Red Bates – Nov. 16, 1996
Bob Brundage – Well here we are again. This is Bob Brundage. The date is the 11th of … I’m sorry, 11th month, November 16, 1996 and today we are talking with two gentlemen in Mystic, Connecticut. These gentlemen are having a very successful square dance weekend – I hear you have 20 squares – and we are talking with Red Bates and Cliff Brodeur. We’re going to start with Red and try to find out a little bit about his past history and what he has been doing lately and so forth. So Red tell us where were you born and brought up and how did you get into square dancing and that type of thing.
Red Bates – Sure. Well, born in Connecticut, Waterbury Connecticut actually …
BB – OK.
RB – … 1928. It seems like a long time ago and moved around New England quite a bit and finally landed in the Springfield area where I started in the square dance business. First of all we just kinda danced with the local guys like Corky Caulkins, Phil Green, Al Brundage.
BB – OK. Al who?
RB – Right. You know, the fun time, Saturday night out, or whatever. Then I got kind of interested in the calling part of it so I started to fool around a little bit. At that time I played a guitar and banjo and some other instruments …
BB – Mandolin.
RB – … Mandolin, yup. So we all got us a little band and did a few things around the area. I remember one time calling with Bob Brundage. Bob did the calling, and we did the music.
BB – That was at the University of Connecticut.
RB – Connecticut U, yeah, that’s right. Then I went to Springfield College and in Springfield College we really got started into the calling bit so, it was part of the physical education program. I was a Phys Ed … so, I took the course in calling and we organized some square dancing on campus. In those days Springfield College was all men so we imported the ladies from different … well the insurance companies around, the junior college, and so forth … and we had a real good thing going there for quite a few years. At the same time I kept my band going and we did things at local colleges throughout New England and so forth.
BB – Right.
RB – After that I graduated and went to Philadelphia for a few years …
BB – Oh did you?
RB – … yup, and in Philadelphia I worked for the recreation department and one of my … they found out I could do a little calling so they sent me around to all the different recreation centers in Philadelphia organizing square dancing for the kids. That was interesting, working with some of the bands in Philadelphia doing square dancing. I soon found out the best way to do it was to get the leadership and once I got them involved I got the rest of them. So, I spent a couple of years there, not to dwell on that too much, and while I was there I went to a square dance at Mac McKendrick’s barn.
BB – Oh Yeah.
RB – We, at that point, with my wife Shirley at that time, we walked into this sort of unknown and it was a closed dance but we were welcomed and they found out I could call so they let me call a number. I can remember to this day that Mac was calling Allemande Thar, the first time I had been exposed to it. Well, they kept twisting me around – we got through the thing but I thought, boy, this was pretty high level. He explained that this was some of the stuff that was coming out of the west, western, from Pappy Shaw and that kind of thing so this sparked my interest. From there we went back to the Springfield area and that was when I really began to get into the so-called Western Movement and, whenever possible, I attended dances. I remember Bob especially calling in Wilbraham. He had a very successful club there.
BB – Right.
RB – I remember Bob calling to up to 25 or 30 squares or more without any problem. Then I got a few records and started using recorded music. My first … first club was in Palmer, Massachusetts, organized from just a few couples who wanted it. They sparked my interest there too because they were very enthusiastic and we got a club started and from then it sort of mushroomed. Bob, do you remember Willie Jenkins?
BB – Sure, I remember him really well.
RB – Well, Willie was teaching rounds in several parts of Massachusetts -Palmer, Wilbraham and several other places. He did a lot … started a lot of clubs in the area and I kinda got to know him and he got me started in some other groups in the area and so I was hooked. And that’s really how I got into that whole thing Bob.
BB – OK
RB – The story from then on has been just a long …. series of years of calling and late nights and festivals …
BB – (laughs) Long distances.
RB – … long distances, the whole … the whole works. Mostly my calling was the east coast. I did make a few trips out West and so forth.
BB – OK
RB – I enjoy it to this day.
BB – Have you had an experience overseas, like on the continent?
RB – Yeah. I took a trip to England, did a festival there with Paul Bristow, who is a very popular English caller. We had a marvelous time. We called in England a little bit and went to Switzerland and toured through Europe a little bit. That was a nice trip and of course, I have done a lot of calling in Canada. We still make a regular tour up through Toronto, and Ottawa, Montreal and so forth.
