A glimpse of Guilderland history. Three Roosevelt Birthday Balls brought swank times to Altamont in the depths of the Great Depression

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Altamont’s Masonic Hall on Maple Avenue was the scene of the three Roosevelt Birthday Balls. Attendees not only came from Altamont, but from areas as scattered as Elsmere, Voorheesville, Berne, Central Bridge, Schoharie, Delanson, the hamlet of Guilderland, and Guilderland Center.

Even today, over 70 years after the event, the excitement generated by the prospect of the Roosevelt Birthday Ball comes through just by reading The Enterprise’s January and February 1934 headlines. Altamont’s most important and highly anticipated social gathering in many years was scheduled on the president’s actual Jan. 30 birthday, one of thousands nationwide, all held for the purpose of raising funds for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.

The foundation was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after his purchase of the rundown resort of Warm Springs, 75 miles southwest of Atlanta. Having been paralyzed from the waist down by an attack of polio in 1921, Roosevelt struggled to walk again.

At a friend’s suggestion, he made a 1924 visit to Warm Springs where the naturally warm, mineral-rich water gave the body greater buoyancy. When Roosevelt swam there and exercised in the pool, he felt he was making progress. Which inspired him to feel other polio sufferers would benefit as well.

Two years later, Roosevelt invested two-thirds of his personal fortune in the purchase and redevelopment of the resort into a polio treatment center but, in the depths of the Depression, by 1933, Warm Springs was very short of funds. The Birthday Balls were designed to provide a substantial endowment fund for the foundation.

“Citizens of Altamont” couldn’t miss the huge square boxed notice in the center of The Enterprise’s front page on Jan. 12, informing them that on the evening of Jan. 30 towns and cities across the nation would be sponsoring Birthday Balls in honor of the president on behalf of the Warm Springs endowment fund.

The announcement let readers know that “prominent men and women of this village and adjoining communities ... have pledged themselves to do their part.” Editorializing in the same edition that it was “commendable” that Altamont citizens were doing their part, the paper encouraged everyone to be involved in such a worthy effort.

The writer slyly added, “The local plans indicate the ball will be well worth attending as a matter of pleasure. We haven’t had a really swanky public affair in some years.”

Altamont’s acceptance of the invitation that had been sent out to communities all over the country had been unanimous after discussions by village officials, businessmen, and the village’s civic and fraternal organizations. The Masonic Hall was donated for the event.

“Unbounded enthusiasm” and “plans progressing in a most satisfactory manner” were published comments sure to stir up the public’s curiosity and create a desire to share in the festivities. Richard Kirk, chairman of the General Committee, was quoted saying, “The idea of the nationwide benefit for the infantile paralysis sanatorium at Warm Springs, Georgia has struck a responsive chord.” He also noted that, not only was Altamont involved, but volunteers from outside the village had stepped up as well.

Advance ticket sales were brisk, available for purchase not only in Altamont, but also in Voorheesville, Guilderland Center, the hamlet of Guilderland, Delanson, and Berne. Admission was $1.50 per couple or for two women together, but no single ticket would be sold. Donations were also accepted with $5 already sent in by a summer visitor and $10 from the Town of Guilderland Democratic Committee. (Multiply by 18 to get the approximate amount in current dollars.)

You needn’t feel awkward if you weren’t a dancer. The upstairs lodge rooms would be open for card playing while the dancing was going on downstairs. And for those who neither danced nor played cards, a musical and literary presentation would be offered upstairs as well. At 11:20 p.m., all activities were to be halted for a national radio broadcast featuring President Roosevelt saying a few words to ball-goers coast to coast.

It was obvious by the next week that excitement was building with the paper’s report that “present indications are that the Masonic Hall will be filled to capacity for one of the most brilliant events in the village’s history.” The donations had already passed the $25 mark.

However, there must have been some grousing about why, in the depths of the Depression, the country was raising money for a foundation in Georgia. In addition, while today Franklin D. Roosevelt is considered one of our great presidents, in 1934 there were many Republicans who were dissatisfied with anything connected to Roosevelt or his administration.

