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  • September 13th, 2012

Romance, Fifties Style

The Larry Don in 1956

By Joel M. Vance

 And here it is 56 years later and the Larry Don still trundles downlake from Bagnell Dam and presumably moony-eyed couples still hold hands and dance the slow ones in a dreamy haze.  But as I looked at the squat old excursion boat from the vantage point of 78 years, I looked also at Marty beside me and saw once again the young couple of 1956.

We were two college couples on a getaway weekend to the Lake of the Ozarks, a tawdry Mid-Missouri version of Las Vegas for country kids with almost no money.  We had no plan, hadn’t even thought about a romantic sail on the Larry Don until we passed a sign advertising the boat.

            Marty and Suzanne had taken a cruise during a Girl Scout camp at the Lake and one of them suggested we take the Moonlight Cruise, a two and one half hour excursion, complete with music and dancing. I was an aficionado of what we called “belly buckle polishing” (what Fred Astaire, who was considerably more sophisticated than I called “cheek to cheek”), so dancing seemed better than wandering The Strip, which was the name of the sleazy shop-lined road leading to the dam.

The pier was the dock for a private restaurant and club owned by Union Electric (now Amerin UE which built the lake), built in the 1930s and called The Casino which didn’t mean a gambling hall, but a place to eat.

            The Larry-Don arrived in 1948, built from parts of a World War Two landing craft.  It was named for Lawrence Fry Jr., and Don Fry, the son and brother, respectively, of the original owner Lawrence Fry.  Today the three-level boat has a capacity of 200 passengers and offers sightseeing, dancing, karaoke and private cruises.  In the 1940s many couples got married on the Larry-Don, not to mention at least one couple that got engaged in the 1950s.  The newlyweds got a souvenir good-luck horseshoe with “Larry Don” on it.

            The Larry Don left from Casino Pier on Lake of the Ozarks each night during the summer, cruised downlake, made a turn and headed home.  Lights from shoreside resorts and homes shone like fireflies and the heavy diesel engines thumped rhythmically. 

            For country kids it was as exciting as yachting on the Riviera.  The reality was somewhat different than cruising with the Jet Set.  The Larry Don is a converted Union Electric barge, used to transport equipment during the construction of the Dam.  No amount of paint and chrome will transform its squat outline from a barge to a schooner. 

            We recently stood on the street above the Larry Don and I took a photo of it as it gently rocked at anchor.  It is just as squat and rusty as ever, a toad among nautical amphibians.  I doubt it features a Fifties band today and the dancing would be just as foreign to me as it was then. 

            The boat was crowded with couples, swaying to the music and the gentle rock of the boat as it lumbered through the night.  The Larry Don, named for the two sons of the original owner, is the oldest excursion boat on the Lake of the Ozarks, dating to 1948, and still takes moony couples out on the lake on soft summer nights, their sweaty hands intertwined. 

            We paid our $2.50 per couple, a sizeable chunk out of my disposable income, and trooped onto the big boat, along with about 190 other lovebirds.  We managed to get a booth and took turns dancing so we wouldn’t lose our place.   I danced then like I dance now—awkwardly. 

            Fast dancing was an art form as foreign and unattainable to me as etching Biblical scenes on the head of a pin.  Marty on the other hand danced fast or slow like Cyd Charisse.  “Come on,” she urged when the band struck up a fast tune, “I’ll show you.”  I dug my heels in, bowing my neck with my lower lip stuck out, like a two-year-old on the verge of a tantrum. 

            “Don’t wanna!” 

            “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed, laughing.  She thought I was being coy, but I was being childishly adamant and had she persisted I would have been inclined to stalk stiffly out the door, except there was nowhere to go but a half-mile of deep water between me and shore.

            Fortunately the song ended and the next one was slow, something I could handle, and as we danced I felt the stiffness go out of her.  I tucked my head next to hers and kissed her on the neck and things were as they had been.

            We sat while Jim and Suzanne danced.  We started telling stories about silly names.  I said I’d heard that a woman in my home town had so many children that she ran out of names and when the next one came along she cast about desperately for a given name and happened to see a calendar on the wall and thus “Buford Plow Company Jones” came to be.

            Marty said, “I know a girl named Susie Collins, but she’s engaged to Don Genuse, so if she gets married she’ll be Susie Genuse.”

            With no forethought I blurted, “How does Marty Vance sound?”
            There was a pause during which the stars stood still, the boat didn’t rock, the music didn’t play and I didn’t breath, stunned by what I had said.  Marty started to laugh, thinking it was another joke, then the words sank in and she assumed the expression of a sheep that has just head-butted a locomotive.

            “Fuh..fuh..fine!” she quavered.  To this day I don’t know if she intended to say yes or if I surprised it out of her.  Actually, thinking back on it, she didn’t say yes, but it now is 56 years later and she still is married to me.  Whether she still thinks Marty Vance sounds “fine” is up to her, but five kids and nearly six decades of being that person probably is a good indication that it was an agreeable name change.

            Jim and Suzanne came back from their dance to find that their friends now were engaged.  They looked at each other and undoubtedly had one of two thoughts: 1. What the hell is the matter with them—they hardly know each other; 2. I hope to hell they don’t expect us to do it too.

            They would spend the next four months trying to talk us into waiting but to no avail.  Both he and Suzanne would marry others, but Marty and I, for all our impetuous and irrational haste, have stuck it out for 56 years and counting.


56 years ago

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  1. Mark

    September 14th, 2012 at 10:45 am


    Congratulations to a long marriage… Joel and Marty.

    Honestly, does it seem that long ago?


    • joelvance

      September 14th, 2012 at 12:13 pm


      It really doesn’t….unless I look in the mirror. For Marty even the mirror is kind

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