A crowd gathers around the stage at Gruene Hall, singing along as Kelly Willis belts out a tune on a steamy summer night in New Braunfels, Texas (pop. 36,494). Among the sea of spectators, a few carve out a small space on the dance floor to two-step, while others stand on benches in the back to get a better view.
In fact, a similar scene has played out countless times since Gruene Hall opened in 1878, becoming what is now the oldest, continuously run dance hall in Texas.
The venue, built by H.D. Gruene, got its start as a place where farmers brought their families to socialize, a tradition that carried on for decades. In fact, Gruene’s great-grandson, Kyle Gruene, 74, recalls spending Saturday nights there as a child in the late 1930s.
“The floor was beautiful, highly polished,” Gruene says. “When the band would take a break, the little boys would slide across the floor in their sock feet.” He remembers that there were even cots where weary children slept as their parents danced into the early morning.
When various economic factors devastated the area in the 1920s and ’30s, Gruene Hall survived. But by the early 1970s, the famed dance hall was in disrepair and served primarily as a bar and domino hall. It wasn’t until 1975, when San Antonio business people Mary Jane Nalley and Pat Molak purchased Gruene Hall, that it returned to its live music roots.
“We shared a love of old buildings and live music,” says Nalley of her partnership with Molak. “Gruene Hall is special, and we made it shine again.”
Nanette Sullivan, who manages the place, recalls the first time she got a peek at the old dance hall floor. “It was alive in there,” she says, even though the area had been neglected for years. “There’s a vibe here, and the musicians feel it, too.”
Today, the 6,000-square-foot building looks much like it did the day it opened. The building has no air conditioning so breezes blow through large chicken wire window screens that line each side of the building. In the wintertime, huge wooden shutters are pulled over the windows to keep patrons warm since there’s no heating unit either.
Chris Burns, a Gruene Hall regular, says everybody feels at home when they walk through the front door. “I can’t say exactly what makes Gruene Hall unique,” Burns says, “but it has to do with the chicken wire.” He explains that items like chicken wire window screens and the original tin roof are all part of the unique flavor that has kept Texans coming to the humble Gruene Hall for inspired music.
Mike Daily, steel guitarist for George Strait’s Ace in the Hole Band, says he always brought his own fan in the summer and his own space heater in the winter when the band played there in the 1970s.
He recalls one particularly cold night when the band wore coats while they played, and he could see the condensation from Strait’s breath as he sang. “In 30 years, the place hasn’t changed at all,” Daily says. “It’s unmatched in atmosphere, and a lot of people would say it is one of their favorite places to play.”
Gruene Hall has hosted all types of performers, from Ernest Tubb to Little Richard, but it is perhaps best known for hosting country music stars such as Strait, Hal Ketchum, Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson early in their careers.
Visitors can capture a glimpse of the dance hall’s musical history through the autographed photos that hang floor to ceiling. “These walls have heard a lot of music,” says regular Ann McClendon. “I’ve always loved music, and I’ve been amazed by the quality here.”
Nalley says they always have focused on singer/songwriters who are serious about their art, and Sullivan adds that their location has enabled them to draw many good musicians and songwriters from nearby Austin.
“(Mary Jane and Pat) have created a really great atmosphere where everyone always feels comfortable,” says regular Cherie Rinehart. “They’ve worked hard and kept it with the feeling of the old days.”