BB – Great! So what about any … what kind of big events do you remember? Weekend festivals or have you attended Nationals very much?
RB – Yeah, I’ve done a few Nationals but I don’t go to every National but maybe every five years I try to attend a National. I can remember one … my first National I think it was Cobo Hall and at Detroit …
BB – Yes. Yeah. That was a biggie.
RB – That was huge. I don’t really know the numbers but I was very impressed by that. I was impressed by one thing especially. In the main hall was a huge hall which is concrete and it would hold trucks and everything else and it was very sturdy and Ed Gilmore was calling and there must have been, I don’t know how many, 500 squares maybe? And that entire thing started to rock because he was putting the rhythm that that man had he had the people just all dancing in the whole building. I couldn’t believe it. It started to move. You could feel it and that is one thing that impressed me.
BB – Right. I understand that they estimated 700 squares that night.
RB – 700 that night.
BB – That was really some show. Do you remember the cartoon on Sets In Order magazine, remember Frank Grundeen’s cartoons?
RB – Sure.
BB – A couple of months later he came out and showed a guy standing on a chair at the foot of the hall looking at the stage, and of course they looked like ants, and he’s saying, “I think it’s either Ed Gilmore or Les Gotcher”. (all laugh)
RB – Right, you can’t tell the difference from there.
BB – You can’t tell the difference just in the music, right?
RB – That was … that was a huge gathering.
BB – And you’ve been a member of Callerlab?
RB – Oh yes, a member caller for quite a few years. I couldn’t … I was invited to the very first one. At that time I was working my school job and I couldn’t really get away for those things. A lot of those things I would have liked to have done earlier but … but I did go and I’ve been there maybe 12 years or so at least. I can’t remember exactly. I’ve been on the Executive Committee and I served as Vice Chairman one year and that’s always been a good experience.
BB – Any association with ACA.
RB – No. I’m not associated with ACA and have … have no problem with that. I just think that we need to … all the organizations should work together I guess to promote square dancing. We should all work together on the thing.
BB – Did you come from a musical family Red?
RB – Well, in a way. My father played piano and my father liked to sing a lot. My father was a minister. I remember, you know … I sang in the choir and I would play occasionally in the Christmas programs and that sort of thing. Dad always wanted to … he loved to get people around the piano to sing. That was his big … he had groups over to the house to do that. And while I was … one of the ministries he had was in Calais, Maine. Way up in the trees. We had group of people that were part of the church who also were musicians. I toured with them one summer and I did grange halls and all that doing country music. Had a lot of fun with them.
BB – You were playing guitar?
RB – I was playing mostly stringed instruments. Yeah.
BB – That’s great. Any military service?
RB – Yeah, I spent a couple of years in the 82nd Airborne … at Atlanta. I just escaped the 2nd World War. I came in at the end of it and as I was … while I was in, the war ended so I never did see … get over to Europe and see combat.
BB – Well the 82nd Airborne was certainly an active part of World War II, that’s for sure. What about hobbies?
RB – Hobbies. Hiking, skiing, swimming, mostly outdoor types of things.
BB – Right. Do you play golf with all these guys?
RB – I haven’t picked up golf yet. Since I have been in Florida now for five years I’m busier down here than I ever was. We work in Florida three sessions a day during the season. So I haven’t done any golf.
BB – What part of Florida are you in now?
RB – I’m living in North Port which is just south of Venice and just north of Fort Meyers on the west coast and that area is pretty heavy square dance wise right now.
BB – Right. Do you bump into Don Hanhurst down there?
RB – Oh yeah. Don is a neighbor of mine lives in Venice.
BB – And has his own dance hall?
RB – Yeah, has his own dance hall there.
BB – He is heavily into challenge I think isn’t he?
RB – He is doing some challenge now, yeah. but he does it all. He teaches beginners and he is going right up through.
BB – So I would like to throw you a little curve.
RB – Sure.
BB – So what do you think is the appeal … what do you find appealing about calling square dancing?
