Symphony Big Band to Play Historic Dance

This fall the Hershey-Derry Township Historical Society will recreate for one night the aura of a structure that’s been gone for more than 30 years as they transform The Hotel Hershey’s Garden Terrace Ballroom into the once full-of-life Hershey Park Ballroom for the Society’s 16th Annual Preservation Dinner.

“We want participants of the evening to feel as if they are actually experiencing the Hershey Park Ballroom on a Saturday night in 1947, with all the sights and sounds of the of the Big Band era,” stated Lauren Grubb of the Historical Society Preservation Committee. The committee plans to use life-size displays, large-scale photos, and music from Hershey Symphony Orchestra’s Big Band, under the direction of Paul Metzger, to accomplish this. “It will be a wonderful evening of music and dancing and we invite everyone in the region to come enjoy the nostalgia,” continued Grubb.

The Hershey Park Ballroom, first called the Dance Hall, opened in the mid1920s, when Hershey was in its earliest stages of growth. The hall boasted a massive 22,900 square-foot dance floor and came into national notoriety in 1930 when Rudy Vallee and the Connecticut Yankees performed for a sold-out crowd. The Ballroom became a destination point for the most acclaimed performers of the day.

By the late 1930s headlining acts such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey performed in Hershey. Over 176 different groups played in the Ballroom between 1933 and 1942 and regularly attracted crowds of 5000 or more. Dances were held every Wednesday and Saturday evening with a ticket price of $.50 to $1.50.

“People don’t believe you when you tell them you saw Miller and Dorsey for a buck,” stated Bob Payne (dates he lived), former Hershey resident, in an interview recorded with the Historical Society. “Those were great days.”

World War II impacted the Ballroom when the US Price Administration announced that automobiles could not be driven to “places of amusement.” The facility was shut down for the 1943 summer season, opening again that fall.

After the war, the big-band craze continued and in 1947 Vaughn Monroe’s famous band drew one of the largest crowds in the history of the Ballroom when over 6000 people danced to his hit song “Racing with the Moon.”

“On a given night,” remembered Kathy Lewis, Hershey native and long-time supporter of the Historical Society, “the ballroom attracted more than the entire population of our town. That’s really something. It brought many people into our community that otherwise wouldn’t have come here.”

By the mid 1960s, ballroom dancing had faded as one of America’s favorite pastimes. The Ballroom was remodeled in hopes of reviving the ballroom dance movement in Hershey when the center portion of the roof—previously damaged from a snow storm—was removed, leaving the dance floor open to the night sky. The venue received its third name: Starlight Ballroom.

Patti Boccacinni, editor-in-chief of Harrisburg Magazine recalled, “I can still picture my father getting ready for the evening in his white dinner jacket and bow tie. My parents enjoyed many lovely evenings at the Ballroom.”

In 1964 the Starlight Ballroom hosted only 16 dances and by the late 1960s was nearly abandoned. The Ballroom was torn down in 1977.

“Styles and musical tastes had changed drastically by the end of the 60s and people weren’t as interested in big bands and ballroom dancing,” stated Grubb. “Recreating something that has been gone for many years is a challenge and this will be a wonderful way to remember an important piece of the Harrisburg area’s history.”

The event will be held Saturday, September 22, 2012 from 5:30 – 10:00 pm. A silent auction will take place prior to dinner and dancing. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Hershey Derry Township Historical Society which provides a free museum and other services and educational programs for the community.

Tickets are $100 each and are limited. To reserve seats, donate auction items or learn more about event sponsorship, please visit www.HersheyHistory.org or call 717-520-0748.

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