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If You're Ever in Indianapolis, Check out the Roof

  • Ted Landphair

Even the exterior of the theater building that houses the ballroom is inviting.

Even the exterior of the theater building that houses the ballroom is inviting.

Not for leaks, but for a sublime step back in time

For generations, people in Indianapolis, Indiana, have been going to the Roof. But it's not on their housetop, or even outside.

The Roof, as locals call it, is the Indiana Roof Ballroom. It's an enchanting dreamland on the top floor of an old theater building.

Four nights a week from the late 1920s through the early 1940s, big-band leaders like Tommy Dorsey and singers like Frank Sinatra performed at dreamy dances there. Tiny tables surrounded the Roof's huge parquet wooden floor. There were only 25 of them, because couples came to dance, not sit and talk. Here's the Indiana Roof Ballroom, set up for a party or business meeting.

Here's the Indiana Roof Ballroom, set up for a party or business meeting.

Only ginger ale and a favorite local soft drink called Bubble-Up were served. But in souvenir photos of those days, more than a few metal flasks, no doubt containing something stronger than Bubble-Up, can be seen on the floor beneath the tables.

The exotic ballroom was decorated like a Spanish plaza, surrounded by make-believe balconies and towers, tile roofs, gas lights, and grapevines. There were even real pigeons perched in some of the windows - though the birds were stuffed.

When the lights dimmed, electric stars glittered across the dark blue ceiling. Fake clouds, projected from another machine, fluttered overhead. Swaying below, Indiana city and farm couples alike were transformed - if only for one romantic night - into glamorous dance teams. Performers at the ballroom certainly have a lovely setting in which to make music.

Performers at the ballroom certainly have a lovely setting in which to make music.

But the Roof Ballroom began a long, sad decline during World War Two, when it seemed that all the men in town were off fighting the war. When they returned in the mid-'40's, tastes had shifted to movies, television, and livelier night spots.

The Roof Ballroom hung on for 30 years before the owners gave up and shut the doors. Over the next eight years, the roof leaked, the dance floor warped, and stucco facades in the old, faux plaza crumbled.

But the City of Indianapolis came to the rescue. It bought the theater building in the 1980s and leased the Roof Ballroom to a developer, who not only fixed it up but installed what it called a scene machine to add more moody sky effects like synthetic snowfall. Even the stuffed pigeons got a thorough vacuuming. A closer look at one of the balconies that lend a Mediterranean ambience to the ballroom.

A closer look at one of the balconies that lend a Mediterranean ambience to the ballroom.

So the Roof is busy again with wedding receptions and the like. And on six Sunday nights a year, ballroom dancers from as far away as St. Louis - two states away in Missouri - once again head to downtown Indianapolis to swing to the music of big bands and rekindle memories of long-ago dances and romances at the Roof.

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