RB – What do I find about …. I’ll have to think a little bit. I love the music and I love the association with people. I like to see them smiling, having a good time and also I think … it is one of the best possible recreations for people because it gets them active. It’s outside the house away from the television and they move around. They get some exercise both physically and mentally. I just think it’s the greatest thing and one of my … and I’m sure and I am not alone in this. It’s…. one of the biggest problems today is we can’t seem to encourage the last generation of people to get into it. I know for a fact that once they get into it they’d like it. Somehow, we are not doing something right to encourage them or get them in. I don’t know what it is, but …
BB – A lot of people I’m talking to say that we are not marketing properly and that is probably it. OK. One other question that is a little profound and that I have been asking everybody… where do you think square dancing has been, where do you think it is, and where do you think it is going?
RB –Yeah. Well, I have really kind of lived through the whole western experience. I was involved in the Eastern style dancing a little bit before hand too so I do have some feeling for the whole picture I think. Seems to me that when the Western movement boomed everything was right for it. In those days the majority of women didn’t work. They therefore were home taking care of the house during the daytime and …. when it became evening – we didn’t have a lot of television – they didn’t have a lot of other things to distract them so they wanted to do something. So they would encourage the husband to get out. All callers agree that first you had to drag the guy out then, after you got him out, then he was the one that dragged her out after awhile. You know. In those days … and then those people would tell their friends about this great recreation and then it just spread like wildfire until it seemed to me in those days everybody square danced. If you didn’t, why …. then watching the activity develop through the years … in those days you could take … well I remember, in my first class maybe, I think I taught 7 or 8 lessons and they knew enough so that they could dance. Then it became 10, then 14, then 21 and when it got up so we were teaching 21 lessons and above, then I felt that the class was never quite ready to join the other people. So then we had to have workshops for ‘em to bring them up to the club and that was a problem because you couldn’t integrate people into that … into that club very easily and there was a little split happened there. Some of the other dancers had been dancing a long time and they were very good and they kind of didn’t want to … you know, the new people to come in, so there was some resentment there and so those problems started to develop and they became worse as time went on. Then of course, I guess maybe it’s natural for any activity but … I remember the levels started to pop in. They didn’t call them levels in those days but they had special dances for people who could dance better than others and it was, you know … you had to be invited in. Remember, Activators and Duplicators were two examples that I remember. They were kind of special groups, you know. They would hire traveling callers to come through and you were kind of invited into that group. You didn’t just walk in the door. So that was really the kind of the start of levels and as that progressed it got worse I think. And we started to get challenge groups and then the number of figures these people had to learn became astronomical so that they … it became a hobby. They didn’t spend one day a week at it, they spent several days and they studied and everything else.
BB – Tape dances.
RB – Tape dances in the cellars and this kind of thing so the whole activity started to change a little bit. There were a lot of dances in those days so it didn’t seem to matter too much. We still had enough clubs who were still functioning well, and well, everybody’s halls were filled and this kind of thing and everything was kind of booming. Then, maybe that went on … I don’t know, 20 years or so, it’s hard to remember exactly when the decline started but there was a time … when you suddenly couldn’t get the classes, not as many, the classes dropped off. Where you used to have…. I can remember like 12 squares in a class, not unusual. I can remember clubs having 25 squares in a class and of course needing all these new people. I can remember the armory in Westfield when we had our Beginners Ball. The armory probably would hold 80 or 90 squares and it was filled with new people.
BB – Who initiated that?
RB – I don’t know.
BB – I did.
RB – Did you do that? OK.
BB – The Inter-class Ball.
RB – The Inter-class Ball. I never knew who started that.
BB – OK.
RB – But, anyway that was their first big outside dance they went to.
BB – And it was big.
RB – And it was big. In those days…. so everything was flourishing and this was true everywhere, not just where we are, it was true in other places too. But then … something changed. I wrote a … once wrote a little article and it was republished a couple of times. I call it, “The Lost Generation” and I really felt that was true – that there was a generation of people that came in there that never picked up the ball … for the most part. We lost that whole group to people to square dancing. They did other things evidently and there were other factors that entered into that, other social factors I think. Women started to work. Both people working, therefore they weren’t interested in going out in the evening so what you do, you buy a tape and sit down and watch a movie at home. So I think that was when we started to drop and, of course, at first we had enough people so it didn’t show up too much but as time went on and we didn’t have our classes and the attrition at the other end happened … you could see the numbers drop.
