Daily Press (Sunday)

The Banque turns 50

Country dance hall still draws loyal crowds as it adapts to the times

- By Colin Warren-Hicks Staff writer

NORFOLK — It was around 8:30 p.m. on a recent Friday at The Banque when things began pulsing.

The house lights had dimmed and hip-hop baselines were infusing The Banque’s country and western playlist. Only a handful of older couples were still two-steppin’.

Young Navy men and women kept arriving in groups, gliding across the dance floor in slightly worn cowboy boots. Luke Bryan’s recorded voice sang loud:

… Country girl shake it for me, Girl shake it for me girl.

The regulars were easy to spot, instinctiv­ely knowing which dance step or line up for each new song.

On beat, men thrust their arms out and wide, prompting their partners. Long strands of blond and brunette hair spun in midair as women twirled.

The music, attire and generation­s have changed, but Hampton Roads has been dancing at The Banque for the past half century. This year, the music and dance hall celebrated its 50th anniversar­y and its adaptabili­ty.

In 1973 the dance hall opened as

Fifth National Banque on East Little Creek Road. Patrons in suits and dresses caroused over sipped drinks and swayed in each other’s arms to crooned Frank

Sinatra covers, back and forth atop the same wooden dance floor that’s there today. But the atmosphere always changed, with the times. Rock ’n’ roll cover bands were brought in before the venue transforme­d into a disco in the second heyday of bell-bottoms. It went country-western in the 1980s and slowly settled into its current line-dancing business. Still, there have been some constants, like its friendline­ss to the military. At the height of the Vietnam War when protests calling for peace were rampant, anyone overheard “popping off ” at service members, or calling them a name such as “squid,” was quickly tossed out of the joint.

Its founder, Dennis Doughty, oversaw it all.

“I was a bear sometimes because I had to be to keep it open. I had to go into debt more than once to stay alive,” he said. “I’ve been up and down, up and down.”

Now at nearly 80 years old, he is stepping away from the dance floor to retire.

“I really was not in it for the money as much as my pleasure of making people happy: getting them to eat, dance and have fun.”

The fun will continue. Earlier this year, Doughty sold The Banque to employees Chrissy Clinedinst and Eric Byrum, who have worked at the venue since the 1990s and hope to keep the

doors open for another 50 years.

“It’s at the point that we have the kids and grandkids of customers who met at The Banque and got married coming in now to dance here,” Clinedinst said.

“And, after all of it, we’re busier now than we’ve ever been; we’re always packed.”

Doughty refers to himself as a restaurate­ur. His passion for catering to people’s wants and needs started when he was a teenager working as a bus boy and waiter in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he grew up. He took a break from kitchens for a two-year stint at Arizona State before jumping right back, leaving school for a job at Ramada Inn.

He was promoted, from hotel bartender to food and beverage supervisor to a regional director. Whenever he noticed an inn with a lot of unused space, he’d suggest a transforma­tion — “Get the bands in here” — and begin scouting locations that could be turned into nightlife event rooms.

“They taught me a lot about business, and I taught them a little bit about nightclubs. In that era, live entertainm­ent was really big, and I was really good at it.”

He stayed with the company for 10 years; during that time, he got married and moved to Hampton Roads. He was prospering as a businessma­n and before he even

turned 30 supervised 14 hotels and restaurant­s across a five-state region. But constant travel had taken a toll. At 29, he felt burned out and as if he had spent maybe only two months of his 2-year-old daughter’s life by her side and not on the road.

While he possessed zero talent as a singer and couldn’t himself “dance a lick,” his time as a company man had taught Doughty that he had a natural talent for spotting others’ artistic gifts and a business savvy for booking deals. He had already revitalize­d a dinner theater in Ocean View on behalf of Ramada Inn and had built a small reputation for bringing popular live acts into Hampton Roads. Now he wanted to open his own club.