This was probably the reason that near the page-one article enthusing about the upcoming ball, there was a second piece headlined “Warm Springs Has Treated Patients From Every State,” emphasizing that 75 percent of infantile paralysis victims treated there received financial aid in all or part.

Richard Kirk, ball chairman, had requested the clarification from foundation trustees so “that patrons of the Altamont charity ball might better understand the project.” Actually, it was the Warm Springs’ board of trustees who had come up with the fundraising idea and asked Roosevelt to give them permission to use his name for what was a non-political event.

The ground may have been snow covered, the temperature below zero, but that didn’t stop the folks from crowding Altamont’s Masonic Hall for what was termed “a brilliant social affair.” The decorating committee had created an “enchanting scene” by turning the Masonic Hall into a “veritable fairyland,” banking the walls with evergreens intertwined with crystal branches and colored lights.

Hanging from the ceiling were soft shaded lights “festooned” with evergreens, while near the stage was an illuminated rock fountain with its stream splashing amid moss-covered rocks. (The village’s doctor was heard to wisecrack that all it needed was some trout!)

Additional evergreens and lights banked the stage where a huge picture of President Roosevelt was displayed and a large illuminated “birthday cake” had been placed, which when “cut” produced tiny flags with the evening’s date as souvenirs.

Beginning at nine, the ball was over at 1:30 a.m. The garage located across the street from the Masonic Temple had remained open in the event anyone’s frigid car refused to start.

Not only did the attendees feel the party had been worth the price of admission, but the committee was thrilled to have netted $140.42 after expenses to be sent to the national chairman. The next week’s Enterprise editorial crowed, “WE DID IT” and gave credit to the committee, and especially the decoration group, which worked so hard to make it a success.

And, for a postscript, there was a section titled “Birthday Ball Echoes” where some local wit wrote, “Not only did the Warm Springs Foundation gather in some shekels, but also our local hairdressers, tailors and barbers.” In May 1934, a check for $1,016,443, the proceeds from the nation’s balls, was presented to President Roosevelt.

Already in December 1934, the announcement was made that, on Jan. 30, 1935, another Birthday Ball would be held, but with a difference. That year 70 percent of the proceeds would remain in the area where the money was raised, while 30 percent would be turned over to the president to be put to research efforts to wipe out infantile paralysis.

The 1935 ball plans were similar to the previous year. In spite of icy roads and subzero temperatures, the hall was filled almost to capacity with many attendees coming from outside the village. They danced, played cards, listened to a musical program, and heard words from President Roosevelt, again on a nationwide radio hook-up.

The local 1935 ball netted approximately $100. Altamont’s share was used to purchase a heater for the ambulance that transported affected children from Albany and surrounding areas to Bath House No. 3 for water-therapy treatments. Organizers also placed $27 in an account in the Altamont Bank in case it was needed in the future for a victim in the village.

The year 1936 passed without a birthday ball but, in 1937, the event was revived, this time held on Jan. 29  due to the 30th being a Saturday night; it was felt that to continue dancing after midnight on Sunday morning might be objectionable to some people.

Tickets in 1937 were $1.25 per couple, singles being made to pay full price. Again the decorating-committee members outdid themselves, this time with an Indian theme, and the hall was filled to capacity. A new addition was a sedate floor show.

Although no indication was given in the paper as to the proceeds, none were kept in Altamont in 1937. Instead, the proceeds were given to the Red Cross to help in the Midwest, which had suffered terrible midwinter flooding, affecting 800,000 residents.

Altamont’s three Birthday Balls were great successes due to the tremendous amount of work on the part of various committees. There was involvement by all ages from Altamont high school students and Girl Scouts to many older residents, businessmen, members of various civic organizations, local officials, and fraternal organizations. These balls added sparkle to dreary winter nights and were a bright spot during those trying Depression years.

Beginning in 1938, the Warm Springs Foundation became the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the March of Dimes became its fundraising arm.

Corrected on Jan. 25, 2018: The location of Warm Springs, Georgia was changed to southwest of Atlanta rather than northwest as originally written.

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