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Photos of Missouri's dance hall days inspired by childhood fascination

When Kenneth Johnson was a young boy growing up in rural Missouri in the 1940s, his bedtime routine included music. But the sounds that lured this youngster into dreamland were the live performances of dance-hall musicians.

Between the ages of 9 and 11, Johnson lived in his grandparents’ Morrison, Mo.-area grocery store, gas station and restaurant, which had a little dance hall out back. Only a thin wall divided his bedroom from the nightly dancing, drinking and flirting.

“Mother would tuck me in and they’d be playing while I tried to go to sleep,” Johnson said.

Cover of 'Moonlight Serenade to City Lights'
Credit St. Louis County Public Library
Cover of 'Moonlight Serenade to City Lights'

More than a half-century later, Johnson began collecting photos of country-western and big-band musicians of the era. Now, that collection has been published as a book called “Moonlight Serenade to City Lights; Rare Images of Bands and Orchestras from the Dance Hall Era in Missouri.” Tonight, Johnson will tell stories at the St. Louis County Library Lindbergh headquarters about his years of collecting the photographs.

Photos pulled from walls, scrapbooks

Johnson’s father and grandfather played drums. His mother played banjo and sang in local venues in Morrison and the other small towns around the area that they lived in. Johnson never took up an instrument. He’s a professor of education at Lindenwood University.

Kenneth Johnson
Credit St. Louis County Public Library
Kenneth Johnson

Still, he never forgot the music. Some bands, like Shorty Wilks and His Jolly Ranch Hands, were under a regular contract, playing once a week for many months. One song lurking in the backdrop of his childhood dreams at least two dozen times was a cover of Gene Autry’s “Riding Down the Canyon.”

“It's a song I've always kind of hummed throughout my life,” Johnson said.

In 2001, Johnson began collecting the photos of mid-century dance-hall bands as part of a family history project for his children and grandchildren.

“Pretty soon, I had 20 to 25 photographs. Somebody said, ‘You should put them in a book, but you need at least 100,’” Johnson said. “I worked and stopped and worked and stopped, and the eventually I had 230 to 240 photos.”

The pictures come from several areas bound by St. Louis, Jefferson City, Columbia, Hannibal and Rolla. Johnson collected many of them with the help of family members whose relatives played in dance halls.

“Most of them were located on a wall in a kitchen or a living room, or in a scrapbook or even a box,” Johnson said.

Now, one of his greatest pleasures is the gratitude of those families. A recent St. Charles event for the book drew original members of bands including Shorty Wilks, Kenny Capehart and the Missouri Valley Boys.

“Everyone was thrilled and excited,” Johnson said. “It’s been well-received by people who are still alive who are in the book, and by their children and grandchildren.”


‘Moonlight Serenade to City Lights’ author Kenneth Johnson

Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., 63631

When: 7 p.m., Thursday, March 12

How much: Free

Information: St. Louis County Library web site

Hear Gene Autry sing "Riding Down the Canyon."

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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