Story of Bill Mraz
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants from Czechoslovakia
settled in various south-central Texas farming communities such
as Shiner, Moulton, Praha, Moravia, Schulenberg and Flatonia. Typically
small land holders, the immigrants saw little chance for economic
improvement in their native land given the political and religious
climate of Czechoslovakia prior to World War I, and they were most
likely drawn to Texas by the abundance of relatively inexpensive
farmland. Czech settlements tended to consist of close-knit,self-sufficient
family farms that highly valued the cultivation of land and also
engendered the establishment of cooperative institutions, social
clubs and organizations. Most of the Czech immigrants in Texas settled
in the fertile area of south central Texas known as the Blackland
Prairie, with the greatest concentrations being in Lavaca and Fayette
farming community of Moulton, Texas, in northwestern Lavaca County,
saw a significant influx of Czech and German settlers during the
1890's. The son of Czech immigrants, Willie H. "Bill"
Mraz was born into this tight-knit Czech community on February 3,
1907. During the early 20th century, as farming families grew and
parcels of land became too small to support everyone, many first
and second generation American-born-Czechs moved to urban areas
to seek a better way of life.
brick-layer by trade, Bill Mraz, along with his soon to be bride,
Anna T. Motl, left his family's farm at the age of 20 amd moved
to nearby Houston, a bustling city with a wealth of opportunities
in the industrial and craft/trade sector for people with limited
education. Bill and Anna married in Shiner, Texas, on December 18,
1928. They lived in the Houston Heights area where a number of Houston's
Czech population resided and where Bill worked as a bricklaying
contractor. At night, Bill and his brother Mills, both of whom developed
a talent for playing the accordion as young boys, performed at various
house parties throughout the area.
1936, one of Bill's turning points occurred when Bill and many other
people were waiting to see a traveling band at the Studewood Dance
Hall. Due to "a frog strangling rain," the band cancelled.
The manager of the hall offered the evening engagement to Bill and
his brother Mills. The evening turned out to be a tremendous success.
One of the attendees, George Miller, owner of Miller's Hall, was
so impressed with the dual accordion, up-beat polka music, he offered
the brothers a permanent weekend engagement, provided a full band
was organized. Bill quickly formed a band with "many folks
who played instruments."
that point forward Bill's nine piece band played regularly at Miller's
Hall as well as other local entertainment sites in Houston. In 1945,
just nine years later, Bill purchased Miller's Hall and renamed
it the Bill Mraz Dance Hall. The Czech community from Houston as
well as from nearby small towns came to hear Bill's music, naturally
drawn to the establishment as a chance to hear the music of their
native land and to socialize with others of the same heritage.
continuing capacity crowds at Bill's performances soon made apparent
the need for a larger facility. In 1947 Bill purchased approximately
three acres of "more spacious and beautiful grounds" for
the future home of the new dance hall.
February of 1948 construction began on the 3 acre wooded site which
is between Shepherd Forest and Garden Oaks subdivisions, just north
of the Houston Heights. The new dance hall would open shortly thereafter
as the Bill Mraz Dance Hall. The Dance Hall and Bar-B-Q facilities
sat just across 34th Street (then called Rosslyn Road) from the
former site of Miller's Hall. "We're going to have the largest
floor in town, 9,500 square feet, made of the finest maple flooring
money can buy," Mr. Mraz stated.
foundation of the new dance hall was comprised of 260, 8" x
16" cinder blocks. The framing for the building is composed
of steel I-beams in the walls and a steel truss to support the gable
on hip roof. The steel framing was designed and constructed by Union
Steel & Construction Company of Houston. The building itself
rests on a foundation of 4" x 6" timber seals. The roof
is a dutch gable with composition shingle over the dance floor.
A built-up type roof is over the front seating and rear common areas.
1965, to accommodate the growing crowds who frequented the hall,
the north side of the building was enlarged by 2,000 square feet.
This was done by framing the extension then moving the original
wall out to its present resting place. This provided additional
square footage for the construction of another bar area and stage.
This extension is in keeping with the materials, scale, and design
of the 1948 building. It enlarged the dance hall to achieve its
present size of 100' x 110' or 11,000 square feet.
main entrance is equipped with a double door opening over which
is a gable front porch supported by three wood posts where a large
rectangular roof top sign indicating "Bill Mraz Dancehall"
made of white neon tubing lettering rests. For easy band access,
a rear double door opening is on the south side behind the main
stage. Both bar areas have standard outside access. On the east
side of the hall, flanking the entrance there are five swing out
windows which assisted the water cooler type air conditioning on
the west side. To help keep the crowds comfortable, above all the
swing out windows there are 4 large exhaust fans and 2 attic fans
while 4 floor fans are below the main stage. Rows of interior ceiling
fans with multi-colored lamps also cooled the crowds during the
hot Texas summers, enabling everyone to kick up their heals and
enjoy themselves for hours.
base for the hand laid floor consists of 2 x 10 yellow pine floor
joists and 1 x 10 shiplap planks. Tongue and groove Birds-Eye Maple
serve as the dancing floor which measures 70' x 100'. It featured
a cushion-like effect that minimized fatigue and body stress on
the dancers. The finish is natural with no stains or varnishes.
