Monday, June 10, 2013

Bal-a-l’Air and Sun Valley

By Chet Williamson

For more than a decade – roughly 1938-1948 – it was the big band showcase of Central New England

Today, it is virtually forgotten. For those who danced until dawn at the ballroom, however, recollections of the venue still burn brightly in their book of stardust memories.  

Located at the intersection of routes 9 and 20, heading east to Boston on the Shrewsbury/Northborough line, it was first called Bel-a-l’Air, an outdoor dance pavilion where the Christmas Tree Shops now sit. It would later be called Sun Valley.

From its stages, the best and brightest names of the era were read on the marquee. On many a starry night such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Woody Herman lit up local skies.

The name Bel-a-l’Air signifies what it was, something beautiful out-of-doors. Given that, it was a seasonal operation. Back before the invention of air-conditioning, outdoor ballrooms grew out of necessity.

In the summer months, the highly energetic propulsion of swing dancing just did not work in the sweaty confines of city buildings. So from Memorial Day to Labor Day, dances were held outdoors with only the sky as their canopy.

This card is postmarked 1908. Its caption reads: Open Air Theater, Lake Quinsigamond, Worcester, MA.  

In addition to presenting top bands of the day, the facility was also, as one ad stated: “Available for outing or dances to organizations,” so banquets, weddings and other social functions were also held there.

Like most outdoor ballrooms and dance pavilions of the period, Bel-a-l’Air, had a covering for rain showers, but not much else. In the event of stormy weather, shows were obviously cancelled or postponed. That’s fine for local bands on the bill, but for national acts, it was death for promoters.   

“If the weather was good you played. If not, you didn’t,” says local drummer Ed Shamgochian. “It’s as simple as that. New England was it in the summer. You’d suffocate in the New York ballrooms. There was no air. And, touring was rough in those days. A lot of bands didn’t go further west than Chicago.”

Although no known photos have yet surfaced, Bel-a-l’Air could be seen from Route 9. It had large dance floor that could hold hundreds of steppers, ringed by a grassy-tiered area for additional viewing and seating. According to Linda Davis of the Shrewsbury Historical Society, it was inadvertently dug up during the construction of the Christmas Tree Shops. It had a raised stage and early advertisements indicate that the establishment served food with a “beer garden.”

The earliest shows at Bel-a-l’Air date from the late 1930s. They featured such talent as the Dol Brissette and the Bob Pooley orchestras, two local bands who also had radio shows on WTAG. Note that the advertised Pooley show was a “midnight dance” with “dancing ‘til dawn.”

The earliest known national acts included Duke Ellington, Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, and the Coquettes. 

Other headliners include, Bob Richman (And His Sophisticated Swing), Jan Campbell (That Genial Gentleman from the South, featuring Mary Lou Winters), and Tasker Crossen (And His Twelve Southern Statesmen).
By the 1940s, Bal-a-l’Air came under the ownership of Charlie Shribman and renamed, Sun Valley. Shribman put the pavilion on the national map. He was well-heeled, connected, and had a long history of promoting popular music, especially if delivered by the big bands.

In his book The Boston Jazz Chronicles, author Richard Vacca reports that Shribman’s sphere of influence reached as far back as the 1920s. “It was a period of feverish activity in Boston and all of New England, and at the center of it was Charlie Shribman, who controlled bookings for a ballroom network that stretched across the Northeast,” Vacca wrote. “Shribman was a kingmaker in the band business, and together with his brother Cy, made Mal Hallett a star, and played a significant role in the early career of Duke Ellington.

“They owned ballrooms, financed bands and used radio and publicity as well as anyone in the business. It was Ellington who said, “There wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for Charlie Shribman. He’s kept the whole racket going and a lot of guys would be starving if he hadn’t helped them.”

