Al and 2, you know. And it takes time to learn those things and to do them well, I decided that, and the cuers were beginning to come in. You used to teach a dance, and play it, and never cue a round. But, there are, just like our square dance activity, there are lots of rounds. They do an easy level, and you know, and a high level, and so on and so forth. And, I just couldn’t do all of them well. I didn’t feel that I could do them all well, so I made my choice.
BB: Right. But originally in your classes you taught round dances.
OM: I taught round dancing also.
BB: In the square dance classes.
OM: Oh, yes.
BB: Yes, right. The same as I did. Osa, your square dance club today, what’s the program like? Is it now two rounds between squares, or one, or.
OM: It’s two rounds between squares.
OM: But just lately, this last year and a half, I would say, they have been putting a round and a line dance.
BB: Yeah. That seems to be the trend in a lot of places. They’re trying to interest people in line dancing and some country western, but mostly line. So, well that’s interesting.
OM: And you know, I held a 3-day festival in March., the first of March. And my idea for a festival was that I wanted to do it for my club. And I didn’t want them to have to do any work. They volunteered to decorate the stage, but we had the local callers, myself and the callers that are around the area on Friday night. And on Saturday night, we had an out-of-state featured caller. And on Sunday, we’d generally have an out-of-state or someone that would be quite a long ways off. So that our people would be able to dance to different ones. And in the 36 years that I had that, I never had a failure, not one. We made money for the city, made money for us. It’s really a good thing.
BB: Right. Now, one other thing, a matter of interest to me, personally, is contra dancing. Have you ever gotten into contra dancing?
OM: I like contra dancing. I have never done it. It’s a precision type of calling, and it’s beautiful. And I think that it really is an addition if you could do a contra or two at a club dance. I did invite several top contra callers to come in and call and asked them to do that. And the dancers enjoyed it very much. I think that again, that’s a very precision type of calling. Very, you know,
BB: Yeah, I know.
OM: Time wise. And I just didn’t pursue it.
BB: Well, you certainly have been busy doing other things, and I can see why you wouldn’t necessarily get into that, but now then, one thing occurred to me as we’re chatting here. You’re talking about your season from October to June. What happens from June to October in Palm Springs?
OM: Well, for a while, we held a summer dance on Thursday night, changing from Saturday to Thursday. And we would have anywhere from three to five squares, just, you know. But, and we thought that was a, we thought that was just an awful small crowd. Now, we don’t think it’s a small crowd. Square dancing is not as big as it was.
I think it will build up again. I think it’s, it went through a cycle. And I really feel that’s going to build up again. But we did that, and then I started touring, making my loop from Oregon, Washington, and Canada, and down Utah; Boise, Idaho; and then Utah and Arizona, and New Mexico and back home, you know. And so that took up the whole summer. And people sort of said they’d just like to take the summer off because it’s so hot here. I mean it’s so different, than other places.
BB: Yeah. Even in an air conditioned hall, you’re still, it still gets warm when you’re dancing.
QM: And when we danced every Saturday night, they didn’t have a chance to go visit other clubs. And this is the time it gave them to go visit other clubs in the summer time.
BB: Yeah. Well what this town is obviously, what do you call it, a snow bunny town.
OM: Yes, very much so.
BB: Many people come from farther north probably and to enjoy the winter here. So I know my brother had a problem of the snow bunnies coming in. They came in about October, and they’d start to leave just as things were really getting to rock and roll, and so, and every year he’s kind of starting over again, many times with a new group.
BB: But okay.
OM: I would send my people, I had a big book that Callerlab provides with the states if they were going back to their own state, and they were in class, I would look up the name of the callers in that area where they lived.
BB: Good, yes.
OM: And I would give them the name and the telephone number, and tell them, you know, to call these people and I would tell them where they were, in the, in the lesson, program. And many of them went back to their homes, and
BB: Filtered in.
OM: Finished. You know or learned so that when they came back the following season, they weren’t behind really, especially the Canadians. We had many, many Canadians, and they’re just really wonderful people, really enjoyed them.