The front seating, rear bar, stage, and restroom area floors are
finished with 1 x 4 tongue and groove yellow pine with a combination
of redwood linseed oil stain and gray floor paint.
walls consist of 2 x 4 yellow pine studs with 105 siding on the
exterior and 1 x 10 "V" groove yellow pine paneling on
the interior. The original exterior colors were mint green and white,
but over time this changed to red with white trim. The interior
walls were finished with redwood linseed oil stain.
approximately 1952, a drop ceiling was added to help with acoustics.
Foil streamers added in 1955 embellished the ceiling in a criss-cross
fashion. In 1970, a modern air conditioning system replaced the
original water coolers. Two antique gas heaters, state of the art
in their time, suspended from the ceiling provide heat in wintertime.
main bar at the south-east corner of the building is equipped with
2, 4-bin vat-style coolers and cooking facilities. Pink neon accents
the top arched openings over the bar. To the left, in front of the
bar is a "v" groove pine panel phone booth which provides
privacy for public phone users. To the right of the bar a wall boasts
photographs of famous visiting bands, celebrity acquaintances, capacity
crowds and political and private social events. Adjoining the picture
wall is a bi-level stage from which many bands performed. A second
bi-level stage is on the north side of the dance floor. To the right
of the south entrance houses patron facilities and a private office
the Dance Hall is a cinder block building with screen top and corrugated
metal roof which houses the 1948 6' x 40' Bar-B-Q pit and cooking
area used for catering. A brick garage-apartment sytle residence
with storage area on the first floor was added in 1955 for Bill's
family residence. To provide a covered eating facility for patrons
of Bill's famed Polka Jamborees, the family added a second ballroom
about 1965. This building connected the Bar-B-Q pit house and garage-apartment
residence. Since this last addition, no changes to the exterior
have been made. No changes have occurred to the interior since the
addition of air onditioning in 1970. Ample space for parking comprised
of shell and asphalt surrounded the hall and Bar-B-Q pit areas.
Large pecan, oak and other variety trees shade the rear half of
was completed in August. On the opening night of August 15, 1948,
"the door receipts were 4,527 tickets and more than that number
of people stood outside" stomping their feet to the upbeat
music provided by the Bill Mraz Orchestra.
Bill Mraz name and Dance Hall soon became known to many as the "Polka
Capital of Texas." Performers at the Dance Hall included several
famous names synonymous with Polka Music such as Frankie Yankovic,
Eddie Skeets, The Six Fat Dutchmen, Romy Gosz, Don Peachy, Wally
Pikal and many others popular in the Midwestern states. Texas polka
favorites such as Joe Patek, The Vrazels, John R. Baca, Lee Roy
Matocha and Ray Krenek, also performed there.
Dance Hall became known as a family establishment, not only to the
Czech and German communities, but also to the multitude of ethnic
nationalities that made up the Houston population. The warmth of
Bill and his family created an electricity that converted first
timers into lifetime patrons and friends, who regularly formed long
lines to get into the dance hall. At the Dance Hall, Bill provided
an environment where for the Czech people and native music sung
in the Czech language could be found. For German and Polish people,
music with lyrics performed in their native language could be heard
by visiting bands. For singles, the Dance Hall became a meeting
and courting place. Numerous traditional wedding receptions were
held for couples that credited Bill's Dance Hall with their "once
in a lifetime" chance meeting. From that point forward, the
couples brought their children. On any given night is was common
to see tables and benches with homemade quilts beneath sleeping
children. For people of the Houston Czech community like Bill and
Anna that left their family farms, the Dance Hall re-created the
Czech social environment their parents preserved in their small
farming communities when they first came to Texas and brought some
of this country environment into the bustling big city.
surrounding radio stations provided air-play to the happy up-beat
music as many households still communicated in their native Slavic
languages. The Dance Hall hosted many different types of entertainment
such as square dancing, radio shows and polka jamborees. Live radio
shows on stations such as KULP in El Campo, Texas, aired during
some dancing events and Bill personally hosted a polka radio show
on station KFRD in Rosenberg, Texas, for numerous years. All day
dances known as Polka Jamborees were held at least every three months
or on national holidays, highlighting as many as three to five bands
during the event. The Bill Mraz Orchestra played at numerous musical
events around the state, often as the main attraction. These performances
often centered around events celebrating Slavic heritage and sponsored
by Czech social clubs, such as the SPJST Lodge meeting at Slovacek's
Ballroom near Yoakum and Oktoberfest celebrations.
