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Getting Into the Swing : Dance: Big band ballroom dancing makes Hotel del Coronado a popular Sunday night playground.

April 04, 1992|DIRK SUTRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — For polished ballroom dancers such as Jack and Charlene Mitchell, the Hotel del Coronado is the only place to be Sunday nights. By 7:30, the veteran big band Bill Green and his Orchestra is in full swing, and a mesmerizing cloud of sound floats over the dance floor as if wafting from an old Philco radio.

Jack Mitchell, shoes polished, hair glistening neatly in place, steers his wife around the hardwood floor. They move in perfect unison, powering past other couples as if lapping cars at the Indy 500. Smoothly, their feet slide across the floor, their heads turned to lead their bodies. Charlene Mitchell's black chiffon skirt flies up with each spin.

These Sunday night buffet dinner dances are a longstanding tradition in the hotel's Crown Room, an elegant, cavernous dining hall with a high, wood-paneled ceiling and big chandeliers resembling crowns. In the past, the music has been supplied by small groups. But, in December, the hotel brought in Dan Terry's Big Band to provide a bold, brassier sound. Green and his group, featuring singer Shirley Sanders, took over last Sunday as part of the hotel's policy to rotate bands.

Jan Slokker, the hotel's senior vice president in charge of food and beverage, wants to continue with big bands in the Crown Room. Response has been enthusiastic, but Slokker says the elaborate events must draw 300 people to break even, which they haven't yet done consistently.

For big band ballroom dancing fanatics, the Hotel Del is the hottest spot in town. According to the Mitchells and others on hand last Sunday, the Del is the only place in the San Diego area that regularly offers dancing to a live big band in a elegant, period setting.

People start showing up around 5 for a lavish $29.95 buffet that sprawls across several tables. On one table, a swordfish sculpted of ice leaps toward the ceiling. Extremely attentive waiters keep tables clear and coffee cups full. The big band takes the stage at 6 and plays several sets, quitting at 10.

Green, 74, who plays several woodwind instruments, mainly sax and

clarinet, began his musical career during the early 1940s with Glenn Miller's Modernaires. He served as the Hotel Del's musical director for 12 years, leaving in 1991.

"I'm from the big band era," he said. "But I like to play a little rock, too." He occasionally slips songs such as "Great Balls of Fire" and "I Feel Good" into his sets, alongside such regular crowd-pleasers as "You Can't Take That Away From Me," "Satin Doll" and "In the Mood."

During a break last Sunday night, the Mitchells caught their breaths as they enthused about being back at the Del, dancing to their old friend Bill Green's band.

"I've known Bill for 30 years, since he had a little band at the Kona Kai Club (on Shelter Island)," recalled Jack Mitchell, a former dance instructor who taught his wife the finer points of ballroom dancing several years ago. He is especially fond of showy Latin steps, especially the tango.

"Fox-trot and swing is what you do to a typical big band, but Bill Green offers more than that," Charlene Mitchell said. "Latin rumbas, mambos, cha-chas, sambas. Sambas are probably my favorite. He'll play a Viennese waltz, and none of the bands play those. They're a little faster, part of a bygone era."

Green's ensemble doesn't offer quite the hard-driving sound of Dan Terry's Big Band, but Green's group is tight and polished and features top-notch musicians such as tenor sax man Birdie Carter and classy vocalist Sanders, who favors sleek, glittery gowns and has a voice as honey-smooth and sensual as Billie Holiday's.

The Sunday night crowd consists mostly of people who, like Green, are old enough to have had first-hand experience with the original big bands. A few younger types turn up too, and they are as hooked on authentic swing as their elders.

Rick Lundine, 29, took up ballroom dancing four years ago. He came to the Hotel Del last Sunday with his friend and experienced dancing partner, Dominique Fischer, a warm, grandmotherly type who moved gracefully with him on the dance floor.

"You don't see a lot of young people here," said Lundine, sitting at a table with Fischer between tunes. "But in the last four years, it's been on the upswing."

"I've been dancing since sixth grade," Fischer said. "My father thought every girl should sing, dance and play piano."

Cooling off between dances at the next table were Brian and Jane Breckenridge.

"The ambience here, the crowd, the room . . . this is headquarters!" said Brian Breckenridge, who got hooked by big band music during the 1950s and 1960s. He and his wife dance at the Del two or three times a month.

"There's nothing like this in San Diego, unless you want to go to private dance clubs. People dress up here. They have good manners on the dance floor, and there's good music. The regulars start to form a bond. It's very convivial."

Green is ecstatic to be back at the Del, playing to an enthusiastic house. He believes big band jazz is on the upswing.

"All over the country, they are doing things like we're trying to do at the hotel, having dances that play big band music," Green said.

There's a new generation coming, and Charlene Mitchell wants to be sure they know about all the benefits of big band ballroom dancing.

"In Europe, it's OK for young boys to dance," she said. "Here, they think it's too sissy."

Not her sons, though.

"They used to kid me about this 'fuddy duddy' music," she said. "But I told them, 'You guys don't get to hold the girls when you dance,' and they didn't say anything after that."

* Bill Green and his Orchestra will appear in the Hotel del Coronado's Crown Room on Sunday nights through April. Buffet dinner begins at 5, to the sounds of former Ink Spots' pianist Johnny (Ace) Harris. Green's Big Band starts playing at 6. Admission for dinner and dancing is $29.95 per person, or $24.95 for those over age 55. Tickets for coffee, dessert and dancing only are $10.

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