BB: Yeah, I found a number of Canadian people in Arizona, too.
OM: Oh, yes
BB: I don’t find them so much in New Mexico. But I guess, once you’re in Albuquerque, I guess the temptation to go on a little farther and get into Phoenix and, but; Now the big thing. But before we do that, let me ask you, this is also a golfing town. It’s well known on the golf circuit, right?
OM: Yes, it is.
BB: I know I always hear about the Palm Springs Golf Tournaments, and like that. And they say when you putt the putt, the grass always grow towards Indio. You’re not a golfer, is that right?
OM: No. We’ve never become golfers. We were just too busy in the square dance program. And my husband had a rug and furniture cleaning business, Palm Springs Rug and Furniture Cleaning, and by the time he finished that in the day and helped me until II o’clock at night, that was as far as he could manage. (?) is an avid golfer, and he and his wife were going to be thoroughly involved with the national in Anaheim. They had charge of the style show. She’s already working on it.
BB: Oh, yeah, that’s a big job. Well, I want to get your crowing achievement. You were, had many, many experiences and recognition along the line from the town. You said two or three times you received an award of
OM: An Osa Matthews Day.
BB: Oh, an Osa Matthews Day, there you go. And, I’m looking at the front page of the, or the inside front page of a full page about your experiences and so forth with the local paper. And, now tell us about your involvement with Callerlab. When did you start with that and,
OM: Well, Bob Osgood and Bob Van Antwerp both wrote an invitation to me to come to Callerlab. That it was the first meeting of the Callerlab, and it would be organized, and they were, it was invitational. They were sending the invitations out to the callers to, a good number of callers, and they would like to have me come. So, it was so exciting.
Oh, yes, I wanted to go, and I did. And, I got there, Cliff was not able to go, I got there and I found that I was the only woman caller there. All the rest of them were, well, their wives were with them, you know. But I was the only caller, lady caller there. And of course, probably not the only lady caller invited, but the only one that showed up.
BB: Yeah, I’m not sure about that. I think maybe you were.
OM: I might have been. And it was such an inspiring thing. I knew that, I think the one thing I can remember so vividly is Flippo and Frank Lane were discussing, Frank definitely discussing the change that Callerlab wanted to make of Snapparoo. They wanted to standardize it as Star Thru. Frank did not want to give up his Snapparoo, and
BB: Which he stole from Red Warrick.
OM: He went on and on, and it was so funny, because they were at the head table, and they were, and Flippo said, if I give up Do Paso and Do Si Do, if I do both of those, how about your changing to Star Thru. Frank says, I’ll do it. And it was so funny, it was so funny. They were, there were many discussions, were in many discussion sessions. When I first started, for a number of years, unless you went to the caller that you were going to dance to his programs, you couldn’t just go visit as a club because he called something different than you would be calling, using different things, and different basics. And that’s when they decided that they would standardize the basics. Because travel was really prevailing then, you know. They were beginning to travel all over. And that was the best thing in the world because now people can dance all over the world because it’s standardized.
BB: Yeah. In any of these trips that you’ve made, have you ever run into a non-English speaking square dancers, like Japan.
OM: But that doesn’t stop them, they dance beautifully to English. They may not speak to you in English, hut they sure dance beautiful.
BB: Yeah. I know Jon Jones was saying that you had to call by the book too.
BB: Pass Thru, you couldn’t say turn around. You had to say You Turn Back.
OM: Absolutely. And you know, if callers today would use that clear explanatory direction, our dancers would not be so confused. They would be able to follow much easier. That’s my opinion.
BB: Yeah, right, getting back to Callerlab. You probably attended quite a few in a row.
OM: I’ve attended many Calleriabs, yes.
BB: And tell us about the Milestone Award, when was this?
