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The Story of Bill Mraz

During 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 counties.

The 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.

A 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.

In 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."

From 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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 for storage.

Behind 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 the property.

Construction 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Numerous 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.

Bill 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.

On 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.

In 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.

Bill, 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:

A 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.

The 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.

During 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.

Today, 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.

In 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 be found.

Bill's 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.

Article from the May 2002 Texas Polka News on re-opening of Mraz Hall

Mraz Ballroom Open House Returns May 11th

Music and laughter. The sound of dancing shoes moving on the wood dance floor. The background buzz of happy people talking, and the clinking of beverage containers. Laughter. Echoes from the past – alive again – in Houston’s fabled Bill Mraz Dance Hall. What joyous sounds!

It all came back on March 16 at a St. Patrick’s Day Community Open House in the Mraz Ballroom at 835 W. 34th St. in the Heights. It was food, fun, music and dance. It was memory time. It was sweet nostalgia for many.

Like Johnny and Helen Rybak, who met at the Mraz Dance Hall 46 years ago. It was Helen’s first time at the Hall, because a very strict father had not previously allowed her to attend. But she was there this night, lovely in her new yellow bridesmaid dress as part of a wedding party. And Johnny asked her to dance!

James Polansky brought wife Joan back to Mraz Hall for this open house, because they also met at the Hall in 1967.

Texas Polka News publisher Julius Tupa proposed to Marie at Bill Mraz’. Then serving in the military at Fort Hood, Julius and several other young men went AWOL on Saturday, driving to Houston. They dropped Julius off at Zales Jewelry in downtown Houston, where he bought the ring. He popped the question at the dance, returning later that night to Temple by local airline, in time for bed check Sunday morning.

The Tupas, Rybaks and Polanskys are just three of the many life stories that began at the fabled Bill Mraz Ballroom.

The Bill Mraz Ballroom operated from 1948-1986. The house band was of course the 10-piece Bill Mraz Orchestra, a photo of which was among the memorabilia on a poster board gracing the wooden paneling by the refurbished bar. Of course, many of the Texas polka bands also played regularly at the Hall. The visits by The Six Fat Dutchmen to the Hall are part of Texas polka legend and lore.

Bill and wife Anna operated the Hall until Bill’s death in 1975. The Mraz family then operated the Hall until closing in 1986.

Now members of the Mraz family have refurbished the Hall, and it is now available for parties, anniversaries and celebrations. The open house gave an opportunity to announce its comeback.

The Hall has been listed in the National Register of Historic places, and the family recently received approval to mount a placque so designating.

The Hall is charming inside. The music stage is where it always was, the dance floor as original (except for one small section that needed replacement) plus the original paneling by the bar.

One change is that tables have replaced the original perimeter benches that were so much a part of the early Texas dance halls. The red & white check tablecloths help dress up the interior, which looks very nice and belies the 15 years the Hall was closed.

Granddaughter Elizabeth Mraz acts as family spokesman. Her early recollections of the Hall are, “lots of people having a good time every weekend, with polka on Saturday night and C/W on Sunday.” Elizabeth and siblings Eugene (Hank) and Julia Davis are from son Eugene and wife Betty Mraz. Julia provided part of the entertainment with her c/w vocals.

After much hard work, the Mraz family is very happy to announce that the Hall is available for rental. Give them a call at 713-864-HALL.

Or come by for their next open house, Saturday May 11th. It’s a “Mother’s Day Open House, starting at 8 p.m. There’s no admission charge, and entertainment is by Julie Davis of the Mraz family. Bring a covered dish and join the open house.

The Bill Mraz Ballroom is waiting for the sounds of laughter and good times. It’s waiting for you!

Oct. 24, 2004

Historic landmark completely destroyed by huge blaze

Firefighters got the call at about 7:30am Sunday. When they arrived at the Bill Mraz Dance Hall on 34th near Alba, they found heavy smoke and flames. They were unable to enter the building to attack the blaze and were forced to fight it defensively from outside.

Houston Fire Chief Jack Williams said, "They found a lot of fire, a lot of smoke. So they pulled out of the building for the safety of the firefighters."

