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‘Swimming in Dreamland’ documentary reflects on the legacy of Portsmouth’s pool

Photos of the Dreamland swimming pool show kids swimming in the summertime.
Lorentz Productions
The Dreamland Pool was once a social center in Portsmouth before it was demolished in the '90s. Many people remember spending summer days there swimming in the sun, or dancing to Jukebox music by the pool on Friday nights.

John Lorentz learned to swim before he learned to walk.

His dad, a co-manager of Portsmouth’s Dreamland Pool for more than 30 years, taught him when he was just two years old. The swimming pool would become the backdrop of Lorentz’s childhood summers.

“I had a continuing connection to the water my entire life,” Lorentz said.

During the years the Dreamland Pool was open, from 1929 to 1993, generations of kids like Lorentz spent their summertimes splashing in its waters.

“It is really a universal story about the role that public spaces play in building a sense of community and the significance that a sense of community plays in what happens [there].”
John Lorentz

“And the commonality was what this [pool] meant to them in terms of having a sense of a community greater than just their own little neighborhood or their own little clique."

Lorentz’s new documentary, “Swimming in Dreamland,” which he made with his son, explores how the pool transcended class and racial lines in its 60 years of operation.

From the pool’s founding just before the Great Depression to its journey through desegregation, it tells Portsmouth’s history. And Lorentz believes it speaks to broader truths, too.

“It is really a universal story about the role that public spaces play in building a sense of community and the significance that a sense of community plays in what happens [there].”

Friday night swim dances

Every Friday night all summer long, the Dreamland Pool stayed open until midnight for swim dances.

“They would bring the jukebox out onto the patio,” Lorentz remembers.

He said the organizers would sprinkle shavings of ivory soap onto the concrete.

“Back when I grew up the twist was a popular dance, and it was hard to twist on concrete,” he said. “So we would slip and slide on ivory snowflakes.

“That's where every kid in the entire city was every single Friday, all summer long. Instead of out cruising and drinking beer and getting into trouble, everyone was there, and that helped create this sense of community.”

But for decades, not everyone was welcome at the pool.

“For certain members of the community, in this case the Black community, they were excluded from that,” Lorentz said.

Until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the pool only allowed white swimmers, forcing Black children to swim elsewhere, in places like the Scioto River.

After a young Black boy drowned in a sand and gravel pit off that river, the local NAACP chapter staged ‘wade-ins.’ The pool was finally integrated in the summer of ‘65.

“[The film] really deals with the whole issue of awareness of segregation, of which the Black community was keenly aware and the white community wasn’t aware at all.”

In making the documentary, Lorentz had to face his own family’s role in a racist system. His father, a teacher and coach, would work with Black students during the school year, but come summertime, wouldn’t let them into the pool.

Lorentz interviewed one of those students in the film, asking him about how that rejection impacted him and learning about a side of his father he hadn’t seen first-hand.

“It’s the kind of thing that makes you think, ‘Why wasn’t I aware of this situation? And what does it mean to be a racist?’” Lorentz said.

The end of an era

The Dreamland Pool was demolished in 1993, in the face of increasing costs and competition.

“That's a long time ago,” Lorentz said. “And yet it's still very intensely in the minds of people in the community.

“We interviewed a lot of people about their experiences in the pool that was the place where most of the youth grew up. And the memories are still very, very strong, including some of anguish or, in some cases, anger over the fact that the pool no longer exists.”

In a nearby West Virginia town, a swimming pool nearly identical to Portsmouth’s old pool still functions.

“How is it that pool is still open when this one isn’t?” Lorentz said. “This film is about growing up in the wonderful, great era when public pools played such a large part in communities. But it’s also about the responsibility of the leadership of the community to maintain a public space that was meaningful to the citizens.”

There’s a common lament in Portsmouth these days, Lorentz said.

“What is there for kids to do in the summer? Where do they go? What do they do?”

The city is working to address the concern. It just opened a skate park in May. Its future is yet to be written.

“Swimming in Dreamland” premiered in Portsmouth in March. Filmmakers John and Nathan Lorentz are working to make the documentary available to stream. You can find updates at

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.