The documentary Born in a Ballroom celebrates Helvetia and its beloved matriarch, Eleanor Mailloux.
Even if you haven’t been to West Virginia’s famously swiss enclave, Helvetia, yet, you’ve
likely heard of the Hütte Restaurant. For those who happen on it while driving the remote Randolph County outskirts of the Monongahela National Forest, the homey, comfortable restaurant is a delightful surprise. For others, it’s a destination in its own right.
But for the residents of Helvetia, it’s the heart of the community. As the new documentary film Born in a Ballroom shows, the Hütte and its co-founder and longtime owner Eleanor Mailloux are very much bound up in the town’s history and culture.
Helvetia was founded by Swiss immigrants in the 1860s, not long after West Virginia became a state in the Civil War. When Mailloux—then Eleanor Fahrner—was growing up there in the 1920s and ’30s, residents still spoke the Old World language, cooked the foods, and followed the traditions. She grew up, traveled with the Red Cross, married, and had five children. But by the time she divorced and moved back to Helvetia in the 1960s, times had changed.
“Things were slipping,” Mailloux explains in an interview recorded half a century later.
“Traditions were slipping. Foods were slipping. The old people who were the keepers of these
treasures were dying.” Needing an income and something to do, Mailloux started the restaurant in 1968 with a friend.
Although all of that history eventually becomes clear, the film is far from a chronological recitation of events. Born in a Ballroom is above all a poetic remembrance of Mailloux created in fulfillment of a decade-old promise by her granddaughter, Clara Lehmann, and her partner, Jonathan Lacocque, through the production company, Coat of Arms. Arthurdale
homesteader Martin Luther Perkins gets a little one-on-one time with Franklin D. Roosevelt
during the president’s May 1938 visit. But the film’s premise is that people and place are not
separate—that especially for a person of commitment, energy, and joy, person and place are the same.
Mailloux ran her restaurant with pride in its appearance and its authentic Swiss dishes, and she held her staff to high standards. At the same time, she brought a sense of fun to all of it. Her family remembers her dancing, singing, yodeling, and laughing. The title of the film refers to the circumstances of her birth—you’ll have to watch to hear the story—but also to her love of life, a love that invigorated all of Helvetia.
Lehmann and Lacocque weave loving footage of the landscape and the restaurant in
among interviews with family and residents and with music of all kinds—including, yes, a little West Virginia–style yodeling. Taken together, the film paints a picture of a place that has truly rediscovered its roots.
Mailloux died in 2011 at the age of 93 and is much missed. “She was like the matriarch of Helvetia and kind of the boss and mayor and pretty much everyone’s role model,” says granddaughter-in-law Jerianne Davis, who works at the restaurant.
“She was just one of the most lively spirits I’ve ever known,” says her grandson Willie. “A wise person, inspiring to a lot of people around her.”
Although Mailloux had a lot of life left in her when her time ended, she did find satisfaction in the results of her life’s work. In the same interview where she observed that the community had been “slipping” 50 years earlier, she added with a twinkle in her eye, “All they needed was somebody that wanted to do something about it.”
Born in a Ballroom premiered in January at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. You can see it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other platforms—or buy it on Blu-ray at borninaballroom.com.