was equally famous for his Bar-B-Q, served at numerous private parties
throughout Houston as well as at the famous Polka Jamborees held
at the Dance Hall. Bill custom designed the Bar-B-Q pit to suit
his needs perfectly. He created his own style of cooking as well
as personal secret recipes for basting and Bar-B-Q sauces, potato
salad and ranch style beans.
many occasions, the Dance Hall hosted and catered corporate and
political functions as well as private family events. Businesses
such as Tenneco, Gulf, Exxon, Century 21, trail rider associations
and others leased the Dance Hall for corporate parties. Political
figures such as Mayor Louie Welch and Mayor Fred Hofheinz held campaign
fund raisers at the Dance Hall.
1950, the city limits grew to encompass the dance hall property.
Bill and Anna petitioned the City Council to waive fire hazard requirements
in order to receive an occupancy permit since the Dance Hall was
larger than normal recreation facilities under the existing city
code. In years to come, Bill would enhance the 3-acre property to
include personal residences and rental properties. Bill built a
home for himself and Anna on the property on 1954. In 1961 and 1966,
the family built homes for Bill's sons Eugene and Rudy (Rudolph)
and their families. Two rental facilities were also built from salvage
from the dismantled Miller's Hall. Original occupants included a
barber shop and dry cleaners. Later, the properties expanded to
include a smaller shop and metal warehouse facility. To this day
the entire property remains on its own water well system.
his band, and the Dance Hall reached such heights in popularity
that several articles in numerous publications were written about
them. The Houston Chronicle featured Bill and the Dance Hall in
their society section, which spotlights local celebrities and their
outings, and regularly listed up-coming events and guest bands.
Various polka music publications across the nation spotlighted Bill
and his accomplishments as well. An article in the Houston Chronicle's
Sunday, May 27, 1973 edition of the "Texas Magazine" entitled
"Ethnic music in Houston and where to find it", listed
the "Bill Mraz Hall" and stated:
rough estimate places the number of people of Czech descent in the
Houston area around 40,000. Most of Houston's Czechs live in or
near the Heights area. Many of these people moved here from small
towns such as Fayetteville, Schulenberg, Praha, Flatonia, Weimer,
and Crosby...Young and old alike join in the fun at the Bill Mraz
Dance Hall. This hall, which dates from 1948, is dominated by an
immense maple dance floor. The Bill Mraz Orchestra is the largest
and oldest band of its kind in Houston, having been in existence
for 39 years.
only other Czech facility listed in the magazine is the SPJST Lodge
No. 88 on 1435 Beall, where weekly polka and waltz dances, open
to the members and their guests, were held on Saturdays from 9 p.m.
to 1 a.m.
his lifetime, Bill Mraz was recognized many times for his achievements
and contributions to Polka music. He was one of the first recipients
of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Awards given annually by
the Texas Polka Music Association for his contributions to Czech
polka music in Texas. Both Bill and his Dance Hall had become so
well known and well liked that when he died of a heart attack while
working at his Bar-B-Q pit on November 22, 1975, Houston Mayor Fred
Hofheinz signed a proclamation making November 22, 1975, "Bill
Mraz Day." Harold Hazen of the Houston Chronicle wrote, "We
will all miss Bill Mraz and remember him as the smiling, happy,
accordion playing man that loved to make people happy." The
Bill Mraz Dance Hall remained a popular entertainment spot for families
in Houston until 1986, when it closed.
Bill, Anna, and their two sons have passed on, however, the property
remains under the care and ownership of Bill's descendents. The
properties owned by the Mraz family include the 1/2 acre tract on
the north side of 34th Street that was previously occupied by Miller's
Hall, which was purchased by Bill and Anna in 1936. However, the
hall was dismantled in the 1950s after the new facility was completed.
The memory of good times and family entertainment as well as the
heritage of the Czech community remains in the hearts and minds
of many cherished friends and patrons.
creating a place where Houston's Czech population could gather and
socialize, Bill Mraz and his music brought to the Czech community
a place where they could pass their heritage down from generation
to generation. To the citizens of Houston, the Bill Mraz Dance Hall
represented a down-home, country-place, where "happy hearts,"
family entertainment and an educational experience could always
grandchildren are proud to announce that as of November, 1997, this
hall was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in Washington,
D.C. In February, 1999, the hall was also recognized by the City
of Houston as a Historical Landmark.