Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program we explore the history of Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo, Maryland.
On a warm autumn day, men and women of all ages are gathered in the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park near Washington, D.C. Some are dressed like professional dancers. Others are in blue jeans. A few have taken off their shoes.
Social dancing is a favorite activity at the park. As the LaSalle Dance Orchestra plays, dancers turn and swing their partners. Some people look as if they have been dancing forever. Others are learners. A few look a little uneasy.
Men make a bridge with their arms and their partners step underneath. Some women have on wide skirts that make a swooshing sound as they pass under the bridge. Colors fade and mix as the beat goes on.
Most of the people brought a partner -- their husband or wife or a friend. A woman is dancing with her young daughter. The woman is beautiful and wears a floor-length dress and long white gloves. The little girl also wears a floor-length dress. She is smiling and laughing. Once or twice the child sits down on the dance floor.
A man steps away from the dance floor to take a break for a few minutes. He explains that he always comes to dance at Glen Echo. But he says he will never compete on any of those dancing shows that have become popular on American television.
Beginners in Spanish Ballroom can get help. There are teachers who give lessons. And there are people known as "dance buddies." These are volunteers who can help newcomers keep in step.
Dance bands at Glen Echo play foxtrot, waltzes and tangos.
There is also square dancing and contra dancing. These are group dances that involve changing partners. And bands often play zydeco, Cajun, rock and roll and salsa.
This New Year’s Eve, twenty-five dollars will buy a lesson, a night of swing dancing and light refreshments. George Gee and the Jump, Jivin’ Wailers will perform.
The Spanish Ballroom has been restored. But with a little imagination, you can still hear the famous musicians who performed long ago. Bandleaders like Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Bill Haley and His Comets appeared during the early days of rock 'n' roll.
Dance bands at Glen Echo also play in the Bumper Car Pavilion. This was where drivers crashed little cars into each other during Glen Echo’s amusement park days.
Today the arts are a driving force at Glen Echo Park. Visitors can paint, make pottery or improve their photography. Families enjoy children’s plays at the Adventure Theatre and the Puppet Company. There are also seasonal festivals like "Fall Frolic." This day of crafts, theater performances, Halloween activities and dance is set for October twenty-seventh.
Glen Echo Park sits on about four hectares of land along the Potomac River. Each year a half-million people come to the park for events and programs. But some visitors just like to sit in the sun and feed the squirrels.
Two wealthy brothers, Edward and Edwin Baltzley, provided the land for Glen Echo in the nineteenth century. They wanted it to be an education center called a Chautauqua.
Chautauqua was a popular movement in the United States at the time. It gave working people in crowded cities a chance to learn and to experience nature.
The Glen Echo Chautauqua opened in eighteen ninety-one. There were classes in languages, science and other subjects.
A year later, Glen Echo became a home for traveling shows. Then it grew into a small amusement park, and later a bigger amusement park. But not all of its history was fun and games.
For years the park did not admit black people. In nineteen sixty, civil rights activists demonstrated at the park. The next year, Glen Echo opened to everyone.
Five years later, in nineteen sixty-six, there was violence at the park on the day after Easter. Some people called it a race riot.
Whatever it was, it did nothing to help a little park that had been losing popularity anyway. In nineteen sixty-eight, the park closed. Many rides and attractions were sold or destroyed.
The federal government became the owner of the Glen Echo land in nineteen seventy. The government along with neighbors of the park wanted to limit development near the Potomac River.
The National Park Service now operates Glen Echo in cooperation with a group called the Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture. The park is in Montgomery County, Maryland. The county created the nonprofit group.
The partnership manages Glen Echo’s programs, fund raising and marketing. The National Park Service takes care of historical presentation, safety, security, resource protection and grounds keeping.
A good way to picture the early days of Glen Echo is to walk around its historic area. The Spanish Ballroom and the Bumper Car Pavilion are part of that area. But there is also the Yellow Barn, now a center for artists.
The Picnic Grove is a popular place for outdoor meals. The Arcade now houses photography projects, art exhibits and theaters instead of games.
And there is the historic Clara Barton House. Clara Barton was the nurse who established the American Red Cross.
The Crystal Pool at Glen Echo Park was big enough to hold three thousand people. Now, instead of water and swimmers, the pool is filled with dirt. Weeds and some wildflowers grow out of the top.
A tall woman wearing sunglasses remembers that as a small child, she would always ask her mother to let her swim in the pool. But that was at a time when many children were getting sick from polio. Doctors were advising parents to keep their children away from crowds. So her mother always said no.
Organ music leads visitors to the Dentzel Carousel. Neighbors of Glen Echo Park worked hard to keep it after the park closed. People called it the jewel of the park. A Glen Echo town councilwoman named Nancy Long led a successful drive to buy it back.
Supporters organized to restore the carousel. That project took many years and a lot of money. Now it operates on weekends from May through September.
On an early fall day, the line for this merry-go-round is not too long. Most of the people waiting are little children. But older riders are excited too. The ticket-taker smiles and says not to worry. She says carousels were really created for adults.
There are four ostriches on the carousel. The birds are finely carved and painted. They share the merry-go-round with horses, rabbits, a giraffe, a deer, a lion and a tiger.
The ostriches go up and down as the carousel turns. A few horses away, another adult is riding a rabbit. On a carousel, grabbing the brass ring as you pass it is supposed to win you a prize and a happy future. The man on the rabbit tries to pull the small brass ring but he cannot reach it.
You also try. No one can reach it. It is there only for show. But then, you think maybe the visit to Glen Echo Park is the real brass ring.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. You can learn more about Glen Echo Park by clicking on a link at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.