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The Kato Ballroom celebrates 50 years
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The Kato Ballroom opened in 1954 and quickly established itself as a Mankato hotspot. History has been made many times over on its stage, where legends like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Louis Armstrong all performed. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
The Kato Ballroom opened its doors back in the early 1950s around the advent of rock and roll. Before long the Kato established itself as a Mankato hotspot hosting legends like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Louis Armstrong. This New Year's Eve the Kato revisits that history with a party celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Mankato, Minn. — Not much has changed at the Kato Ballroom over the past 50 years. The pink neon sign perched on top of the building is the same. So is the stage with its red velvet curtain and the giant wooden dance floor. Larry Bowers has managed the Kato for more than two decades. He recognizes many of the Kato's glory days occurred before his time but that doesn't deter him from spending lots of energy tracing the ballroom's storied past.

"According to records the Buddy Holly show was the second largest crowd in the history of the ballroom. The first is the Everly Brothers," says Bowers. "They were here November 22, 1964."

Bowers says on that night roughly 2400 eager fans crammed into the Kato. He says back in the 50s and 60s, musicians tended to work a circuit. Mankato was a stop along the route. As a result Chubby Checker, the Beach Boys and Lawrence Welk all spent time on the Kato's stage.

These days there aren't many ballrooms left around the country. But Minnesota's still home to about 30, many of which, like the Kato, continue to thrive.

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Image Gary Lindmeier

Gary Lindmeier took in plenty of shows at the Kato when he was in high school and college. Now, he's 61 and still addicted to the sounds of rock 'n roll. He says it was around that time he and his wife-to-be were doing the twist to Joey Dee and the Starlighters.

"We were out here doing the twist and everybody stopped. The other kids on the dance floor and formed kind of circle around us and watched us do the twist and it was like do we stop or do we keep on going," Lindmeier reminisces. "Well we kept going until the end."

"My wife at the time was going to Johnson's Beauty School down here in Mankato," Lindmeier continues. "The following Monday or Tuesday or whatever it was, a young girl came in to get her hair done and when she walked in she said to Sandy, my wife, 'You're the one. We saw you at the Kato the other night and thought you were from New York City.'"

Lindmeier's not alone in the memory department. Diane Cory has plenty of her own.

Cory sits at her kitchen table in rural Delavan about 40 miles away from the Kato. She thumbs through old leather-bound autographs books. The pages contain tons of signatures from the icons of her youth. She says most were gathered at the Kato where she was a regular, taking in shows whenever she could.

"Everly Brothers. Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis," Cory flicks off a list of names. "Oh lots of them. I couldn't even name them all."

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Image Diane Cory

Cory says she met her husband Robert at the Kato and the rest is history.

"We were sitting at the parking lot in Kato Ballroom and it was around the first of the year and he was waiting for a certain song to come on the radio," says Cory. "It was Daisy Petal Pickings by The Fireballs and when it came on he gave me my diamond and we got engaged."

"Then we went into the ballroom and all of his relatives were there," says Cory. "They knew I was getting the diamond but I didn't, so it's a good thing that I accepted it."

Cory went on to have her wedding reception at the Kato. And she says she's never stopped going back.

On New Year's Eve, old-time rockers Bobby Vee and Brian Holland will perform. Ballroom manager Larry Bowers expects a crowd of about 1,000 people and he offers up a bit of advice.

"Today's guys don't dance with their girls enough and if they did, they'd be a lot better off I think." says Bowers.

With that Bowers heads off. He still has plenty to do before New Year's Eve rolls around and he's determined that the 2004 will go down in history.

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