Sunday, November 29, 2015

Riffs on the Driftwood

By Chet Williamson 

It was an odd choice of names for a landlocked venue miles from any ocean view, but former proprietor, Arthur Tonelli, liked the sound of it. It was an outpost planted on Rte. 9 East, in the little old town of Shrewsbury, far from any cosmopolitan center. Hardly the recipe for success, but from its auspicious beginnings as a “roadhouse to be reckoned with,” the Driftwood became one of the more successful local nightclubs ever to offer jazz. Now 93, Tonelli took time out from his longtime gig as owner of Westboro Toyoto, to talk about the fabled room.

Who named the place?

“I did. There was a restaurant in Falmouth named the Driftwood. We used to go there in the summer.”

How do you explain its popularity?

“When I was in the service in Boston there was this cocktail lounge that had this big circular bar with music in the center. I said, ‘Boy that’s nice.’ That’s exactly what I did at the Driftwood. The first night I opened, the place was packed. We were full every night because of the concept.”

What year was this?

“This was 1959. I had a trio and singer on the stage. It sat about 30 people around the bar, plus I had a couple of alcoves. It was done nicely. It was strictly just a cocktail lounge. I wasn’t selling any food. It got so busy. I needed a larger place. I built the back room and renovated a small kitchen. I served food behind the lounge.

“Then I said, ‘This town is in need of a hotel.’ People used to come in and have a drink, dinner. I’d say, “Where are you staying?’ They’d say there is no place to stay in Worcester accept the Bancroft. There was a lot next to me. Frontage-wise I didn’t have enough room. So I bought the lot and I constructed a 72-room motel.

Being in service, I saw motels with interior corridors in the bigger cities. I wanted to build it like a hotel. I had a big lounge with a fireplace where salesmen could eat and talk. It went over big. The motel was full every night with people from New York, New Jersey, business people. They would book in on Sunday night. They did their business in the area and left Friday nights. They stayed all week. I had the same clientele practically all week.

Tell us about the music.

“I had music seven nights a week in the cocktail lounge and Friday and Saturday in the keg room. I had the Ragtime Rowdies. Then I had bands from Boston. I don’t remember their names. They played special music. People used to come all the way from Boston to listen. Friday nights I had the Ragtime Rowdies. The clientele was young people, Holy Cross students and the like. On Saturday nights they would call and reserve a table. That was unheard of. It was because they wanted to listen to this music.

“Customers who would stay all week would say, ‘Arthur why don’t you get some real good singers from New York?’ I said, ‘I can’t afford to pay them.’ He says, ‘No they’ll come to work here. It will be like a vacation for them. (I had a swimming pool.) I've talked to some of them and told them all about your place, how nice it was and relaxing. They’ll come to work here seven nights a week for $125. You’re paying people around here one hundred dollars.’

“He connected me with great singers from New York for $125 bucks. They’d stay a week or two weeks and that was big to get that type of singer. They loved it. It was like a vacation for them just to get out of the city.

I understand that the great saxophonist Howie Jefferson played there. 

“He was one of the first ones. Howard Jefferson loved to play there. He made $100 a week playing seven nights a week. The trio cost me $300. Howie says, ‘No one in this band can read music. You’re bringing in good singers and I’ve got to change piano players; someone has to read music.’

I said, ‘I don’t want to pay someone just to read music. He says, ‘Don’t worry about it. I can get a guy for $125 bucks. Pay me $80. I said, ‘Howie I can’t do that.’ He says, ‘I don’t care.’ So we hired a piano player just to read music.

What was Howie like as a person?

He was a gentlemen. Nice guy. Oh, he could play that horn, but he couldn’t read music. I am surprised he never made it. He was so looked up to that on Sundays the best musicians in the area used to come and play for nothing because of Howie. He used to bring them in. Most places didn’t have music on Sundays. I was music seven nights a week. The place was humming.”

You've said that some famous people stayed at your lodgings.

Edward R. Murrow

“The fellow that owned the Monticello used to come down to my place to have a drink and I would go down to his place. He said, ‘Do you mind if I send my performers down here? He said if I give them a room, they don’t pay me. I’ll tell them I’m full and send them up to your place. So he would send me all the stars. I had Liberace.

Linda Darnell

I can’t think of them all. I never got a single autograph. Nothing. I never asked for anything. Linda Darnell. She stayed there. Bette Davis. Everyone that played there, he sent them to me. Flip Wilson. I even had Edward R. Murrow. He stopped on his own. He just popped in. He stayed here two nights. I remember him – a real gentlemen.

Contract with the Count Basie Orchestra, 1969

Charles "Chickie" Tonelli, Arthur's brother, standing in front of the club

In 2012 Tonelli was interviewed by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

“In 1959, I purchased the Red Top Inn on Route 9 in Shrewsbury,” he told writer Carol Costello. “I then began to remodel and expand the site. I opened the Driftwood Motor Lodge, which was a restaurant and hotel that included business meeting centers and banquet rooms. Local jazz musicians played nightly and also some celebrities (stayed there). I owned the Driftwood until about 1969.

What made you consider buying the Red Top?

“I started going to there after I got out of the service in the ‘40s. The Red Top was owned by … there was a French couple that ran it and in the ‘50s. They sold it to Ray Mitchell, who was a B&W bus driver. His wife ran the coffee shop. My friend and I would go down and have beer at the bar. He said, ‘Arthur I think Ray wants to sell the place. He’s got a $15,000 mortgage and Katz, who was a small money lender, the mayor’s brother [Israel “Izzy,”] had a little spot on Main Street.

I talked to Ray Mitchell. He says, ‘Yeah, I’ll probably sell it for $35,000.’ I said, ‘Geez, I don’t know if I can afford that.’ I talked to my mother to see if she would loan me some money. I got back to Mitchell. He said Katz is going to lend me more money and I’m going to keep it.”

Okay, so how did you finally take ownership?

Eventually, he lost it and a fellow by the name of McNamara bought it from Katz. McNamara worked for the Worcester Street railways. He came up with the money. He picked up the loan from Katz. He was never a drinker until he got in the business.

After a few years he lost it. Katz took the place away from him. My friend Tommy Flynn says to me, ‘I think the place is up for sale again.’ He said, ‘You should talk to Katz.’ I met Katz again. ‘Yeah, it’s for sale,’ he says. ‘I own it now. You can buy it for $25,000.’ I said, ‘No. I don’t want to pay that much. I’ll give you $18,500 for it.

He said, the Knights of Columbus in Shrewsbury is very interested in it. I think they will buy it for $22,500. There’s a meeting Monday night. If you want it for $22.5, I’ll sell it to you now or I’ll sell it to the Knights of Columbus. On Tuesday, Katz, in his Jewish brogue says, “Arthur you’ve got yourself a deal at $18.5. So, I bought the place and immediately started fixing up the place. It was run down.

How long did you own the place?

“Eleven years. All I did was work. I was there from morning till night. I actually physically built the place, myself and a carpenter by the name of Einer Erickson. He and I built the place.

It was man killing. It was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Back then you had a lot of functions. Now people are afraid of drinking. I could do four weddings in one crack. I had the room for it. Then clean it up and have functions at night. I was never home. I’d work till two in the morning, get up at seven and go right back. That went on for 10, 11 years.”

Arthur and George Butler

When did you sell it?

“I sold it in ’69. I had two reasons to sell it. I was sick of working seven days and seven nights. George Butler was going into the Toyota business and he said, Arthur when I get an agency, you can have it. That was my out.”

This is a work in progress. Send all comments, corrections, and suggestions to: Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it.

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