Monday, October 22, 2007
Where Bobby Vinton cut his chords
Sammy Davis Jr. did not set the house on fire the last time he was booked at a once-famous Mon Valley supper club.
That's because his appearance was canceled by a second mysterious blaze within hours that destroyed the Twin Coaches on the first day of Fire Prevention Week in October 1977.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Mike Godzak, 46, of Rostraver Township, who was among the first firefighters on scene when the fire was burning out of control.
Godzak said he and others "scrambled off the roof" as it was collapsing into the ballroom, and were fortunate to avoid injury.
Hours earlier, they had doused a small fire among linens stored too close to a hot water tank. Embers from the second blaze smoldered for a week at the Westmoreland County business. The damage was so severe that it apparently prevented investigators from determining the cause of the blaze that brought down the curtain on one of the most famous stages east of the Mississippi River.
"It was 35 miles from the big city and it was packed all the time. That was the beauty of it," said Cassandra Vivian, chief executive officer of Monessen Heritage Museum, recalling the nightclub where every big name in the 1950s and 1960s except for Frank Sinatra had wooed audiences.
Meanwhile, crooner Bobby Vinton was a big draw, even before his signature song, "Roses are Red," shot up the charts in 1962.
"It was one of the highlights of my early career," Vinton said in a telephone interview.
The Canonsburg, Pa., native was often in the audience as a fan while studying music at Duquense University in Pittsburgh.
His favorite memory there was meeting John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, in 1959 during the then-Massachusetts senator's campaign for the White House.
"He shook my hand and said, 'Hello.' Here I was, just a young kid from Canonsburg," the 70-year-old Vinton said.
The club's owner at the time, Rose Calderone, wanted to give the Kennedys the royal treatment, and instructed her kitchen staff to prepare them lobster. It was a Friday and the future Roman Catholic president could not dine on steak for religious reasons, said Ron Paglia, a former newspaper editor in the Mon Valley.
"He said, 'No, Rose. Give me some scrambled eggs and a beer,'" Paglia said.
Calderone ushered Kennedy to her private kitchen, seated him on a step-stool and served him eggs and a bottle of Stoney's, a local label produced in Smithton by the family of actress Shirley Jones.
Kennedy was not the only big-name politician to visit the Calderones. President Harry Truman, the nation's 33rd president, spoke at their club in the 1950s, as did untold other prominent Democrats.
Calderone and her husband, Tony, had purchased what was a run-down bar in need of a more-refined clientele in the 1940s. He had taken a gamble on what amounted to two rusting Pullman railroad cars parked side-by-side, the 91-year-old Rostraver Township woman said, discussing her famous career in October at her kitchen table.
She said she stood at the bar's front door and barred men from entering if they were not wearing a coat and tie. She kept a baseball bat behind the bar in case of trouble.
In 1950, her husband added the 250-seat Rose Room to the establishment and booked television celebrity Al Morgan to perform.
"He had vision. He really did," Calderone said of her husband.
Three years later, he built the Butterfly Room, adding 1,000 seats to the club, making it the largest nightclub in the Pittsburgh region. Pop singer Tony Martin opened the room with four black-lit butterflies on its ceiling, along with Alan King, his warm-up comic.
"It just grew, and Rose came along, and she booked the best," said Warren Sheppick of Fallowfield Township, who played tenor saxophone in the house band. "It was the place to play."
Sheppick said he performed for Liberace, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney.
"They had all the big names," Paglia added.
However, Rose Calderone took center stage when her husband died unexpectedly in 1960.
"It was either sink or swim," she said. She befriended the stars and traveled to New York or Las Vegas to haggle with the top booking agents.
Her hard work also provided well-paying jobs for women who lived in the small coal towns that dotted the region.
"Some of the waitresses, ladies in the 1950s, were making $100 a night in tips. That was good money then," Vivian said.
The club was on the national radar screen because guests on the Tonight Show often mentioned it when host Johnny Carson asked them where they would be performing, Vivian said. Calderone was even profiled in 1969 in Cosmopolitan magazine because of her Hollywood friends and success in the male-dominated show business.
She later sold her club to a group of investors, not long after supper clubs were losing their popularity, and she had converted hers into a dinner-theater. She decided to invest in a Holiday Inn across the highway.
The nation's nightclub trade began to die with the arrival of the Beatles in February 1964, Vinton said.
Rock and roll demanded much-larger concert halls, the size of which, Calderone said, she could not compete against.
"Entertainment changed," Vinton said.
"The time was up for the big supper clubs," he said. "You had TV. People didn't go as much ...."
(Captions: Bobby Vinton in a promotional photo for his orchestra when he played at the Twin Coaches; Club owner Rose Calderone with a young Johnny Mathis; and actress Shirley Jones at the supper club, flanked by its owner, Tony Calderone, and Jones' then husband, Jack Cassidy.)