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  • TRUE STORIES: Dancing through SE Kansas

  • Back in November, Joe Ferraro Sr. of Carona — whose father, Pete, built the legendary Gary Parita dance hall there in 1934 — passed away at age 94.

    In high school, Joe played sax and clarinet with Page Cavanaugh, a piano man who grew up four miles north of the Gay Parita. (Cavanaugh, who went on to form a trio that appeared in movies and backed Frank Sinatra.)

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  • Back in November, Joe Ferraro Sr. of Carona — whose father, Pete, built the legendary Gary Parita dance hall there in 1934 — passed away at age 94.
    In high school, Joe played sax and clarinet with Page Cavanaugh, a piano man who grew up four miles north of the Gay Parita. (Cavanaugh, who went on to form a trio that appeared in movies and backed Frank Sinatra.)
    Of the Gay Parita, Joe told me in an interview back in 1995, “We considered 400 to 500 a full house with comfortable seating ... but there were those who never sat down and many nights we had 700 or 800. The record was 850 ... set by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.”
    Other big names that played there included Jack Teagarden, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Xavier Cugat, Blue Barron, Jimmy Dorsey, Russ Morgan, Bunny Berigan, Ted Weems, Ray Anthony, Johnny Green, Little Jack Little, Ben Pollack, and Duke Ellington!
    Of course local bands like The Blackfriars, Harry and the Hotshots and Page Cavanaugh played there regularly as well.
    My dad once described a typical Saturday night as follows:
    “At 6:30, we’d meet (my buddy Jack Meehan and three or four of the guys that is) up at the pool hall and shoot pool and trade stories until about eight. Then we’d head over to Steve Salina’s Cafe for a bowl of chili (It helped insulate our stomachs against the whiskey).
    Afterward, we’d gather outside, chip in ten cents a piece for gas, and ride to the Gay Parita, arriving just before nine. There, we’d pay our admission (two bits for local bands and a buck for the big names) and buy a pint of whisky for a quarter.
    We couldn’t afford dates, you see, so we’d either arrange to meet our favorite girls at the dance or play the field, dancing with as many girls as we could through the night.
    Once the music was finished, we’d drove, half tight and reliving the night’s escapades, the dusty back roads home.
    Some nights, we’d end it up at Shorty’s, an all-night joint north of Frontenac where we’d eat a boiled ham sandwich and watch the curious crowd.
    About anything could happen at Shorty’s ... and I mean anything! One night I saw a man and woman go outside and change clothes and come back in to dance together to jukebox music.
    Then, walking home at 3 or 4 a.m., we’d sing the songs we’d danced to and do our best to imitate the trumpet solos by cupping our hands over our mouths and earnestly humming and wah-wahing the tunes as we shuffled along in the dark.”
    Ferraro’s Gay Parita was just one of many dance halls in southeast Kansas at that time. There was the Tower, Crystal Palace and Avalon in Pittsburg, the Blue Moon in Arma, the Casanova just north of Frontenac and, last but not least, the Trianon in Croweburg.
    Page 2 of 3 - Ballrooms they called them — hellzapoppin’ hot spots where the lively locals would hop, polka, jitterbug, flitter, swing, flap and fly in a whirl of slacks and skirts to the finest of orchestras.
    The Tower Ballroom, built by Tony Bertone in 1940, served as a venue for not only big bands of the 1940s and 50s like Artie Shaw and Frankie Yankovic, it hosted nationally known rock and roll acts, the most notable being Little Richard.
    Of course, like the Gay Parita, the Tower featured weekly local bands like Conny and The Bellhops, Rodney and The Blazers, The Seibrings, and The Great Society, just to name a few.
    Not long after I published a column on the Tower being razed, I received and e-mail from Tom Bertone of East Dummerston, Vermont. Here’s part of what he shared:
    Our father, Tony Bertone, formed a “lumber company” for his project so that he could purchase construction supplies more cheaply in those hard times.
    The Tower opened in 1940 and, indeed, became a landmark. Its popularity arose from three factors.
    First, Kansas was a “dry” state until about 1950, and dancers throughout southeast Kansas came to the Missouri line to buy their alcohol. Dad sold liquor-by-the drink (illegally) when he could. This made dancing there a bit naughty and more fun and got Dad into trouble with the law more than once.
    Second, World War II started; and Camp Crower opened at Crestline. On weekends, soldiers from Crowder came to the Tower to party. Dad greeted them warmly and treated them as the heroes that they were - or were soon to become. My elder sister married one of those soldiers.
    When traveling, our family members have met ex-soldiers who recognized the Crawford County license plate and reported fond memories of the old place.
    Third, Dad was an impresario, as you rightly reported, who played the Big Bands. However, these bands did not just happen to stop on the way through town. Dad had to contract for their services, publicize their appearance, and stage a fun experience.
    As you report correctly, Dad played most of the big names, including Artie Shaw who appeared the night after he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. The last Big Band dance was in 1957 with Guy Lombardo. Dad lost money on that one, but the Lombardo Band was Dad’s favorite, and Dad jumped at the opportunity to bring the Band to Pittsburg.
    Dad tried then to bring Rock and Roll to the Tower and played Little Richard, but that did not work so well.
    During our time, the Tower was a family affair. The entire family worked there. On big dance nights, Dad’s three brothers worked in various capacities but primarily as bouncers. I worked as a cleanup boy, a waiter, and a bartender.
    Page 3 of 3 - Our father retired in 1963, and the family continued the restaurant with Italian-American food for several years. The Tower was sold to Jack Quier in 1967.
    I still find it painful to drive past the corner where the Tower once stood. Most times I avert my eyes and keep driving. But the memories return nonetheless.
    Most recently, it’s memories of New Year’s Eve there when Jack Quier owned it. Visions of the half light at the edge of its massive hardwood dance floor surrounded by a wood-railed balcony packed with revelers dancing, laughing, singing, kissing – so young and full of tingle.
    Speaking of which, I once asked my dad, aka “Lefty”, what was different about the dances on New Year’s Eve as compared to the ones on any other Saturday night back in the 1930s and 1940s. “Nothing,” he quickly smiled. “For us, every night was like New Year’s Eve!”
    J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net

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