So, around the Springfield area when we were calling … Cliff do you remember that too? … when Cliff Brodeur was a young fellow in those days but his father did a lot of promoting of square dances. He remembers the big problem of traveling callers coming through, the hall filled so you went on a Saturday night and if you didn’t get there in time you didn’t get in a lot of places. But that all changed. So now we have been kind of battling that for maybe … I don’t know, 15 years…. something like that. There has been a steady decline. Unfortunately, if we face up to the facts, we are not getting classes now that I see in any big numbers. People have 3 squares in there class now they think they have a good class where back in the old days they would say,” Well, we won’t bother with this one because there aren’t enough people”. But the activity is still good for those that are in it. It’s just that we aren’t feeding it. I know Callerlab has been on this thing for years and we have the best minds in the country, as far as square dancing goes, have been trying to figure out how to do something about it and nobody has been able to come up with the answer. They’ve come up with a number of things we’ve tried but I haven’t seen anything that’s really working. That’s kind of my assessment of what has happened.
I don’t …. I’m not … you know, a lot of people have blamed the levels … and I’m not sure that was something that wouldn’t have happened anyway. It seems to be a natural thing that happens with an activity. You look at other activities people do have levels in it like tennis for instance. You climb the ladder in tennis. You’ve got your top players and your lower … so I’m not sure …. I think that it’s a phenomenon that happened and it could have contributed in some way to taking people away from a lower level. I think it did skim off some of the better, quote ‘better‘, dancers from the plus level and now they are doing A. A good example of what has happened today … we have this little festival in Bennington now that Cliff and I run. Last year we had 60 squares. There were 15 squares of Challenge, C1 dancers. There were 22 squares of A2, 11 of A1, 5 squares of plus people registered for that. I talk to other callers today and they say that’s typical of a lot of festivals. The strength is in the people who are dancing. So that’s the picture that I see, you know ….I don’t know. I would like to see it change. I would like to see something … a new group of people come in, a younger group, younger callers.
BB – Well, a lot of people are beginning to think that what we really need is … is an activity where you don’t have to go 40 weeks in order to … to join the club … kind of a thing. And there should be an entry level, if you will, at a lower … at a lower level – excuse the expression – and that there should be programs which appeal to this group of people and is available to them. That’s the biggest problem now. There aren’t any … there aren’t any groups around the country unless you talk about Jerry Helt’s groups in Cincinnati and others around the country like him where people can dance once a month or they can dance once every three months and still be able to go and dance. So, you feel that this has got to be what’s going to be coming some time in the future and if so, don’t you think – I don’t mean to put words in your mouth – but don’t you think we’d never be able to convert our present day dancers into that … that philosophy.
RB – No. No. We can’t. It has got to be a new bunch of dancer and that could happen and I think … I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it did happen. I think that the activity is that good that it is not going to die. I don’t have that kind of a feeling at all. Some people do. They say, “Well, in ten years we won’t have any at all” and I say, “Baloney”.
BB – Yeah.
RB – I think this will be around a lot longer than that.
BB – Right. Well, I’ve had one interview where the caller said, “The last one out turn out the lights”. I kind of hate to hear that but be that as it may. What about line dancing and country western? Do you do any of that?
RB – I’m not doing anything with it. There are guys that do that in Florida a lot but that is practically all they do and they do have … but that activity too had its boom and I think it’s sliding off the other end.
BB – For the same reason. Somebody was just saying that they’re getting too complicated.
Rb – Yeah. Sure. That’s right. They had nice simple lines and then they added … some of those things are tough. I mean you have to memorize those routines, you know. The same with country western, you know. Country western basically is a very simple thing. Most people can learn in an hour and dance … you know, a simple country two step but then they come out on TV with all these real fancy dances … flourishes and all this that the average person can’t do anyway and the people in Florida can’t do it because they can’t raise their arm over their head to do it in the first place.
BB – Right.
RB – So I think that it’s their fate too but I’m not really concerned about that.
BB – OK. Have you … do you personally do anything with round dancing?
RB – Nothing very much, no. In my basic classes I might do some simple rounds just as some variety given the dancing to the music. But no, round dancing has become a specialty. Advanced rounds and so forth are done by … and I don’t teach rounds.
BB – Right. Well this has been a very interesting conversation Red and I appreciate you taking the time and we have a busy weekend scheduled here and you have got to go back to work pretty quick as soon as lunch is over. So, we are going to switch the mic over to your buddy here, Cliff Brodeur and thanks for taking the time Red.
RB – It’s been my pleasure Bob It really has.
BB – It’s been appreciated.
End of interview with Red Bates