By Larry Backus
I recently read a letter to the editor by Dan Aldag of Arcata, CA. from way back in a March 23, 2013 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Dan was objecting to an article entitled “How the Taxman Cleared the Dance Floor” by Eric Felton. Aldag took Felton to task for implying that the cabaret tax imposed in 1944was the singular reason for the demise of the big band era. Aldag goes on to list six reasons that were more plausible than a cabaret tax. I love it when a letter to the editor makes a “learned” writer appear as an imbecile. It gives me faith that there are legions of intelligent commoners amongst us; it verifies my faith in American wisdom.
The problem is that for me, the big band era never died. It may have contracted a bit, but died? Never! Growing up in Cincinnati, my wife and I had access to one of the best venues of the big band era. Coney Island’s Moonlight Garden was the place to be on a summer evening with your favorite date. It was one of the feature attractions at Old Coney. Other attractions were the largest swimming pool in the world and a beautiful amusement park with multiple roller coasters and nearly every ride and arcade games one could imagine. There was a large picnic groove and meticulous landscaping. The entire park was located on the Ohio River next to River Downs Race Track. Cincinnati’s Coney Island was so highly regarded that Walt Disney spent time there in the early 50s in preparation for Disney World and left a $1 check for “consulting services.” Walt was never a big spender but he had a sense of humor.
The original Moonlight Garden dance pavilion was built in 1925 and renovated in 1947 to accommodate 3,700 when a second floor was added with seating overlooking the dance floor. In 1948, Moonlight drew 132,000 dancers during summer evenings – 4,700 on a single night. There were so many additions to the ambiance that made Moonlight special. It hosted top bands and singers from the 1920s through the 1960s. There were vocal stars such as Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day to mention a few of the headliners that crooned at Moonlight. Top Bands of the big band era also played through the years including Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. Softly lighted Lake Como was next to Moonlight Garden and convenient for renting a canoe. What could be more romantic than paddling or drifting on the lake and listening to great music?
By the late 1950s and through the early 1970s, I was a witness to the gradual decline of the big band era, but Moonlight Garden remained the best place for a date on a summer evening weekend. High school graduation dances were often held at Moonlight. However, the big name entertainers became a trickle rather than a steady stream. That paved the way for local versions of a big band and my experience with Will Hauser and his Orchestra.
Will was the “house” band at Moonlight for years. When I became an executive at Shillito’s, the largest department store in town, my first leadership position was as footwear buyer for the main floor ladies shoe department. Will Hauser was one of my “shoe dogs.” If you were a local musician in those days you had another job, unless you were a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra or owned your own bar or club. I had worked my way through college selling women’s shoes at Shillito’s and working/carousing with musicians like Irv Rissoto, who was one of the best saxophone players in town. Will was older and might be mistaken for an emaciated Harry James. He had dark wavy hair and a pencil thin mustache. He was always trying to track down or book musicians for his band and spent so much time on our selling floor phone that I had to chase him to my office phone when we were busy or were getting customer phone calls for a Sunday “Roto” ad. I remember feeling sorry for Will at times, he was a nervous Nellie; always worried if his musicians would show up, or his gig at Coney or other events would disappear. Then I would go to Moonlight and enjoy Will Hauser and his Orchestra in action. He looked great in a snappy tux or blue suit; confident and in charge, he would lead the band through all of the new and old favorites. Will was a different person, maybe it was the lighting or makeup, but the music, the time, and the location were very special. Will, the band members, and everyone there, knew it and would never forget it.