Big band era embraced and preserved in Gallitzin

GALLITZIN – A piece of history attached to well-known big band musicians has gotten a makeover in Gallitzin.

The American Legion, Post 174, has renovated the Oriental Ballroom, once famous for dances featuring big bands, including those led by well-known musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, the Glen Miller Band and Duke Ellington.

The last well-known big band to play there was the Sammy Kaye Orchestra at the 1960 Gallitzin High School Senior prom, said David Quinn, a past commander. Classmates got the chance to direct the band, he said.

The recent renovations to the ballroom cost more than $130,000, said Rege Ratchford, the Legion’s finance officer.

The renovations included electrical, foundation and flooring work, installing heating and air conditioning, dropping the ceiling, and a new bar, Ratchford said.

Reynold D. Santone Jr. of The San Tones Orchestra, a 20-piece band playing the big band sounds of the ’40s and ’50s, fulfilled a dream from high school of playing at the venue.

“I can’t even imagine, how back in the ’40s, how they danced up here, and they used to pack this place full. This will hold what 2,000 people, I think. And they used to pack 1,000 to 2,000 in here all the time,” Santone said while talking about the relief the air conditioning gives.

The San Tones will play at the ballroom in June to help raise funds to maintain the Legion, he said.

The Legion bought the ballroom from the Italian Club in 1939, Quinn said. World War I veteran Dr. Alfred Bergistein renovated the ballroom, which then opened in 1946.

The Oriental Ballroom should be on the National Register of Historic Places, Santone said.

“It’s not yet, but it goes back and I’ll tell you what, it’s a special piece of history for Central Pennsylvania,” he said. “As a matter of fact, in Pennsylvania this is one of the few standing buildings that are constructed like this.”

The building is constructed in a “bow-string” fashion, “like a bowling alley with the trusses that go up over,” Santone said. “I give all the credit in the world to the Legion for maintaining this building. It would have been so easy to just come in here and tear it down and sell the lumber, but they’ve maintained it and it’s really a special place.”

After World War II, the ballroom was a place for relaxing and to bring their family, he said.

“It was family oriented and back then they didn’t have televisions and so forth so this was the entertainment they had,” Santone said.

“These were the two places [the Oriental Ballroom and Sunset Dancehall, Carrolltown] in Pennsylvania to go if you wanted to hear a Big Band. They would stop and play in Philadelphia, Gallitzin and Pittsburgh, then head out West.”

History is on display in a case near the entrance of the ballroom. Items such as uniforms from World War I and the Legion’s Gentlemen Drum and Bugle Corp, who were national champions from 1936 to 1939, are on display, Quinn said.

“When you come through those doors … it’s like going back in history,” Santone said. “Honestly it is, back in time.”

World War II veteran Dante Capriotti said he used to go to the dances. Ina Ray Hutton signed his shirt sleeve, but he doesn’t know where the shirt is today, he said.

“I went dancing every Saturday,” he said. “As soon as the band came up here, we were up here dancing.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.