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Save the Last Dance for Alice

79-year-old Texas music icon still blowin’ and goin’ in the dance hall her father built

The poor guy saw it coming. And he still couldn’t get out of the way. Truth is, he asked for it on a hopping Saturday night at Tom Sefcik Hall where he was pummeling another patron in the bar downstairs.

Other customers just kept playing pool, plunking coins into the jukebox and chatting at the long, wooden bar. Upstairs, couples swirled around the dance floor, oblivious to the melee below.

Spirits were high, and the band was hot—and so was owner Alice Sulak, who marched right up to the brawler with an enamel water pitcher in her hands.

BAM!!! She conked him over the head with the pitcher. Down he went. Fight over. Winner: Alice. And for several years, she kept the cracked water pitcher to prove the outcome.

“He was kind of shook up, but he was quiet then,” Alice says of that night some 40 years ago in this storied Czech dance hall east of Temple that her father built in 1923.

Tom Sefcik (pronounced “SEF-chick”), a burly man with a warm smile, built more than a two-story dance hall: He built community in the tiny town of Seaton. He and his wife, Terezie Rose, created a sweet life, raising two daughters, Adela and Alice, in the two-story house he constructed next door. And one daughter was destined to someday take over one of the most revered dance halls in Texas.

Make no doubt: This is Alice’s place. Like the wooden sign says downstairs, “IF ALICE AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY!” But Alice, a 79-year-old Texas music icon who’s been running this dance hall since 1970, has a smile for all who enter the double-screen doors downstairs or walk outside the building on the porch to climb the stairs to the old wooden dance floor.

“I usually stay pretty happy,” says Alice, a grandmother of five and a self-described bartender and bouncer. “That’s just the way I am. Some people don’t have no personality at all, but I talk to everybody. I don’t meet no strangers. That’s the way you’ve got to be in business.”

Granted, Alice can be all business—especially when she’s, uh, short with troublemakers. In her physical prime, she stood somewhere around 5 feet, 5 inches. Back problems—caused, in part, by a degenerative joint condition, years of lifting ice blocks and heavy boxes and a long-ago run-in with a bull that slammed her against a fence—have taken their toll, and she now stands a few inches under that mark.

But don’t call her diminutive. Someone of Alice’s stature demands way more respect than that.

“She’s the sweetest thing that I have ever been around, but she can be cantankerous,” says Otis Beck, who performed with Alice in his band from 1966 to 1971. “She knows how to swing the bat.”

And she knows how to blow the horn. Since joining her sister’s band, Adela and the Music Masters, as a drummer at the age of 11, Alice has never left the stage. She’s an original member of Jerry Haisler and the Melody 5, which began 44 years ago as Otis Beck and the Melody 5, and plays some 40 gigs a year with the band at venues across Central Texas.

While some people measure success in cars and money, Alice measures hers in tenor saxophones: She’s on her fifth, a Yamaha, and played her first, a Buescher, at the age of 15 in Adela’s band.

“Everything I play is strictly by ear,” Alice says. “I don’t know ONE note. I don’t. Heh, heh, heh.” But when Alice harmonizes with Haisler on saxophone or vocals—they sing in Czech and English—she hits all the right notes. She’s a one-name woman: sort of like Cher, but without the sequins and multiple costume changes.

Alice (whose last name, for the record, is pronounced “shoe-lock”) would rather play and sing than worry about bling. Her flashiest piece of jewelry is the silver watch on her left wrist, and her makeup consists of lightly applied blue eye shadow. “I don’t want to overdo it, but you’ve got to make yourself look presentable,” she says. “Some women are so into the makeup, it’s almost scary. Heh, heh, heh.”

At an age when most people are long retired and sifting through the memories of their once-active lives, Alice is balancing the books and booking bands—a job she started at the age of 14.

“I guess the good Lord just made me to be strong,” says Alice, who was born January 17, 1931, in the house her father built.

It was in this house that the young Alice and Adela turned pot lids into cymbals and rapped their father’s drumsticks on the windowsill.

It was in the dance hall next door that the sisters played their first gig: a wedding at which Adela, four years older, ordered Alice to stop being shy and hit the cymbal. Now.

Alice still lives in the house her father built. She raised three sons—Tommy, Steven and Kenny—here as three generations lived under one roof. Grampa and Nini, as the boys called Tom and Terezie Rose Sefcik, grew their own food. Alice followed suit as a mother, doing everything from canning vegetables to giving shots to cattle.

When grief hit, it hit hard. Alice, who was divorced in 1965 and never remarried, lost her father in April 1971. Five years later, she lost her mother and her sister, who was only 48, within a two-week stretch in April. Tom, Terezie Rose, Adela and her husband, Edd Urubek, are all buried in the Seaton Cemetery, just up the road.

When the wind blows through the pecan and hackberry trees standing sentry over Alice’s weathered house, it’s easy to imagine notes—from her father’s guitar, her mother’s accordion and French harp, and her sister’s accordion and saxophone—floating through the windows.

Seems everybody asks Alice the same question: What’s going to happen to the dance hall someday when you’re gone? She laughs. Heh, heh, heh. “I always joke and tell them I’m going to live to be 100.”

And with that, she climbs the stairs. Couples are starting to arrive for a Sunday night dance. Alice isn’t playing tonight, so she’s free to mingle, listen to the music and watch her friends, some of whom she’s known 50 years or more, hold each other tight and spin round and round the old dance floor.

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Tom Sefcik Hall, (254) 985-2356. Eight miles east of Temple; turn south from State Highway 53 onto Seaton Road.

Jerry Haisler and the Melody 5, http://melody5.markhaisler.com/melody5