OM: This year, Cliff and I had gone to bed, and it was 10 0′ clock at night Now our Callerlab, our Callers Association always raises enough money to send our president of our Callers Association to Callerlab. And so that’s just a standard thing. So I got a call from our president of our association, and he said, Osa, I’ve got to ask you to do me a favor. Would you go to Callerlab in place of me this year. And I said, why, Gene, why me? I mean there’s, I’m kind of retired. There’s a lot off fellas out there really working in this, you know, every night and everything. And, no, he said, we’ve all agreed that we’d like to send you. You know all the Board and all that stuff, and we, we just like to send you to represent us. Well, my goodness. So Cliff said, by all means go. But he says, I you know, I won’t go because I’m a home boy. And so, a little later, the president of our club called and said, Osa, Cliffs going with you? And I said, no, he’s not going. And he said, yes he is, because we’ve got the ticket for him, too. Well, unbeknownst to me, the Callers Association, the Dancers Association, and several of our really close friends, had made up, had bought these tickets, and paid for the whole thing. The whole bit. And because they knew, they had been told that this was going to be presented to me. So, when I got there, I had no idea that this was going to be. They don’t always give a Milestone every single year you know. They give awards of excellence, and I’d gotten that several years ago. And I figured that was going to be my biggie. And at the table, they, I, at the Board of Governors table, they called Bob Osgood up. And they said, this year we’re going to present a Milestone Award. And he started speaking, and he got to the point where he said, and she, and when he said she, I thought it was Gloria Rios Roth that would be getting it. You know, because she’s done a lot. And he said, and she was the first Emcee Penntickton on their big festival. And I turned to Cliff, and that’s has to be me. And that was me.
BB: Well, there you go.
OM: It was so exciting.
BB: Right. Well, it’s a singular honor, that’s for sure.
OM: Oh. But every person that has won the Milestone Award has deserved it 100%. The Board of Governors are very thorough, I think, in investigating, and discussing, and those men have, have been outstanding leaders. Every one of them. I’ve been so proud of every one of them that’s received it.
BB: So. Well, it looks like we’re beginning to wind down a little bit, Osa. And most of the other interviewees I’ve asked for their general overview, where do you think we’ve been, where are we now even though you’re not all that active now, and where do you think square dancing may be going.
OM: Well, I think we’ve been in some of the greatest parts of square dancing that probably will ever be, because it was, it was absolutely tremendous all over, all over. And I think that there’s a question now that clubs have taken over instead of callers to run the dances, and there are two sides to that, there’s good sides and bad sides. Caller run dances, they had a chance to know their people, to care about their people, to, to know who were the weak dancers and who were the strong dancers, and to, it was just such a friendly happy, part of the activity. Now the callers are excellent. The new callers that I’ve heard, almost all of them have been very good, they’ve been very interested in doing good choreography, and in being interested in calling good material, you know. But these callers are hired this club this night, that club the next night, that club the next night, and they, they call their dance, but they, I think that they haven’t had the opportunity of the closeness that we had when we first started. Now, I, they may not feel that way because they haven’t had that opportunity. And I think caller run dances truly are more successful than club run dances. And I’ve had both.
BB: Well, where do you feel the activity is going as far, do you think we, as some callers are saying, they’re going down the tubes, or
OM: No, I think callers are, that are in it now are very dedicated, and I think they’re going to work hard at bringing it to the public’s attention. You know, when we first started, we had, we didn’t have television with movies on it. We could go out and buy the movie and bring it in and watch it, and all of these things that keep people in front of the television nowadays, we have to work harder to advertise, and advertisement is expensive And Callerlab is trying very hard to put out a national advertisement on square dancing. You’ll notice that line dancing is advertised every day on television, and it (?). The thing is, you have to get it before the public all the time. And it’s a family activity.
BB: Yeah. That’s the thing that, you know, it has been over the years, and I think, doing a little bit less and less family oriented where the kids actually dance with the parents, but, well, it’s certainly been a very, very interesting conversation, Osa. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me for a few minutes, and we’re, I think I’ll ease on down the road as they say. I want to get back to Banning and try to get a hold of Lee Helsel. So, thank you so very much for.
OM: It’s been an honor to have you here.
BB: Well, thank you very much.
OM: And to ask us to be a part of this.
BB: Good. I appreciate that