As I sit down to write this post about the Town Casino/Ballroom I find myself reflecting about music in general. It’s meant so much to me over the years. Music runs through my veins.
My Grandfather was a drummer; my Father played the saxophone. Ever since I can remember, music has been a big part of everyday life and every family celebration we’ve ever had. As a child, I watched my Dad choose albums to load onto the turntable to put on during a party. My Mother played her albums during the day while she worked around the house. As kids, 45s and albums were among the first things we bought with our paper route money.
Later, I met and married a man whose family loved music as well. Throughout our marriage, going to see live music has been and continues to be, one of our ‘things’. We both love a good live show. Whether it’s a big show, like Paul McCartney, or happening upon a jazz trio at Hot Mama’s Canteen. We love it.
Lockdown on Live Music
So when a friend suggested that I write about the Town Ballroom, I thought, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” My very next thought was that I haven’t been to the Town Ballroom in far too long. And I’m not talking about quarantine long. Longer. It’s been a few years. Right now, I’m thinking that I wasted some of my previous freedom not doing some things that I wanted to be doing. Does that make sense? Not being able to go anywhere or do anything gives you a real clear idea of what freedom is. And how you’ve (maybe) wasted some of it.
Like a lot of Buffalonians, I’m really going to miss live music this summer. For those of you not from here, Buffalo is a great place to see live music. Always has been, and I hope it always will be. The music scene as a whole has been part of Buffalo’s history for a long, long time. Part of that storied history involves the Town Casino. Or the Town Ballroom, as it is now called.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Town Casino
Founded and run by Harry Altman and Harry Wallens, the Town Casino has seen some amazing musical history. Between the 1940s and the 1960s this restaurant /nightclub, which were known at the time as supper clubs, was the place to be in Buffalo.
Picture this, you’re watching an old movie set in the ’40s. The main characters live in a Delaware Avenue type mansion. At the last minute, she throws on a gown, and he a tuxedo, and out they go (at midnight) for a late dinner and dancing featuring live music. Well, if the movie was set in Buffalo, they would have gone to the Town Casino.
White linen tablecloths, waiters in suits, hat check and cigarette girls (sorry ladies), a big band up on stage playing whatever was hot that week. Three shows a night, 7:30, 10:30 and 1:30! And big-name entertainers. The biggest. Nat King Cole, Lena Horn, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Les Paul, Dizzy Gillespie, not to mention the entire rat pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Comedians, dancing girls (sorry again ladies). And many, many more.
There were rumors of mob activities in the famed ‘basement’ bar. Men played cards downstairs, Al Capone among them. Although the rumors extend to illegal firearms being stored, bought, and sold in this basement, we’ll never know the whole truth. It is, however, a generally accepted story that Frank Sinatra liked the Town Casino and traveled to Buffalo more than once for the express purpose of going there to hang out. Even when he wasn’t ‘playing’. That I can picture. But you know my propensity for daydreaming…
The 50’s and 60’s
Things became a little less formal in the ’50s and ’60s as far as fashion goes (still dressy, but no more gowns and tuxes). But the big names were still on the marquee, there were still three shows a night, and it was still, the place to go.
I asked around a bit with a few older friends and relatives about the Town Casino. These people would have been there in the late ’50s and ’60s. They agreed that it was a great venue. One gentleman told me that if he wanted to impress a girl, or her father, he would take her there. It was expensive, he told me. Worth every penny, he also told me, if he really liked the girl.
My father told me that he and my Mom went there just once. They had a great night, but they both preferred the smaller, more casual clubs on the East Side.
In our conversation, my father mentioned the Glen Casino in Williamsville, also owned and run by Harry Altman. He opened it in 1934, and it seated 1500 people! This club featured big-name acts as well. On the same property, they had kiddie rides in addition to the music, food, and dancing. Both he and my mother had young sisters, and they would take the girls out there and spent the day listening to music and watching the kids enjoy the rides. I looked it up, and at the time the rides would have been a nickel, and pitchers of beer were a quarter. Not gonna impress anybody’s father at those prices, but most could afford a day out like that every once in a while. The Glen Casino in Williamsville has been transformed into the now familiar Glen Park.
Whatever Happened to the Town Casino?
With the decline of the city in the ’60s and ’70s, so too the Town Casino suffered and eventually changed hands. Studio Arena operated there for a while, and UB’s Pfeiffer Theatre did too. In the early 2000s, a night club was opened there again as the Sphere. Not like the Town Casino. More of a concert venue. The Sphere was short-lived.
That’s the story in a nutshell. Short and sweet, as they say.
The Town Ballroom
In 2005, Artie Kwitchoff and Donny Kutzbach took over the building and began the transformation back to the glory days of the Town Casino. Even the name they chose for their premier concert venue harkens back and is a nod to those days.
In 2007, The Tragically Hip played two sold-out shows at the Town Ballroom which really put the venue on the map as a serious concert venue in the city. Our son was there as part of his job (at the time) at a music store the first night. The second night we managed to wrangle some tickets and were able to be there. A-mazing. Excellent show, equally excellent venue.
Those concerts are memorialized on the Ballrooms’ marquee, as are photos of the Buffalo skyline.
Take a look at this quick video, by Rory Allen of Zoom Copy, showing the installation of the new marquee.
The Town Ballroom has been alive and well, and thriving on Main Street in Buffalo ever since. They are busy showcasing a variety of music geared towards young people who are always eager to come out to see up and coming bands, along with well-established bands that will attract the older set as well. Of course, you can’t really pigeonhole music like that, but you get the idea, there’s a good variety of live music happening here. Or, should I say, will again. Soon?
If you’ve been watching the Town Ballrooom website like I have the past few weeks, some shows have been canceled, but some, especially further out into the fall, are still listed, and I am sure there will be more to come in the future. Looking forward to it.
Thinking about the Covid-19 pandemic makes me wonder what the future will bring as far as live music goes in the Queen City. Most of our regular concert series have been canceled.
I’ve taken part in some online ‘live’ concerts in the past couple of months, and I know the musicians mean well, but for me, it’s just not the same. Standing, as I prefer to do at a live event, in the middle of a crowd that loves the music being performed as much as I do, just moves me. I get that choked up, swept away feeling. I’ve actually cried at a few concerts, and I’m not the kind of girl who cries easily!
I just don’t get that sitting in my kitchen looking at a screen. So, I for one am looking forward to the return of live music, any night of the week, at any one of the literally hundreds of music venues in Buffalo, whatever that will look like in the future. Some indoors, some outdoors. No more wasting my freedom not doing the things I love. One of my quarantine lessons, I suppose. And I’m certainly looking forward to heading over to the Town Ballroom again. It’s got that intimate atmosphere that feels so good at a live show. One of Buffalo’s best. Go see it, or go back. You’ll be glad you did. Be careful though, live music is addictive.
** Lead image photo credit: New York by Rail