2016-11-10 / Front Page

Big bands focus of OOB exhibit

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer


Big band A publicity photo of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, distributed in Old Orchard Beach to promote their performance. (Courtesy photo) Big band A publicity photo of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, distributed in Old Orchard Beach to promote their performance. (Courtesy photo) OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Old Orchard Beach Historical Society is planning a new exhibit for the Harmon Museum to feature the highest points of Old Orchard Beach’s music history. The primary focus of the exhibit, planned tentatively for summer 2017, will be “big bands” of the jazz era. The same exhibit will feature groups and artists that performed at The Ballpark in the 1980s and 1990s.

The historical society has done smaller exhibits on big bands in the past, but this one will be on a different scale.

“This year, it’s gonna be huge,” said Daniel Blaney, town historian and vice president of the historical society. “We know where everything is now and we finally realized that we have an immense amount of information on big bands.”


PIctured is an ornamental mirror ball that hung in The Pier ballroom from 1917 to 1970. It was donated to the Historical Society in 1980 by its owner, Kathy Petit. (Anthony Aloisio photo) PIctured is an ornamental mirror ball that hung in The Pier ballroom from 1917 to 1970. It was donated to the Historical Society in 1980 by its owner, Kathy Petit. (Anthony Aloisio photo) “‘Big bands’ was the title that was given to the older people like Lawrence Welk, (and) Guy Lombardo,” said Jeanne Guerin, museum curator. “They came in numbers maybe anywhere from 10- to 20-piece.”

“It was a sound, as well as a number,” added Jane Flaherty, a volunteer for the historical society, who has a lead role in planning the exhibit.

“The ’30s and ’40s was the big era for big bands,” Blaney said. “They started fading out in the ’50s with rock ‘n’ roll.”

In the first half of the 20th century, big bands would travel to Old Orchard Beach to play at well-reputed venues like the Palace Ballroom and The Pier. The bands were led by big names in the music world, including Louie Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman.

“This was the northernmost point for big bands,” Blaney said. “They stopped here. If you was anybody, you played Old Orchard.”

“Only East Coast bands played Old Orchard, they didn’t come from the West Coast,” Blaney added. “With the exception of maybe Lawrence Welk.”

Groups performing in those days also included local names, which will be featured at the exhibit, like the Lee Russel Orchestra.

For the historical society members who put together the exhibit, the research has already uncovered some remarkable history.

“Living in Maine in the ’60s, and I grew up in the ’50s, I thought we had no prejudice,” Flaherty said. “We had like three people that were of color here. But, in the research in recent years I’ve discovered that all of these wonderful black performers couldn’t stay in any of the big hotels. They stayed at the Cummings’ house.”

According to Flaherty, the Cummings’ house was the home of a local black family. Leaders of jazz groups who were black would stay at the house, Flaherty said, but limitations on space meant that other black performers would often have to stay the night on sleeping cars from the trains they traveled on.

“I find that to be fascinating,” Flaherty said.

For a short time, big jazz bands and rock ‘n’ roll bands coexisted, although jazz was on its way out of popularity. Blaney recalled seeing Louie Armstrong in 1961.

“I saw Louie Armstrong, and then the next week I saw Bill Haley and the Comets,” Blaney said. “And the place was packed, and there was only about 150 to see Louie Armstrong.”

The exhibit will also feature big-name groups that traveled to perform at The Ballpark in the 1980s and 1990s. That list includes Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, Def Leppard, Arlo Guthrie, Aerosmith, Steve Miller Band, Celine Dion, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young. One hope of including bands from The Ballpark, Flaherty said, is to attract younger generations to the exhibit.

Part of the legacy of Old Orchard Beach’s history with big bands is that those groups that are still in existence – in some form – do make their way back to town to play at current venues such as the Seaside Pavillion, according to Blaney. Another part of the legacy, said Flaherty, who has had a career as a teacher in Old Orchard Beach’s schools, is that the schools’ music programs have always been strong.

“We have many OOB High School graduates that have gone on and are professional in music,” Flaherty said. “Our band program, maybe as a spinoff and a legacy, has always been rich, and even now our high school band just won gold, for the states.”

The historical society is asking the community to contribute memorabilia to the exhibit.

“Anything from ticket stubs, autographs, posters,” Flaherty said. “Or memories. We’ve already had some alumni who’ve sent in a paragraph or so.”

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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