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Wonderland and its dancers give way to time

Nathan and Beatrice Ginsburt of Revere danced at the Wonderland Ballroom in November 1974.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Nathan and Beatrice Ginsburt of Revere danced at the Wonderland Ballroom in November 1974.

REVERE — When Wonderland Ballroom was in danger of being turned into an MBTA parking lot in 1986, ballroom dance enthusiasts wrote letters, distributed pamphlets, and jammed State House phone lines — saving the beloved dance hall from the wrecking ball. But today, with the ballroom headed toward demolition and a likely future as a hotel, no one is rising to stop it anymore.

The days when the Wonderland dance floors were crowded with waltzing couples in suits and full skirts are long gone. The ballrooms that once lined Revere Beach, and served as social gathering spots throughout the region, have been closed or relegated to function hall status.

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“It’s the end of an era,” said Wonderland owner Robert ­Merowitz, who plans to sell the property to a hotel developer. “The people who did the ballroom dancing, most of these people, it’s terrible to say it, are deceased now.”

Wonderland, which hasn’t featured ballroom dancing in more than a decade, now holds Latin and hard rock shows on weekends, but sits empty during the week. Merowitz envisions a 12-story, 196-room hotel on the site of the sand-colored stucco building with faux Spanish-style red tiles, steps away from the refurbished Wonderland T stop and in the middle of a building boom.

A complex of hotel, residential, and retail space is in the works behind the ballroom, a mixed-use development is proposed for the shuttered Wonderland Greyhound Park across the street, and the nearby Suffolk Downs racetrack is vying for a casino.

Robert Merowitz, owner of the Wonderland Ballroom, plans to sell it to a hotel developer. He envisions a 12-story, 196- room hotel on the site.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE GLOBE

Robert Merowitz, owner of the Wonderland Ballroom, plans to sell it to a hotel developer. He envisions a 12-story, 196- room hotel on the site.

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The first Wonderland Ballroom opened in 1906 as part of the 25-acre Wonderland amusement park on the site of the old greyhound park. The current structure opened in the early 1960s and became the preeminent ballroom in the area, with gilded walls, gold-draped lights, and three dance floors; the 10,000-square-foot main ballroom had mirrored walls and a spring-action floor. Big band orchestras packed the house several nights a week, bringing in as many as 800 dancers a night.

One of them was Rachel Joaquim, who liked to wear a red dress with yards of material that would fan out as she spun. She went to a different venue three or four nights a week — Wonderland, Roseland in Taunton, King Philip in Wrentham, Moseley’s on the Charles in Dedham — and had designated partners in each city.

“I danced with a fellow for four years — I only knew his name was Bill,” said Joaquim, now 82, of New Bedford. “Most of the time I called them, ‘honey.’ ”

Many big names played at the Wonderland over the years, including Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, and Guy Lombardo. The order of sets was always the same, with waltzes, Latin numbers, and fox-trots played at designated times.

“Once I tried an experiment,” longtime Wonderland orchestra leader Tony Bruno Jr. told the Globe in 1986. “I tried to sneak in a fox-trot at the end of a waltz set. I’ll never do that again. I was almost dragged off the floor!”

Karen Batchelder met her husband at Wonderland, where she taught ballroom dancing on Wednesday nights. “We danced all night,” Batchelder said of that Saturday in the mid-1980s. A few months later, he proposed at the ballroom, and the next year they got married in the upstairs function hall.

Batchelder, now 57 and divorced, with her own ballroom dance studio in Peabody, was often the youngest person in the room, but she wasn’t necessarily the most dolled up. Even among older dancers, fashion was anything but casual. The men wore suits; the women wore sequins and glittery eyeshadow. She remembers one flirtatious 92-year-old man who took her around and around the dance floor, and then said, “Pretty good, right?”

Wonderland changed hands a few times over the decades, closing for several months in 1994 before it was purchased by World War II Navy veteran and enthusiastic ballroom dancer Joseph Distefano, who, according to the Wonderland Ballroom newsletter, “was motivated more by his love of dancing than by any business goals.”

Merowitz tried to keep ballroom dancing alive after he bought the venue in 2002, holding a regular Sunday afternoon dance with a small orchestra, but attendance dwindled. He and his partners converted the spot into an entertainment complex featuring the Latin nightclub Club Lido. But after five people were stabbed at the club in one night in 2005, the city rolled back the closing time to 1 a.m., and crowds thinned. A few years ago the nightclub reverted back to the name Wonderland Ballroom, hosting Latin, hard-rock, and reggae shows on weekends, as well as wrestling, boxing, and private functions.

Several old ballrooms in the area still hold weekly dances. Roseland Ballroom is now Roseland Function Hall, with a Chinese restaurant downstairs and ballroom dancing on Sunday afternoons. Moseley’s on the Charles, founded in 1905, has dancing on Wednesday nights.

But the time when there was a place to dance almost every night of the week ended long ago. Like many of her peers, Joaquim does not go out dancing anymore. Spinning makes her dizzy. So she gave away a closetful of dresses and threw away her worn-out $185 German dance shoes. Joaquim, who lives alone, is sad that Wonderland will soon be no more, but she still takes comfort in the memories.

“I have a very hard time living in this time of life because it was so beautiful before,” she said. “You got on the dance floor and you just danced, and all there is is you, your partner, and the music.”

Some nights, she said, she dresses up in a ball gown, lights candles, and puts on a record by Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. She twirls around the living room by herself and sits down between songs, waiting patiently for an imaginary partner to ask her to dance.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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