One firefighter suffered an injury to his hand during the fire. He was taken to Memorial Hermann Hospital for treatment. No other injuries were reported. The building was believed to be vacant when the fire broke out.

At one point, residents from a nearby building were evacuated.

"On one side of the building there is a small apartment building or house," said Williams. "The smoke was moving directly over the building. We were a little concerned about them, so we moved them out."

The neighboring building was not damaged in the fire.

The huge dance hall was opened in 1948. It was declared a Houston historical landmark in the late 1990s. According to Williams, the wood-framed building is a complete loss.

There’s no word yet on the cause of the fire. Arson officials are investigating.

(Copyright © 2004, KTRK-TV)

KTRK TV Houston ABC 13

Oct. 24, 2004, 10:44PM

Fire ends Houston tradition

Texas polka fans created memories at Mraz dance hall

By MIKE GLENN
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

When the Bill Mraz Dance Hall burned down Sunday morning, the fire did more than turn the walls and floor into charred wood.

Gone was the scene of countless precious memories for many longtime fans of the historic dance hall in central north Houston.

Mark Halata considered the dance hall a kind of home base for his polka band, Mark Halata and Texavia.

"I hope they rebuild (but) it's so hard to rebuild something that's such a historic structure," Halata said. "I can't really think of a place that's more monumental to Texas Czechs in the Houston area."

For Betty Doyle, the fire meant losing the place where she met her husband of more than a half-century. For Dee Goerig, it was where a young woman in the 1960s could go and twirl the night away to the sound of first-class polka bands.

The hall, a haven for legions of local polka music fans, was listed in 1998 on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's a big loss. There are not many halls like that any more," said Ben Orsak, with the Texas Sound Check polka band. "It leaves a big hole."

Standing beneath an umbrella as a steady drizzle fell, Doyle was among a continuing stream of longtime patrons who stopped by Sunday to console each other and the family of the dance hall's founder.

"I just cried," Doyle said. "This place is a piece of my heart."

Benches lined the walls of the 11,000-square-foot floor when Doyle first started coming to the hall in 1950 — only two years after its grand opening.

"That's when it did not have any tables inside the hall at all," she said. "Nobody ever sat down. We danced all the time."

Doyle, 70, is one of four generations — beginning with her mother and continuing with her own grandson — that have been kicking up their heels at the dance hall.

"We have the best time. You can't keep us old-timers down," she said. "This place made you feel so much at home."

Current owner Stephanie Janda grew up at the family-managed dance hall. More than 4,000 people were on hand when her bricklayer-turned-accordion-player grandfather threw open the doors in August 1948.

"It was just packed. People would come out here day after day," Janda said. "They would bring their kids and leave their cares behind."

The fire also meant the loss of untold pieces of priceless memorabilia inside the dance hall — including hundreds of photographs of past and present performers that lined the walls.

"Those photos will never be replaced," said Bobby Jones, who regularly performed at the hall with his group, the Bobby Jones Czech Band.

Janda was stunned by the outpouring of support from the community. She said one tearful patron even asked to have some of the ashes from the ruined building as a cherished keepsake.

"I'm just very touched. It's a real source of comfort," she said. "It meant so much to so many people."

The Mraz family was shattered when tough economic times forced them to close the doors in 1987. But, almost 2,000 people came when they reopened the dance floor in 2002.

It was critical for the new dance hall to look exactly like the original — complete with the 4,000-square-foot maplewood dance floor and prominently displaced beer company logos.

"It was like an antique house," Janda said. "It was like stepping back into history."

The 7:30 a.m. fire that destroyed the building at 835 W. 34th was ruled accidental and was likely caused by an electrical short, Houston Fire Department officials said.

It was much too early, Janda said, to know whether the Houston landmark will be rebuilt.

"It's going to be very sadly missed," she said.

No one knows this more than Goerig, who said the loss of the dance hall was "like part of my life got burned up."

"When you were a teenager in high school — it was a great place to dance. I just can't believe it's gone," she said.

The Houston Chronicle

 

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