Blue Room Memories Didn't Go Up in Smoke

"Blue Room Memories Didn't go up in Smoke." Emmons County Record, 5 September 2000, sec. 4B.

Dozens of townspeople watched the spectacle of The Blue Room burning on Main Street on Saturday, July 29, 2000, from a safe distance across the street, and strangers drove into town off U.S. Highway 83 to find out the source of all the smoke they could see from the highway.

There were tears among many of those present who grew up with The Blue Room, which has been an institution in Strasburg since it was built in about 1906. Several people mentioned that three generations of their family had held their wedding receptions in the historic building where the Bubbling Quintet, Lawrence Welk, John Schwab, Mike Dosch, Ray and The Ravens, Trinity and other musicians performed over the years.

Imogene Schwab choked back tears when she told about her family's receptions there.

Mike and Johanna Schneider noted the nostalgia their family members have for The Blue Room. The Schneiders, two of their children and Johanna's six brothers and sisters all had their wedding parties at The Blue Room.

There are memories of the late accordionist John Schwab playing "The Wedding March" as he and his band would lead a wedding party across Main Street to The Blue Room.

Joe Kraft said Schwab and his band would entertain the older generation at a hall on the north side of the street in the afternoon and then lead the parade to The Blue Room for the evening celebration.

Joe's mother, Frances Kraft, and Lenny (Mrs. John) Schwab, were cooks for countless wedding parties, and years ago wedding parties included two meals. Those were the days when weddings were held on Mondays.

Kraft said he saw his first movie in The Blue Room in the early 1930s when it was owned by Ray Bichler and Matt "Badge" Fischer. He said he watched westerns starring cowboy actors such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

He remembers when Badge pulled a trick on one of the town's authorities on beer. The man claimed to be able to tell the difference between Hamm's Beer and Grain Belt. He was proven wrong when Badge switched the labels on two bottles of brew and served them to the expert. He bragged about the quality of his favorite beer as he sipped from the mislabeled bottle and said, "Now this is a beer!" Then he was told of the prank.

The Blue Room even had blue beverages from time to time. Kraft said he remembers back in the days when liquor laws and their enforcement were less strict when men would add blue food coloring to drinks they mixed at their tables. He said the dye was added to sugar water and then mixed with liquor.

Schwab remembers

Jimmy Schwab, trumpeter in Strasburg's Bubbling Quintet, and his brothers played in The Blue Room so many times over the years that no one kept count.

Jimmy said he got interested in music because of his dad's friend, Lawrence Welk. He remembers in 1938 when he was seven his dad (John) gathered the family around the radio to hear Welk's broadcast from the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pa.

"I sat on the big window ledge in our sod house and listened to the music and decided I wanted to be a musician," he said.

Jimmy's interest was in the "big band" sound, and he followed Guy Lombardo, Freddy Martin, Harry James, Jan Garber and Sammy Kaye and listened to Franklin McCormick's music show on Chicago's WGN. He noted that Lawrence Welk out-lasted all of them.

In 1951, he got to dance to big bands in both of Chicago's famous ballrooms, the Aragon and the Trianon.

Jimmy recalls some of the big touring bands that played The Blue Room. They included, among others, Fats Carlson, Bob Calamy (who wrote "Bubbles in the Wine" with Lawrence Welk) and Jimmy "Dancing Shoes" Palmer.

Some (but certainly not all) of the area groups that played the ballroom, in addition to those mentioned elsewhere, were the Weichel Brothers, Matt Lipp, the Boschee Band, Roy Holzer and Leo Lipp.

Brief history

Gary Keller assisted the Emmons County Record in gathering an overview of The Blue Room's history.

It was built as a pool hall and bowling alley in about 1906 by Ben Schneider. The next owner was Kasper B. Feist, who had it from 1910 until the fall of 1917 when Gregory Bichler bought it. Bichler was the owner until September 1929 when he sold it to his son, Ray Bichler, and Matt Fischer.

Bichler and Fischer enlarged the building in 1933 or 1934 to accommodate a large dance hall which was also used as a movie theater and roller skating rink. The theater seats were on long boards, and they could readily be slid to the side to open up the main floor. The theater operated as the MattRay Theater.

The business was sold to Tony Gabriel and Ignatz Schaeffer in 1940. Gabriel sold out, and Fred Mattern joined Schaeffer in the business until Mattern became sole owner in 1945. Mattern sold the business to his son, Leo, who operated Mattern's Blue Room until March of 1972 when John and Lil Schneider became the owners.

The Schneiders sold to Virgil and Pat Horner in July of 1975, and the Horners ran the business until selling it in January of 1993 to Jim and Lori Carlson. The Carlsons sold to Dave Scherr in July of 1996, and he operated The Blue Room until selling to Schumacher and Backer in June of 1998.

(Editor's note: Jolenta Masterson kindly did the following research for the Record's tribute to The Blue Room).

In a round-a-bout way, I finally got in touch with the son of the man who originally built The Blue Room. The son, John Bichler, lives in San Marcos, Calif. He would be about 85 now and played basketball with my uncle Ed Fischer.

The original builder of the "Pool Hall" was Grigori Bichler. He died June 27, 1931 at age 56. It was about that time that John's older brother, Ray Bichler, in partnership with Mathew A. Fischer (nickname, "Badge"). It was at that time that they expanded the Pool Hall by adding the MattRay Ballroom to the south. In the 30s and 40s it was also the only theater in town where movies were shown. It was there that we saw the showing of "Gone With The Wind."

Prior to that, the silent movies were shown in a room above the Baumgartner Drug Store. (This little tidbit is what my Mom told me. My Dad took her to the silent movies there when they were courting in the 20s.)

Matt Fischer died in 1988 and Ray Bichler moved to Spokane, Wash. Ray's wife still lives in Spokane.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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