The final curtain will fall May 17. Couples will take their final turns on the dance floor as the last notes from the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band hang in the air. Then Mark Kennedy will have the unenviable duty of shutting off the pink and blue neon “Val Air Ballroom” and “Dancing” signs for the final time.
The Val Air Ballroom, a historic West Des Moines landmark built in 1939 and host to concerts featuring musical legends Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys and Willie Nelson, will close May 17 and be torn down if a buyer is not found, say its owners.
Kennedy, manager of Valley Ballroom LLC, which was formed in 1997 to save the ballroom from the wrecking ball after it closed in 1996, said the owner’s group is asking $1.6 million for the building and the 8.5 acres of land it sits on at 301 Ashworth Road. Kennedy said a few groups have expressed interest in buying the ballroom since it went on the market in January, but none of them has made an offer. He said that is why the group announced a closing date and is reminding potential investors nationwide that time is running out.
“I want people to know we’re serious about this,” Kennedy said. “If the ballroom is closed again, nobody’s going to come along two years from now and reopen it like we did. So let’s get something done now. Put your groups together. We’ve got six months to do it. That’s enough time to get the ball rolling. We’ll work to get a deal done to keep this place going.”
Kennedy said in addition to selling the ballroom, the owners are investigating the possibility of applying for non-profit status to preserve the facility. West Des Moines Mayor Gene Meyer said city officials also are looking at ways to save the venue.
“There is a great deal of interest on behalf of the City Council and myself to explore options concerning its continuing operation,” Meyer said. “I would like to see it preserved. We’ll see if there are any grants or funding available to assist those operating the business, or if ownership can be restructured as a non-profit entity.”
Immediate financial assistance, however, isn’t a concern for the owners.
“We’re not drowning in a sea of red,” Kennedy said. “But every penny we make goes into the facility and that’s not enough to maintain, much less improve, the ballroom.”
Valley Ballroom paid for new carpet and paint when it took over the Val Air. It recently constructed additional fire escape stairs on the building’s west side and removed booths for more standing room to expand the ballroom’s capacity to 2,000 people.
Kennedy said the building, which was abandoned by the Wilson Rubber Co. in 1918, is structurally sound.
“The foundation couldn’t be stronger,” he said. “It was built to last.”
Kennedy said he has a list of “people comforts” he would like to see improved should a buyer invest in the ballroom. They include a kitchen, a larger stage, expanded restrooms, improved heating and cooling systems, backstage restroom facilities, paving the parking lot, custom sound engineering, and eliminating obtrusive columns and poles if possible. He said the new owner would need to invest at least $500,000 to make such improvements.
“Being the Val Air and the nostalgia that goes with it only goes so far,” Kennedy said. “People will look away from a few inconveniences to a certain extent, but it is in sore need of modernization to have it remain a competitive venue. Money won’t fix everything in the world, but this is one thing money will fix.”
Des Moines concert promoter Steve White, founder of Music Circuit
Presentations, has promoted approximately 50 shows at the Val Air since
1998, including Delbert McClinton, Buddy Guy and Insane Clown Posse. He said he has organized a group of investors and encourages potential investors to contact him. At this point, however, the group does not have enough cash to buy the ballroom and pay for the necessary repairs and improvements.
“I won’t rule out that it can’t be saved, but time is wasting,” he said.
Kennedy said the owners intend to sell the ballroom to a buyer that will maintain it as a viable music venue. But they will tear down the building to sell the land if necessary.
“As long as the building is on this lot, it’s going to be very hard to sell this land,” he said. “For starters, people don’t want to be the guy that tore down the Val Air; their corporation doesn’t want to be known for that. Also, by tearing it down, you eliminate the unknowns in the sale of the property, making it easier to liquidate.”
Kennedy said the group is marketing the property with Business Capital Corp., an acquisition-merger broker, and Crowley Commercial Real Estate, a real estate brokerage.
“We recognize we’re sitting on a piece of prime real estate and there is land value here,” said Kennedy, who owns a commercial interior contracting business in Des Moines. “So we’re looking for a developer angle, too.
“I certainly think this area would be well served by medium-priced housing opportunities, whether it be apartments or condominiums. You could probably put 100 units here. Who knows? I’m just speculating. But I’m sure it won’t be too long before residential developers knock on my door.”
While the owners anxiously await a buyer, the ballroom continues to operate. Bookings for weddings and corporate parties are down since the owners announced a closing date. But General Manager Jeff Tolan said concerts are scheduled for the next few months, including New Year’s Eve performances by the Echoes 5 and Dan Hartzer and the Big Band Sound. The last event, scheduled for May 17, is a Roosevelt’s jazz band concert.
