In the age of Facebook, Instagram, and, for the brave, Tik Tok, it might be difficult to remember an age where the majority of our social lives took place at theaters, event halls, schoolyards, or houses of worship. Some of us young fellers never had a chance to live in such a magical world, where in-person interaction was expected, and not irregular (gasp!).
The rise of internet media as the central space of human social life led to many casualties. As networking applications such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat grew in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, the need for news media, event venues, theaters, and other information outlets and convening spaces declined. It’s worth remembering an example of what we lost.
On June 18, 1927, the California Ball Room opened at 520 East California Street – the historic McKeegan Building. The proprietors of the venue, Gus Campbell and Polly Watson, had purchased the 520 E. Weber venue from the Martha Washington Grocery Store Chain. The stage and decor were constructed by local contractor F.T. Black.
The ballroom occupied the second floor of the building and was at the time the largest open-floor event hall in California’s Central Valley. When it opened on Saturday, June 18 1927, the city arrived in force. The Stockton Daily Independent and The Stockton Daily Evening Record – the city’s two competing newspapers, took out whole pages of ads supporting the opening of the site. Amongst the advertisers were Victory Soda Works – a notorious booze operation that was the site of many a prohibition bust, as well as the Dinobilo Brothers Orangeade Company, also famous for being the victim of numerous prohibition raids.
The venue was an immediate success, with co-owner Polly Watson providing a jazz ensemble band straight out of the roaring twenties. Polly’s fifteen man ensemble had become celebrities in the town’s robust nightclub scene throughout 1926 and 1927, and was notable in local circles for being the region’s first integrated, multi-ethnic band. Newspaper reports show that by the time the California Ball Room opened, Polly Watson’s Orchestra had played in every major city of Northern California, and had traveled as far afield as Los Angeles and Portland.
With Watson at the helm, and Gus Campbell managing the recruitment, the ballroom was a financial success. The second-floor venue rechristened itself with new owners in 1929 as the Dreamland Hall, which remained a major venue through the 1930s, still featuring Polly Watson as the bandleader. The Dreamland’s slogan was “fast, snappy, modern.” By 1940 the hall was rechristened yet another time as the Treanan Ballroom, which operated as a rental hall into the 1960s.
The building that housed the California Ball Room still exists. The McKeegan Building was updated by the CalWeber Development companies, and is now owned by 3 Leaf Holdings, a local development firm. The old ballroom and dance hall have been converted into apartments, and the modern facade erased the historic neoclassical storefront. While the dance hall is no more, those yearning for a taste of what life was like prior to the internet can always watch a show at the Bob Hope Theater, attend a performance at the Stockton Civic, or enjoy a night with friends on the Miracle Mile. History often provides us with inspiration, and those of who look to the past will always root for renaissance in the local nightlife scene.