Lind: Crystal Ballroom owner’s daughter recalls Duke Ellington’s trip to Fargo
Would there be anyone still around, Neighbors asked in a column about the appearance of Duke Ellington and his band at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo in 1940, who was there that night?
Yes, indeed. Sheila Schafer was.
She had a special connection to the event, too. She was the daughter of R.E. “Doc” Chinn, who owned the Crystal.
Sheila, 15 at the time, later would become the wife of Harold Schafer, founder of the Gold Seal Wax Co. and the developer of Medora, N.D., into a tourist attraction.
Sheila, 89, now divides her time between Bismarck and Medora.
After seeing the column about Ellington, she wrote in about her dad and the Crystal, noting, too, that she owns a recording of Ellington’s Fargo program.
She was born in 1925 in Bismarck. When she was about 3, her parents moved to Fargo where her father soon bought the building at 13 S. Broadway, which he turned into the Crystal Ballroom.
“There was no city auditorium at that time,” she says, “so the Crystal was used for conventions, dances, circuses, etc. We always had the youth center dances there, too.”
Doc had a partner, Johnny Saul, for a short time.
The ballroom’s prime feature was the crystal ball suspended from the ceiling. Doc made it, Sheila says, “gluing small glass pieces on a large globe night after night in our kitchen. It rotated when lit and made colored ball-shaped lights all over the building.”
She says that the three oldest of Doc’s five daughters, of whom she was one, would go with their dad to the ballroom after church Sunday, and while he swept up after whatever the Saturday night event had been, the girls would turn on the crystal ball and chase the moving lights.
Sheila believes the ball ended up in Glenwood, Minn., after the ballroom was torn down in 1962.
Big bands, big names
“I was lucky to be a teenager during those times” when the big bands and the name performers played at the Crystal, Sheila says.
She well remembers the Ellington appearance plus such other bands as those of Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey. And Louis Armstrong, which brings up another story.
Those were the days when racial segregation was in effect and black people were not allowed to stay in hotels. So, Armstrong and other black members of his band slept on cots Doc set up in the ballroom.
But Doc didn’t have a trace of racial prejudice in his system; “Louis actually came for dinner at our house,” Sheila says, adding, though, that, “My mom had no idea who he was.”
Sheila says her father had his own band, called the Fargo Red Jackets. One time, she says, North Dakota’s own Peggy Lee sang with the Red Jackets at the Crystal.
Doc, who lived in Moorhead, died in 1968 at age 73.
But his daughter will never forget his ballroom, the performers who played there and the big crystal ball he pieced together in the family’s kitchen.
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