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).
“Credit really goes to my parents, the Green Bay Packers and a little blind luck and insanity,” Doug Myren explained, lining up the baked beans and condiments for that night’s $5 meal.
A 55-year-old music lover who once handled the legal affairs of local punk legends Hüsker Dü — quite a messy affair, for those who don’t know that history — the silver-haired Myren used to roll past the Silver Dome on his way to Packers games at Lambeau Field. Raised in Somerset, Wis., he became tied to the area when his parents retired near Neillsville.
Myren’s blind luck came one day in 2000 when he saw a car parked outside the ballroom and a door open. That’s when he met Louis Kessler, who had taken over the Silver Dome in the early ’70s. When the Kesslers ran the place, a wall of chicken wire separated the bar area from the dance floor to keep minors away.
“We got to talking, and after a while, he said to me, ‘Well, maybe you’d like to buy the place,’ ” Myren recalled. “A few months later, I did just that.”
“Pretty damn cheap” is how Myren described his initial investment. But that soon grew as he made improvements, including air conditioning and major roof repairs (complicated by the fact that it’s a dome).
In 2002, Myren booked his first major touring artist, country vet John Anderson, soon followed by a packed gig with another Nashville act, the Bellamy Brothers. He still remembers what Howard Bellamy said after walking out under the glittery “S D” logo that dangles above the stage:
“I don’t know where the hell we are, but we’re sure glad to be here.”
“My version of a cabin”
In recent years, Myren has downscaled the concert offerings to less expensive but often hipper performers, including Southern Culture on the Skids, the Waco Brothers, his old client Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü, and other regulars in Twin Cities clubs. He also holds a polka festival on the last weekend of April to honor the ballroom’s history.
After a quiet summer to accommodate weddings, the Silver Dome’s music calendar starts back up with a Sept. 20 gig by Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hip vintage-country singer from Austin, Texas. Sept. 29 marks the return of swing-band leader Howie Sturtz, who performed there in the ’50s.
“People in Minneapolis don’t balk at a $25 ticket price,” Myren said, noting that a quarter of his crowd usually drives over from the Twin Cities. “But that’s too much for people around here, and I don’t want to shut any of them out.”
Whatever the cover charge, he said he’s usually lucky if he breaks even on a concert. Most of the money that keeps the place running comes from weddings. “I could probably host a wedding here every weekend and do very well,” he said. “But what fun would that be?”
Fun is the key, it seems. With a playful smile, Myren explained how he sees the Silver Dome as “my version of a cabin.”
“It’s a place I can go to every few weekends to get away. There’s upkeep involved, like a cabin, but mostly I can come here and have a good time.”
Does he ever. As the 4onthefloor kicked into gear, Myren worked the room, visiting with the regulars like it was a neighborhood block party and cajoling newcomers into trying shots of his homemade “apple pie” liquor (yep, it’s good). Instead of pushing his beer-can chicken on people, he urged them to go next door to try the fish fry at the onetime supper club of ill repute, now a bar and grill called — what else? — The Speakeasy.
“Times were hard around here, and Doug really stepped in,” said Speakeasy owner Theresa Jackelen, another city dweller charmed by the colorful rural location. “I think the local people are happy we’re here. Half of them had their weddings over there, and their suppers over here. These places mean something to them.”
Later that night, as the 4onthefloor launched into a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out,” Myren smiled at the sight of the dance floor filling up.
“That’s what this place was always meant for,” he said.