Well alreet! Are you hep to what was happening here in the Thirties and Forties? Sunsets in the east and west, and clambakes where a gate could really swing. No ducks? No problem: slip a blip in the piccolo and jump-jump-jump!
No, we hadn’t gone mad – just mad for the music of the Big Bands. Between the jazz age and the coming of rock-n-roll was the Swing Era, and no place outside of America’s big cities swung like our little corner of the world. The Sunset Grove at NuMine and Sunset Ballroom in Carrolltown, just over the county lines to west and east, were Pennsylvania’s most popular Big Band venues. “Clambakes” were concerts where swing fans (gates) danced. If you couldn’t afford the tickets (ducks), you could still drop a nickel in the jukebox and dance, dance, dance….
Like radio and the movies, Big Bands were part of what got us through the Great Depression and the biggest war this world has ever seen. Their heyday was from 1937 through 1946, but some were popular here well into the next decade. The first few big-name bands to visit Indiana County came in 1938; the high-water mark was in 1940-41, and by the end of the era more than fifty had performed hereabouts. Why did so many famous bands come this far off the beaten track? ‘Cause we were rabid fans perched between the state’s two best ballrooms, that’s why. Since bandleaders knew that only so many of us could fit into the two Sunsets, they made sure to book into smaller but still “happening” venues throughout the county as well.
And there were plenty of those. Indiana had the Rustic Lodge and Meadowland, while Blairsville had its Rainbow Villa. There was Danceland at Clarksburg, New Deal Café in Homer City and the Rose Inn out by Ernest . . . more than a dozen in all. Each catered to local tastes, booking famous “sweet” or “hot” bands between local talent when they could. Fans joked that the sweet-to-hot spectrum ran “from SK to SK and from Sunset to Sunset” – that is, from Sammy Kaye at the Sunset Grove (where sweet held sway) to Stan Kenton at the Sunset Ballroom (where some liked it hot).
Imagine! Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo . . . they all played here. Some even called southwest PA home. Baritone bandleader Vaughn Monroe (whose later hit “Ghost Riders in the Sky” some of you may remember) was from Jeanette and Ray Anthony was from Bentleyville. Vocalists Maxine Sullivan and Perry Como were Homestead and Canonsburg natives, and Larry Clinton’s drummer was a fellow Indiana Countian! Our own Norm Park and his Collegians played throughout the state, and local boy Angie Sgro (son of the Sunset Grove’s owners) even toured nationally.
Of course, not everyone was on the Big Band bandwagon. Pittsburgh Symphony conductor Harvey Gaul pronounced swing “alleged music . . . just our current form of imbecility,” and many a Pennsylvania pulpit echoed that condemnation. Indiana County’s strict Blue Law observance even meant there were no Sunday swing concerts here. Sort of. Most venues simply waited until one minute post-Sabbath to let ‘er rip. In fact, the single most popular night of the year for dancing was “Easter Monday,” when owners booked the best bands available. And in the county seat, where several thousand students pretty much guaranteed a vigorous night life, the State Teachers College sponsored “Swing Out” each May from 1938 to 1944. Lindy Hop till you drop!
Admission to concerts varied widely in price, depending on who was playing. Did you want to see local talent like the Commanders? Thirty cents. Dance to second-tier national bands like Jerry Gray’s? Fifty-five. And when the big boys came to town – you know, “Goodman and Kyser and Miller” – those ducks would run you a buck twenty-five if you could get ‘em. Big money back then, but worth it.
Ballrooms weren’t the only place to get your swing, either. Radio stations like WJAC and WCAE broadcast Big Band recordings and live remotes, including some from Indiana County venues. We flocked to see any film starring name bands, and “soundies” – the ancestors of music videos – often played between newsreel and first feature. And of course, there were the platters. Indiana’s Blair F. Uber, “The Largest Radio Store in Pennsylvania,” had a permanent Gazette ad listing its current top-selling discs.
Then came World War II, and like so much else in our lives, the music scene was put on hold. With fewer and fewer undrafted sidemen available, most bands disbanded for the duration. Some went further than that: Major Glenn Miller and Chief Petty Officer Artie Shaw formed military Big Bands to sustain morale. Back home, some bands composed entirely of women rose to fill the void, including Indiana County’s own Coquettes (whose cover of Martha Raye’s hit “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” underscored the man shortage here!). Fewer couples meant smaller audiences, too, so the remaining bands concentrated on big cities. Guess where that left us? Even non-shellac records became scarce when vinyl was declared a strategic material.
Things started looking up when Japan surrendered in the summer of ’45. Once bandleaders and sidemen were discharged, the old orchs re-formed and hit the road. But wait . . . something was different. We weren’t the same country that had danced to “Jukebox Saturday Night” and had gone “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” An entire generation of American men had seen death and destruction for four long years, and now what they craved above all else was NORMAL LIFE – marriage and family and a day job, not night life and the Hit Parade. By the end of 1946, most of the Big Bands had called it quits. America was moving to the suburbs.
Hang on. That wasn’t the end. Bands at either extreme of the spectrum, the very ones mocked by prewar music critics, survived in greatest number after the era’s end. The likes of Shep Fields (sweet) and Gene Krupa (hot) were still welcomed at Indiana County venues and across the country as they toured in the late Forties and early Fifties. TV networks, recognizing the resonance sweet bands had with domestic America, gave several of them their own weekly shows. What Baby Boomer doesn’t remember the Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk shows? Even Ozzie and Harriet, that icon of American family life, starred former bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his singer/wife Harriet Hilliard. And none other than Indiana’s own Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1954 movie, The Glenn Miller Story.
The final note? Probably Big Band legend Duke Ellington’s 1983 double album All Star Road Band, recorded live at the Sunset Ballroom here in 1957. And hey – if you gotta go, how better than to the strains of “Take the ‘A’ Train”?