A jewel in farm country, the Silver Dome Ballroom once played host to Count Basie, Bob Wills and Johnny Cash. A Minneapolis lawyer has saved it for a new generation.
NEAR NEILLSVILLE, WIS. – When the lights are on inside the Silver Dome Ballroom at night as you approach it from Hwy. 10, it looks like a UFO that landed in the middle of Wisconsin farm country. By day, it somehow looks even weirder.
“I tell people in Minneapolis, it’s this crazy, watermelon-shaped structure,” said Black Diet guitarist Mitch Sigurdson, 22, a Neillsville native whose band recently played the historic venue about an hour east of Eau Claire.
From the inside, the Silver Dome really takes hold. Local old-timers brag about how you could “float” on the warmly glowing, 80-year-old maple dance floor during the Big Band era — the floor is actually lifted off the ground by support buttresses built outside the ballroom. In a way, then, it really is a UFO.
The circular bar opposite the stage looks like a carousel of stools adorned with vintage music instruments and not-so-top-shelf bottles of booze, which was unavailable when the place opened in 1933. (Prohibition didn’t end until December of that year.) Back then, to get a swig you had to walk a few hundred yards over to The Fireplace, a supper club with a speakeasy downstairs, a suspected brothel upstairs and occasional visits from gangsters like Al Capone.
For the biggest wow factor, gaze up at the Silver Dome’s curved ceiling, an oval dome made entirely of ornately interlaced wood beams and hung with vintage chandeliers. It’s equal parts sci-fi and Old West.
The four Keller brothers who built the place paid $1,000 for the rights to the patented ceiling design, known as the lamella truss, which was used later for the Houston Astrodome.
“It’s one of the coolest places for a gig, anywhere,” Gabriel Douglas, singer/guitarist in the 4onthefloor, said the night his band played the Silver Dome for the second time, in May.
“I don’t think there’s another venue in the Midwest with this much history.”
From polka to Styx
Johnny Cash and George Jones played the Silver Dome in their roadhouse days in the late 1950s. From the ’60s on, the venue welcomed an odd but impressive array of rock acts, including Herman’s Hermits, Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly and Illinois favorites Cheap Trick and Styx.
The most impressive list, however, might be the Silver Dome performers who were the rock stars of the decades before rock ’n’ roll. Among them: Big Band greats Count Basie and the Glenn Miller Orchestra; Western swing hero Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, and nearly all the bigwigs of polka, including Frankie Yankovic (no relation to Weird Al), Lawrence Welk and the incomparably named Whoopee John Wilfahrt.
“This was the place to be on a Saturday night for anyone who lived anywhere near here,” recalled Neillsville resident Louie Albrecht, 67.
A retired law enforcement officer, Albrecht sometimes works the door or other jobs at the Silver Dome, just as his parents did when he was a kid.
“Women would be dressed to the nines, and everybody would be dancing,” Albrecht continued. “But then, the old-time dancers started dying off. The place sort of faded into disrepair in the ’80s.”
Danny Schnabel, another local regular, recalled “bar fights nearly every night” when rock bands played in the ’70s. “You’d see more and more broken windows, and a broken water main at one point.
“I thought we were going to lose the place,” Schnabel said, “which would have been a shame.”
The man who revived it
As the doors opened the night the 4onthefloor headlined, the Minneapolis lawyer who saved the Silver Dome for a new generation of music lovers was busy manning a trough of bratwursts (his beer-can chicken would come later).