Like moths to a flame, the lights of the Hippodrome were irresistible to the people of Bend, Oregon, over a century ago. This painting by Jenny Joyce sets the lively scene, displayed at McMenamins Old St. Francis School.
The original definition of “hippodrome” is an arena for horse chariot racing in ancient Greece. Over the centuries, that clearly changed; chariots and horses were replaced with cars; however, whatever happened at the Hippodrome was still bound to be exciting!
Although the term sounds unusual now, “hippodrome” was a popular name for theaters and arenas in the early 20th century. For instance, the Portland Hippodrome (in the city’s northwest Slabtown district) was the ice arena and home of the Rosebuds hockey team from 1914 to 1956. The Hippodrome in Bend was a dance hall and roller-skating rink which opened in 1916.
Frequent advertisements in the Bend Bulletin newspaper announced events at the Hippodrome seven days a week, for decades. For an admission of 15 cents, young kids and adults could attend “high class” vaudeville shows with “dancing aerial acts, educated dogs, and funny farce comedies”. Sports were also a big attraction at the Hippodrome, and “basket sport” games, wrestling bouts, and boxing matches were regularly held there.
The Loyal Order of the Moose (a fraternal club similar to the Elks) put on the annual Moose Carnival at the Hippodrome. This week-long festival was advertised as a “cross between Barnum & Bailey and New Orleans Mardi Gras”! Kids were guaranteed $10 in “moose money” to spend at the fair, along with a balloon on a string. Vender booths were set up to raise money for various organizations, including the library club. The local news proclaimed that “fun, frolic, and foolishness will prevail” at the Moose Carnival.
Bend’s Hippodrome opened in response to the 1915 construction of the Shevlin-Hixon and Brooks-Scanlon lumber mills which attracted workers from across the country. In 1916, this dance hall immediately became the area’s center of amusement and camaraderie; it also served as a meeting hall for the Millworkers and Loggers Union. It’s no exaggeration that the Hippodrome brought the community together.
Every night of the week, there was a dance at the Hippodrome, and jazz bands were all the rage. The local Paul Hosmer Dance Orchestra was a popular ensemble that frequently performed there. Paul was a banjo player, and later became known as a writer who documented the stories of loggers for the Brooks-Scanlon company newsletter, Pine Echoes, and other publications.
Hosmer Lake, west of Bend (previously called “Mud Lake”) was named in his honor.
Despite the hardships of the Great Depression, the community of Bend was still eager to attend dances and forget their troubles at the Hippodrome during the 1930s. “Hard Times Dances” were common, and accommodated the majority of people who had little money to spend. The Red Cross often hosted benefit dances to collect food items to distribute to families in need.
Admission to the dance was paid in canned goods. “Jitney” dances were another popular and affordable way for folks to join in the fun. Dancers only had to pay per song (“jitney” is slang for a nickel), and mere “spectators” could also participate for less.
Dances, carnivals, and even vaudeville shows usually included a contest of some kind. Some party people won the award for the best masquerade costume or for being the “oldest lady and gentlemen in the room.” One vaudeville show advertised their “homely man contest.” Past winners of various competitions received valuable prizes such as a horse saddle, a diamond ring, and even a Ford automobile.
In 1931, the Hippodrome put on a “Walkathon” event, where the last couple standing won $100 at the end of the night. The prize, however, was almost too good to be true. The event promoter was so tempted to keep the money himself that he ran off with the loot. He was found by police, barricaded in his hotel room. After a couple of days, the prize winners were able to get the money that they won fair and square.
In 1936, St. Francis School was built in Bend and was the first Catholic parochial school in Central Oregon. The Hippodrome on NW Wall Street was only steps away from the new school campus. It’s not hard to imagine St. Francis students eager to go roller-skating at the Hippodrome after class.
The lights of the Hippodrome went out in 1942, when the building was bought by Safeway, and torn down to be replaced with their new grocery store. Today, the Deschutes Public Library stands on that same corner of NW Wall Street and Louisiana Avenue, where a historical marker commemorates the Hippodrome—Just a hop, skip, and a jump away from McMenamins Old St. Francis School in Bend, Oregon.