Vacca went on to say that Shribman was “abetted by the geography of New England. Physical distance was the enemy of the road band. Bands mostly rode buses, and across most of the country, the distance between one-night engagements could be 300 miles or more, a distance that had to be covered overnight. It was a dreadful way to live.

“But in the northeast, no such distance separated the population centers. The jumps were a much more manageable 50 to 75 miles, and Shribman arranged a booking in all of them. Musicians follow the work, and Schribman had the work. His circuit made the dance-crazy northeast the big band capital of the country in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Now in his late eighties, drummer Shamgochian, better known as “Eddy Sham,” played at Sun Valley with the Bob Pooley Band. It was a popular local ensemble that featured such Worcester notables as Don Fagerquist, Murray Guarlnick, Paul Gervais, Carl Deitman, and Tommy Tobin.

“We had a good nucleus of players,” Sham said. “We could all read and swing. In 1943-’44, Mal Hallett took over the band. We were all pros, and because of that, we were often asked to fill in at Sun Valley. If Woody Herman’s band broke down somewhere, Shribman would call us to play.”  

Here are some of the other headliners to fill the bill at Sun Valley: Harry James, Horace Heidt, Sammy Kaye, Claude Thornhill, Vaughn Monroe, Charlie Spivak, Georgie Auld, Jess Stacy with Lee Wiley, Lee Castle, and Tony Pastor. It should be noted that the Worcester promoter and club owner Frank Duffy presented many shows for Shribman at Sun Valley.  

Harry James serenading a rapt audience

Other than advertisements, not much press was given to shows at Sun Valley, even though they featured the greatest Big Bands playing the most popular songs of the day. One exception was James Lee, entertainment beat writer for the Worcester Evening Gazette. Besides an occasional mention of upcoming acts, Lee’s favorite quip was, “Change the name of Sun Valley to Moon Valley. Patrons never see the sun there, but the moon is bee-oo-ti-ful.”

In one of his columns “Backstage by James Lee,” titled “Turnpike is Becoming Vast Amusement Midway,” the well-liked scribe did at least acknowledge its presence. “The Worcester end of the Turnpike already can point to theaters, an amusement park, outstanding nightclubs, an airport, a ballroom and numerous smaller enticements for those seeking divertissement. And show people look upon this as only the beginning. In Shrewsbury, next door to Worcester, the Turnpike includes White City Park, the Moors nightclub, an outdoor movie theater and Sun Valley, outdoor ballroom. 

On the ‘pike in Westboro are the Red Barn Theater, the new midget track, the 1880 Club and airport, located conveniently to one side of Framingham’s chief contribution, the Meadows night club.”   

Collectively speaking, it is easy to imagine that in addition to the headlining names that played at Sun Valley, many of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century may have also stood on the Shrewsbury stage. Think of those who worked with Ellington – Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, et al ... or with Woody Herman – Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, with Harry James – Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Anita O’Day … Astonishing!

By the late forties it was all over. Big Bands were out of favor and Shribman sold Sun Valley. In 1948, Duke Ellington played at the grand reopening. Billboard magazine covered it. Dateline: May 15, 1948 -- “Sun Valley Ballroom, Shrewsbury, MA, on Worcester/Boston Turnpike, will reopen for the summer with new ownership (formerly operated by Charlie Shribman) and a one-nighter band policy.”

In spite of the one last hurrah by its new owners, the midnight sun had set on the valley. A 1949 Worcester Evening Gazette headline reads: “Norwood Man Leases Sun Valley And Will Install Ballet Company.” The piece ran with no byline and stated: “James Collins of Norwood announced he had signed a two year lease, with options, from Charlie Shribman of Boston name band booker, who has had the property in recent years … Ballroom dancing there will be practically a thing of the past.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, suggestions, and corrections are welcome at: Check out my features on Worcester Songwriters at: Thank you.


See Jame Lee columns in the Worcester Evening Gazette and the Worcester Sunday Telegram, 1937-1948 (microfilm at Worcester Public Library).

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