Larkspur’s Rose Bowl drew thousands of dancers
Courtesy of Marin HistoryMuseum
The dances began as an annual fundraiser for the Larkspur Volunteer Fire Department.
By Scott Fletcher | Marin History Museum
October 1, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Dancing under the stars
The decades-long popularity of Larkspur’s Rose Bowl Dances is unique in California, if not, the nation’s history. The dances began as an annual fundraiser for the Larkspur Volunteer Fire Department in the first decade of the 20th century.
Local lumber purveyor, civic leader and volunteer fireman Ralph Doherty originally proposed the idea of the dances as a way to fund the town’s all-volunteer fire department.
At first, there was resistance to the idea, but within a couple of years the benefit dance was such a success that a wooden platform was built in a nearby redwood grove and dances were held every Saturday night from April through October. By 1938 the redwood grove off of Magnolia Avenue had been purchased by the department and the dance floor expanded to over 24,000 square feet to accommodate the huge crowds.
Many traveled by ferry and train to get to Larkspur, where they were serenaded by popular swing and jazz orchestras, provided with refreshments courtesy of the Corte Madera Volunteer Fire Department, and treated to fireworks that included an awe-inspiring “fire-fall” show. Billed as an opportunity to “Dance Under the Stars,” the only other lighting for guests was provided by strings of twinkling lights and lanterns hanging from the trees that grew up through the dance floor.
The Rose Bowl’s heyday was during the war years between 1941 and 1946, when thousands of soldiers from nearby bases would flock to the grove for an evening of dancing and female companionship. The Saturday night crowds averaged over 2,500 and occasionally topped 4,000! Incredibly, these benefit dances also made Larkspur the only town of any size in North America that “has furnished and is operating its own fire-fighting equipment without cost to the taxpayers,” according to a 1930 industry survey.
The dances continued to draw large crowds over the next 15 years, but by the early 1960s, with attendance waning, the fire department decided to discontinue the annual festivities and sold the property to a developer. An apartment complex now sits on the site of the Rose Bowl dances, but the music and merriment of those bygone years is still remembered by the many thousands who danced the night away “Under the Stars.”