a newspaper man adjusts his pen

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.)



Anonymous said...

What a fabulous article on my family. Rose is my grandmother and she just passed away at 93 on May 19, 2008. My grandmother was a phenomenal woman and a very hard worker and I am thankful that she instilled the same qualities in me!

Lisa Rose Calderone-Waite
Atlanta, Georgia

Lisa Calderone-Waite said...

Who was Rose Calderone? Rose Calderone was my Grandmother. A beautiful woman who possessed class, calmness, love, respect, morals, and who lived for the Lord. She was a hard worker who was dedicated to her employees and to their success but she was also a woman who was dedicated to her family, to our successes and she always stressed to us to get a long, to love one another, to be honest, to work hard every day and to pray. I will share a little story with you. A little over two years ago, my father and I had a serious falling out. I wrote him a turbulent letter basically telling him everything wrong he had done as a father. It was not meant to be a hurtful letter but a letter basically to clear the air of years of anger and torment that was built up in me for the way he treated my brother and I. (Thats another blog...) Needless to say, my father, who is a very controlling, demanding and judgmental man took it totally out of context and decided he would not have anything to do with me after he read it. The silence between he and I remained for more than a year but it was her, Rose Calderone, who assured me that I was correct in everything I wrote but that she wanted nothing more than to see my father and I make up before she died. She reminded me how old she was and that life was too short. Kinda weird having a 90 something woman say that to me. But that is how my Grandmother was. She believed in true love and forgiveness. She believed everyone deserved a second chance and she always saw the good in something that was bad. She was a woman who I always have respected and honored. Since I was a small child, my brother and I spent every summer with her and my Aunt in PA. We would fly up as soon as school was out, we would stay all summer and come home the week before school was back in session. She always worked hard at her Holiday Inn but she also always made time to take us to new places and always made sure we were taken care of and had a good time. She always loved us unconditionally. She was always there for us. She was a very serious woman but her family never came between or after anything she ever did. She did what she had to but she always did it honestly and she always included her unconditional love. As I child I remember all the stories she would tell us about her life growing up. I remember sitting next to her with my head in her lap while she would do my hair. She would always pray to the rosary every single night - no matter how late it was. In fact, when she passed, she was holding her rosary beads which are now mine. I was so blessed to take her last communion with her on the morning of the day she passed. It had been over a year since I had taken communion and I held the Eucarist up to her mouth and she breathed on it before I took it. What a special and sacred moment that was to me. Her passing has brought me much sadness. Yes, it is a selfish sad but she was one person whos love I never questioned. She was always there when I needed her and I pray for her peace eternally many times during the days now. She was a phenomenal woman. She was my Grandmother and I miss her. Since her passing, oddly enough, I have a serene sense of calmness now. I feel that she passed something to me that I did not possess before. I seem to have patience and I seem to see the good in the bad now. Things I could never see before. She was a legacy. She was love. She was my Grandmother and I love her so much.

FX said...

An outstanding article. I remember driving by the Twin Coaches for years, and later had the pleasure of doing business with Rose @ her Holiday Inn.


ms.sow said...

Wow, the Twin Coaches. My mom and dad were from Charleroi and talked about it all the time. I remember the story of the original "twin coaches" railroad cars. My mom knew Rose Calderone. One summer my parents rewarded me by taking me to the Coaches to see Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It must have been 1968 or 1969. Rose remembered my mom and gave us the best seats and an evening I'll never forget. I must have been 13 years old. What a memory!

Jeff Lashway said...

Great article. I worked at the Coaches in the early to mid 70s as the house pianist, while still in high school and just after graduation. This bought back memories of those days and all the great people I worked with. Thanks.

Rev. Val Zdilla said...

Who didn't love the Twin Coaches if you were from the Mon-Valley? I did some dinner theatre there in the 70's. Mrs. Calderone and her staff there were top notch.

Rev. Val Zdilla
Bozeman, MT

Anonymous said...

For a long time I tried to remember the name of this place. Then out of the blue, it hit me tonight. As soon as I remembered the name of it, the name Rose Calderone, came right afterwards. I can remember seeing The Supremes, the original 3 girls, when they were at Twin Coaches. My parents had to go with me as I was under drinking age at the time. We had a great time, got to wave at the Supremes in their dressing room afterwards. It was an event I'll always remember.

Dan Pierce
formerly from Morgantown, WV