By most all accounts Little Balkans Days was better than ever this year.
None of it could have happened without the yearlong efforts of many volunteers and the generous financial support of its sponsors. As writer Malcolm Gladwell asserts in his book, “Outliers,” success is always a group project.
Live music was especially amplified this year, with 16 venues that featured every music genre from Doo Dah to Jazz to Rock & Roll to Classical to Polka to Folk to Hard Rock and more.
This is especially important as it honors our area’s talented musicians who’ve brought live music to us since the area was settled in the mid-1800s.
With that in mind, I’m working with The Miner’s Hall Museum in Franklin on a quarterly exhibit and presentation series on the music of Southeast Kansas that will be presented over the first three months of 2020.
We’ll have monthly presentations by Gene Corsini (accordion and polka), Jamie Ortolani (rock & roll and country) and me (dance bands of the 30s, 40s and 50s).
As we put together our programs we’re looking for stories and memorabilia. So if you have a related story, newspaper ad, poster, picture, publicity shot, or instrument, etc. that you’d be willing share or loan for the exhibit, we’d like to hear from you.
We’re especially interested in hearing stories from musicians who played in bands as well as the bar and dance hall owners and managers who hired and promoted them, but that’s not to say we don’t need to hear from those of you were in the audience.
Tom Bertone (whose dad, Tony, built the Tower Ballroom) just this week sent me some marvelous interior photos of the Tower dance floor and bar, along with a balcony shot of Tommy Dorsey wailing on his trombone with his big band on the knotty pine stage.
As a little taste of what kind of memorabilia we’re looking for, here’s a letter Tom wrote in 2005, after learning the Tower was to be torn down.
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.
When traveling, our family members have met ex-soldiers who recognized the Crawford County license plate and reported fond memories of the old place. My elder sister married one of those soldiers.
Third, Dad was an impresario and, as you rightly report, 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.
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.
To share your memories and/or artifacts, contact Gene Corsini about polka / accordion by phone at 620-875-9151 or email him at email@example.com. For dance band, rock & roll and country, contact me at the email, phone number or address below.
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and celebrant. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Training in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, KS 66762