He found a business vacancy up for rent inside a Norfolk strip mall on

East Little Creek Road. He called a realty agent and took a tour, and walking inside for the first time, he easily envisioned how to turn the 17,000 square feet and four large rooms into multiple dance floors and bars, and still have space for a kitchen. Wow, he thought, over 400 could fit in here! He signed a lease.

In 1973, Doughty used all the money he had and took out multiple loans to get the place up and running. He went close to broke. When word of his situation spread, he found help in a fellow local business. The owner of nearby laundromat graciously emptied his washing machines of quarters and gave Doughty

coins to make $200 in change to fill The Banque’s opening-night tills.

In the first few years, he brought in a lot of cover bands playing everything from Ricky Nelson to The Beatles, and at one point, Bill Deal and the Rhondels were regular Banque performers.

But when the disco era hit, The Banque Bee Gee-fied to cater to customer demand. For several years it operated a disco without live music, The Janitors Closet, on the other side of the shopping center.

“I wore three-piece suits and leftover collars,” Doughty said, adding that disco was too loud and brought in too many wannabe John Travoltas.

Around 1980, The Banque transition­ed to country and western and opened a western-themed store selling cowboy hats, boots and belt buckles. Before they were famous, Alan Jackson, Little Texas, Tanya Tucker and Mickey Gilley all played The Banque. Brooks and Dunn once arrived on the fly with four tour buses full of people and stage supplies.

But in the ’90s, bands became too expensive to book, Doughty said. He finally made the switch to DJs.

“But as long as everyone is dancing, eating and having fun, we’re still doing what we set out to do all those — well, now it’s, 50 — years ago.”

These days, The Banque’s main dance floor is flanked by bars. Above one row of bourbon, photos of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers stare toward the opposite wall where Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr. hang. Behind the stage is a foggy room, The Saloon, for smokers and filled with pool tables. The food is American fare, and its cooks take special pride in the prime rib.

Last month just as the Luke Bryan song was winding down, Chris Gilbert-Luhman stood behind the venue’s largest bar, The Vault, taking orders and serving drinks as she always has for the past 41 years. She’s The Banque’s most senior employee; she started on Nov. 4, 1982. She stuck around so long thanks to the good pay, friendly management and high levels of energy always pulsating inside one of the few country and western bars in the area.

“I can’t recall everyone’s name, but I always remember what drink they order,” she said. “I put love into every single drink I make, even if it’s a beer.”

Close by, a group of friends sat sweaty around a table. The Banque opens at 6 with free line, two-step and swing dancing lessons for the uninitiate­d, but no one at the table had needed them. Barry Watts and his daughter, Valerie Watts, and three friends they called their “dance family” have all danced at The Banque for over 20 years. Discussing which of them was the best dancer, each pointed to someone else.

“There’s no better place around to go dancing,” Barry Watts said. People are friendly, he added, and the place always feels safe.

Across the room, a man in a hoodie with gauges in his ears dapped a middleaged fella in running shoes. Out on the floor, some people had an intimate knowledge of the steps — step, turn, step, turn, stomp, hip-dip, shimmy, shimmy … (perfect) — and others were a beat behind. Still, there were smiles all around.

About 40 feet in front of the Wattses’ table, a young woman in a Hooters shirt boogied shoulder-to-shoulder with two older women who’d left their husbands at home to come and forget about their troubles and children for a while.

 ?? STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF PHOTOS ?? The Banque country and western bar is a haven for people who love line dancing.
STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF PHOTOS The Banque country and western bar is a haven for people who love line dancing.
 ?? ?? Conner Brown and Gabby Shacoski spin around the dance floor filled with patrons at The Banque.
Conner Brown and Gabby Shacoski spin around the dance floor filled with patrons at The Banque.
 ?? ?? When not dancing, customers flock to the smoking section for some karaoke.
When not dancing, customers flock to the smoking section for some karaoke.
 ?? STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF ?? Anna Nutter, with Daniel Flack looking over the dance floor, glances back to the person singing karaoke in the smoking section.
STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF Anna Nutter, with Daniel Flack looking over the dance floor, glances back to the person singing karaoke in the smoking section.

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