“What a fitting way for the Val Air to end an era,” Kennedy said. “The very first event held in the ballroom was the 1939 Roosevelt High School prom.” Tolan, who was married at the ballroom in 1998, plans to stay at the Val Air until the curtain falls.
“I have committed to stay with the Val Air until it closes,” he said. “I think it would be hard to find somebody to come in for the last few months. I haven’t thought about what I’ll do, but I’m not fretting being out of a job. In the hospitality and entertainment businesses I have been in, it’s not unusual to change jobs.”
Kennedy said even though the current owners knew little about the entertainment business, they purchased the ballroom to save a piece of Des Moines’ heritage.
“That’s still our goal,” he said. “If I had my way, an operator would come in and carry on the entertainment traditions and wholesome values this place is known for. I’m fully convinced it’s got to be the right operator to make it a showcase for music and a first-rate place for corporate parties, weddings, promoters and bands. That was our vision when we bought the place. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that because we didn’t have the money. But someone who has the money and know-how could take the ballroom to the next level.”
Kennedy said though he regrets the owners didn’t have enough capital to realize their goals for the Val Air, he is proud that they kept the doors open for another six years.
“I feel our group has given the Val Air a stay of six more years to provide Iowans more entertainment,” he said. “I’ll feel good we were able to do that if it is torn down. I guess I look at it like a terminally ill patient who was given another six years of life because of an operation – you’re happy for the extra time.”
White said the current owners should be commended for taking on the daunting task of operating a business in a field they knew little about.
“They should receive an award of some kind,” he said. “They bought it to keep it from being torn down the first time. They went into it with no knowledge of how to run a ballroom or produce shows; they went out on a limb to save the place. They’ve done their part.”
Kennedy said when the owners took possession Nov. 1, 1997, after buying the landmark from the estate of its late owners, Tom and Patty Archer, they had visions of packing the ballroom’s 9,000-square-foot dance floor with music fans for years to come.
Their first show, roots rocker Leon Russell, was a sellout on Dec. 13 of that year. Since then several concerts have drawn capacity crowds, but there were also shows that were not well attended. The owners hired outside promoters to help bring crowds to the Val Air, but despite booking some of the biggest names in rock, country, jazz and blues, ticket sales often lagged.
Kennedy said he is disappointed by people who thank his group for saving the ballroom and say Des Moines needs a place like the Val Air, but don’t back their words by attending events then.
“I don’t want to preach to the choir, but I get frustrated when people say there’s nothing to do in Des Moines and they don’t utilize the facility,” he said.
“I think it’s very sad people don’t support places like the Surf and the Val Air, which are full of tradition and are very cool places,” said Kevin Schoneman, manager of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
Schoneman said he has the same problem in Clear Lake, estimating less than 2 percent of all residents in Cerro Gordo County frequent the Surf. Regular customers, he said, come from Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Cedar Rapids and Minneapolis.
“People don’t appreciate what they have in their own back yard, even though you bring in good shows and money to the area,” he said. “Up here, hotels and restaurants don’t support the Surf. It might be the same problem for the Val Air.”
Lyn Paschell-Wilkinson, who purchased the Lake Robbins Ballroom in Woodward in 1993, said there is steep learning curve when operating a ballroom.
“You can’t just open the doors and expect people to walk in,” she said. “I’m still learning from the previous owner, who operated it for 60 years.”
Paschell-Wilkinson worked at the ballroom during the 1970s. She said she bought the venue because of the strong emotional ties she had to it, even though she knew it was in need of repairs.
“I knew it needed a lot of work to bring it back, but I didn’t see it that way,” she said. “I saw the magic of people dancing. Luckily, I have brothers who do all the repairs for me. Someday I’ll have to pay them back.”
Schoneman and Paschell-Wilkinson said they don’t expect to pick up Val Air customers if the venue closes.
White, a Des Moines native who has promoted concerts in Iowa for 30 years, said the Val Air’s closing would have a negative effect on his business. But its closing would also affect him personally.
“I would hate to see the place torn down,” he said. “I used to go there as a kid to see Jerry Lee Lewis and the Turtles. Certain bands are a natural fit for the Val Air.”
Disappointed by the possibility the city could lose an important landmark, White said, “When the Val Air is retired, I might retire with it.”
“The thought of tearing this place down weighs hard on me,” he said. “People ask me how I’ll feel about it – it’s going to tear me apart. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me they met their husband or their wife here or they went to their prom at the Val Air. So many stories have been relayed to me about fond memories. Still, I told the investors I’ll do it if I have to and I meant it. I hope that doesn’t happen.”