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Jumpin’ and Jivin’ at Lakes Region Night Spots

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 2, 2012


Big bands loved it here. From Benny Goodman to Gary Puckett, musicians both famous and just breaking into entertainment, counted themselves lucky if they were booked to play Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens or the Pavilion at Alton Bay.

For over 40 years Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens was the place to go on a summer’s evening. As well as providing a spacious dance floor and the best bands in the business, the Gardens also had a handy boat dock allowing patrons to arrive by water.

The top-quality music was certainly the most memorable aspect of the Gardens. For five of its six open nights a week during the summer, the ballroom featured dance bands from all over New England and beyond. Whether you worked during the weekdays, were a teen with ample summer time or a vacationer to the area, Tuesday night was not to be missed. On that magical night, the big names in music swung into town.

On the other side of Lake Winnipesaukee, music and dancing livened up the summer scene in Alton Bay. The Pavilion began in 1921, when Stephen Lynch built a dance hall at Alton Bay and ran it until it burned to the ground in 1928.

Lynch’s hall, known as the Bay View Pavilion, was two stories in height and housed a restaurant, movie theatre and dance hall. For a town the size of Alton at that time, the hall must have seemed like entertainment heaven had dropped into the sleepy Bay area. Here one could watch silent movie stars cavort across the screen; one could pretend to be a silent star while gliding across the dance floor; or a family could enjoy a meal in the restaurant.

When Lynch owned the hall, entire families would come for dancing. There were no recording facilities or loud speakers, so people made their own music by bringing instruments. At times, Lynch would hire a piano player to add to the festivities. From 8pm until midnight, people would square dance, rumba, fox trot and a daring few would perform the Charleston and Black Bottom.

About 1929 a new building replaced the one that had burned and continued to offer band music, dancing and movies.

In 1940 the Whitney family purchased the Pavilion and ran it for many years. They updated the structure, adding new railings, a new ceiling and modernized lighting.

The height of the Big Band craze came in the 1940s. Everyone was listening to Glenn Miller, the Dorseys and other bands. The dances that accompanied the music were just as popular. What fun it must have been when the Whitneys brought the Big Band sound to the Pavilion or the popular bands played at Irwins Winnipesaukee Gardens.

The Whitneys used the Pavilion for dances, movies, boxing and wrestling matches and roller skating. There was roller skating at least six times a week and dancing twice a week at that time.

Admission for roller skating was a mere 35 cents for adults and children. Between 1940 and 1960, many big name bands played at the Pavilion. Some of the bands performed on roller skating nights as well as during dance nights.

The World War II years are recalled by locals who say that the words “Alton Bay”, which were spelled out on the roof of the Pavilion in the 1930s and 40s, had to be removed. During the height of the war, there was always the fear of air attacks. Had the enemy been planning an air strike, the roof of the Pavilion clearly pointed out an easy target!

Although not open to the general public, the Lake Shore Park Pavilion at the Lake Shore Park area in Gilford was the centerpiece of the site. The big pavilion was used for staging plays and concerts for summer guests. Fireworks lit up the night sky on the 4th of July and fun clam chowder suppers were served up during the summer.

Music was a big part of nightlife at the park. Live bands played at the pavilion in the mid 1900s and a fun, not-very-serious Lake Shore Park beauty contest was held at the site.

Back at Weirs Beach, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, the Dorseys, the Glenn Miller band, and Sammy Kaye were but a few of the famous and talented acts that graced Winnipesaukee Gardens. Those who are amazed to think of such talent playing in a small New Hampshire town should remember that the Gardens was high on the list of places to play in those days.

Once the Big Bands of the 1940s hit the Gardens, the place was hopping. Everyone was there to take in the great music and swing the night away. Young women danced with their brothers, their cousins, and their friends and sometimes with vacationing young men. Many a romance began under the stars outside the Gardens, or on that magical dance floor.

One name that was featured in Laconia Evening Citizen ads years ago was Mal Hallett, a very popular local band leader. Hallett had a long history with Gardens owner Jim Irwin. Both were from Boston, and came to the resort area of Weirs Beach in 1917. At that time the main entertainment at the area was a music hall next to the huge Weirs Hotel. The movie, vaudeville theatre and dance hall were the site of the first Irwin Gardens. In 1921, Jim Irwin and a partner bought the building and the Winnipesaukee Pier across the street. Full of history itself, the original Gardens was host to power boat rides and seaplane services, in addition to Irwin and Hallett’s dance band. When the Gardens was destroyed by fire in 1924, Irwin built a huge ballroom atop the pier structure where people danced the nights away from 1925 to the late 1970s.

In the summer of 1929, the Gardens featured everything from “International Beauties” to dances until 2 am. By 1933 an All Night Dance on July 3, followed by a Holiday Fiesta on July 4, started off the season. Battle of Music, with two bands and 25 musicians vying for the top spot also was featured. An Old Timer’s Night that year starred Gilda Gray, Queen of the Shimmy!

All who remember dancing at the Gardens recall it was a time when guests “dressed up” to go dancing. The notion of getting decked out in your best finery and arriving at the Gardens by boat under a starry sky, the moon shining off Lake Winnipesaukee, the music from inside drifting all around, seems the stuff of magic.

The war years were made more livable for those on the home front by the many activities and theme nights at the Gardens. In 1945, at the height and eventually the end of World War II, the Gardens featured Swing and Dance Night, Juke Box College Party, Tuesday Barn Dances and a Cinderella Ball, with the winning Cinderella being awarded one dozen pairs of nylons! On August 15, a Victory Ball marked the occasion at the dance spot.

By the 1960s, groups like Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs were performing. The big bands were still on the schedule, with Tommy Dorsey featured, although the swing sound was not as popular as it once had been.

By the 1970s, things were changing and people were going elsewhere for entertainment. The movies, local bands in cocktail lounges and other enticements spelled the end for Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens. The last band to appear at the Gardens was one that would have drawn full house crowds on a mild summer’s night in the 1940s or 50s: Harry James and his band.

Those who are elderly today, fondly recall the summers of their youth, when everyone gathered at the Pavilion and the Gardens for a chance to find romance and to dance the nights away.

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