While writing the article Tales from Pete the Corndog Dealer, Pete told me that where Hillcrest Food Mart now stands a great dancehall once stood, known for hosting legendary dance parties. Many fun memories were made to the sounds of local musicians and national big-name artists at the Playquato Dancehall. Built in 1938 by John and Ruby Marth, Playquato was the place to be on a Saturday night for three decades.
Curious, I began poking around to see what I could discover about this place of revelry from back in the day. What I found turned out to be very interesting indeed. The huge half-acre domed building was named by a contest winner. Sometimes it was spelled Playquato and other times, Plaquato. The building featured cloakrooms and a smoking lounge with a circular fireplace and two separate dance floors. Although no alcohol was served, many imbibed in the parking lot. Youngsters not yet old enough to attend the dances often visited the parking lot on Sunday mornings to see what treasures could be found.
Local drummer Gary Schonack played at Playquato in the 1960s with a group called the Bonnevilles. “We had good times there,” he said. “It was a pretty wild place.” He also recalled an earlier time at Playquato. “My father Bob Schonack played accordion in the late 40s to mid-50s with Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys. He absolutely loved it. I was just a little guy and I remember my dad getting all duded up with his tie. He went traveling with them and told lots of stories.”
My conversation with Gary led me to Tom Spahr, dummer of Backfire Band. His family also has fond memories through the generations. Tom started off by saying, “There was a lot of babies conceived in that parking lot, true story. It was a different time. In some ways it was more stringent but also a bit looser. People partied hard.”
His dad, Emil Spahr Jr., played bass in the Tex Mitchell Band. Their guitar player was Don Rich. Buck Owens came in and wanted to hire Don for his band. “That deal was actually carried out in the back of my dad’s 57 Oldsmobile in the parking lot along with a lot of whiskey,” Tom said.
Many couples found love in the wooden structure. “My uncle Warner Blaser met his wife, Betty Jo Gunther, at Playquato one New Year’s Eve,” Tom said. Warner was a musician and Betty Jo said to him, “You haven’t given me a New Year’s Eve kiss.” The couple was married for over fifty years. I came across many accounts of locals who met dancing at Playquato.
Roger Thode’s aunt and uncle, Harry and Thelma Thode, purchased Playquato in 1952. “Most of the big name country and western musicians played there at one time or another,” Roger said. “Big name Nashville people like Red Alwin, Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. My aunt and uncle enjoyed talking with them and made good friends.”
Some nights thousands of people would flock to the dancehall for the chance to hear some of the Grand Ole Opry stars. Many still speak of his aunt Thelma’s homemade cream pies served from the dancehall’s kitchen.
Playquato Dancehall’s final show was as dramatic as it was glorious. When Playquato burned in May of 1975, Trevor Ogden-Sanchez was a trainee firefighter just out of the Navy. “We heard the tones go off on the scanner when Jack Allmer and I were having coffee at VIPS restaurant in Chehalis,” Trevor said. “As soon as you crossed the Chehalis River Bridge on Highway 6, you could see the smoke and knew it was a big one. As we arrived, WSP Trooper Norm Mitchell had just set up to direct traffic at the intersection. The first fire engine was arriving at the same time we were. The building looked fully engulfed in fire. We started pulling hoses as the other units arrived and deployed. The fire was so hot it was more of a containment than to actually try to put out the burn. Crews were on scene thru the night as I remember.”
Today all that remains of Playquato are fond memories and a few photos. The unique history of Playquato Dancehall reflects the cultural and musical times of yesteryear. Nostalgia lasts in the hearts of those who found good times or maybe even love under the giant timber frame. This is a reflection of time before technology took over and a testament to the grand performances once held in what is now a gas station parking lot.