A Boise icon to close: Mardi Gras hosts ‘farewell’ with one event left

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The lights have all been turned off. The gleaming floor mopped. Beer and wine wiped off tables, stools, and chairs. Doors locked. The Mardi Gras, a legendary local venue that featured live music for more than 60 years, held its last dance on April 9. Featuring The Blues Brothers Rock ’N Soul Revue and The Mystics, “Thru the Years — A Farewell to the Mardi Gras,” was a don’t-miss show for those lucky enough to score a ticket — it sold out well in advance.

From 1958 on, locals grew up watching performers take the Mardi Gras stage with names that lit up marquees from New York to L.A. and ‘Vegas. Buddy Rich, Gib Hochstrasser and the Kings of Swing in the ‘50s. The Ventures, Johnny Winter, Leon Russell, Edgar Winter, the Animals in the ‘60s and ‘70s — and beyond. Paul Revere and the Raiders were regulars. Carole King, Muddy Waters and Ice T held standing ovations at the Mardi Gras Ballroom. The band R.E.M. performed there a number of times.

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It started with the circus

It was the brainchild of Orson Merrill and his wife, Lydia Merrill, said their daughter Lana McCullough. The building at 615 S. Ninth St. in Boise started out in 1928 as the Riverside Pavilion, an open-air dance hall. McCullough said it even has a magical origin story: “The circus used to meet down by the river, and one of the elephants put the beams (for the building) in the ground,” she said.

Her parents bought the structure in 1958 and, after installing a maple wood floor, turned it briefly into a roller-skating rink before settling on the dance hall notion that became music to the community’s ears.

And while Orson was the face of the venture, it was Lydia who was the glue both in front of and behind the scenes, McCullough said. “She was the one who took the tickets, counted the money … and she loved to dance. That’s what she always wanted to do.”

McCullough was 13 when her parents bought the place and she remembers teen sensation Bobby Vee appearing at the Mardi Gras on her 15th birthday. “He asked me to dance — I wouldn’t dance with him because I was too shy. … I turned him down,” said McCullough. But if she hadn’t? “Who knows what would have happened,” she said, laughing.

The dance hall hosted literally thousands of dances, live shows, and benefits, said McCullough, partly because it created a wholesome environment for the young crowd. “My mom always thought: ‘If they were dancing, they wouldn’t get into trouble.’”

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‘Magical’

The bar area at the Mardi Gras ballroom. Photo: Brian Myrick/Idaho Press

One of the reasons so many groups played at the Mardi Gras may have been because it had gained the reputation of having mythical properties. After Buddy Rich played there, he went on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and announced to the world that the Mardi Gras in Boise, Idaho, “had the best acoustics of any place he’d played,” said McCullough. “Bands say the acoustics here are magical. That’s what they call it: ‘Magical.’”

Orson, who died 19 years ago, was once featured on an album cover of the local band The Hi-Tops. Lydia Merrill, who had hoped to live to 110, died Nov. 6, 2021, at the age of 106.

The Mardi Gras will honor one more performance that was delayed due to COVID-19: “Elvis & Buddy,” featuring tribute artists Joseph Hall as Elvis Presley and Zachary Stevenson as Buddy Holly on Friday, June 24. But its last dance is over, nothing left on that shiny wooden floor but some shimmering sawdust — and memories.

Tim Woodward, Idaho Press columnist, author, and musician — he’s played in The Mystics, one of the bands that performed at the ballroom on Saturday, since high school — shared some of his own Mardi Gras memories in a recent email exchange.

“The first band I saw at the Mardi Gras would have been a local band called Dick Cates and the Chessmen. Dick Cates had one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. Roy Orbison had nothing on Dick Cates. Orson Merrill, who owned the Mardi Gras with his wife, the amazing Lydia, told a story about getting after Cates for hiding a bottle of whiskey in the upright piano that was on stage in those days. He might have been over 21, but most of the crowd wasn’t.

“I don’t think we played there until the 1980s. We’ve probably played there half a dozen times. … Not sure what’s responsible for those acoustics. My guess is it may have something to do with the low ceiling and maybe some acoustical dampening somewhere, but that’s only a guess.

“My favorite memory probably is of the Mystics 50th Anniversary Party. The place was packed, everyone had a great time and lots of former band members showed up to help celebrate. That included all of the original band members from the 1960s except one, who had passed away. … He was sort of there, though. We had an almost life-sized cardboard cutout made of him.”

McCullough said she hopes others who remember the good times they had there will share their Mardi Gras memories on the venue’s Facebook page.

Jeane Huff - Idaho Press Community Engagement Editor
Jeane Huff - Idaho Press Community Engagement Editor
Jeane Huff is the community engagement editor for The Idaho Press.

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