Memories of Music at Crystal Beach Amusement Park
Dancers in the Crystal Beach Ballroom.
Photo courtesy William Kae
Summer is around the corner, the days are getting warmer, and thoughts turn to summers past. One of the memories that people often talk about is Crystal Beach.
Crystal Beach is remembered by most people for its amusement park rides and the white sandy beach. However, it was important for introducing music to Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula. In fact, the Crystal Beach Ballroom had the largest dance floor in North America.
The original dance hall was called the Crystal Beach Dance Pavilion and was located where the Giant Coaster was later built. It began presenting bands in 1891 and featured the 74th Regiment Band, which was considered the most popular area brass band of the 1890s and early twentieth century. This band played an important role in the development of music at Crystal Beach.
Justus Miller was the director of the 74th Regiment Band, which, over time, developed into the thirty-five-member Miller Brass Band that performed at Crystal Beach through 1916. In 1918, the 74th’s percussionist, Fred Asmus, formed the seventeen-piece Crystal Beach Orchestra, which appeared at the park through 1924. It was a five-piece version of that orchestra that began entertaining on the Lake Erie Excursion Company steamers The Americana and Canadiana.
During the summer of 1923, the Southbound Shufflers performed on the Canadiana. Their piano player/vocalist was Buffalo’s Hyman Arluck. He changed his name to Harold Arlen and became one of America’s most prolific songwriters, including composing The Wizard of Oz soundtrack, with the Oscar winning “Over the Rainbow.” Arlen’s band had the distinction of being the last house band at the Dance Pavilion in 1924 and first house band at the Crystal Ballroom in 1925.
When George Hall Sr. purchased the Crystal Beach Amusement Park and Steamers in 1924 he was responsible for expanding the park, building the ballroom, and adding the Cyclone Roller Coaster. The Ballroom held 1,500 dancers and, at the end of each song, ushers with long ropes herded the dancers off the floor. The couples paid ten cents a dance, which could generate $12,000 during a four-evening dance. Canadian Law required that an equal size Canadian Band be hired if a band from the US was performing, so continuous music was provided by Canadian and American bands.
Canadian Bands included the Bert Niosi, Maynard Ferguson, and Benny Louis Big Bands. Starting in 1935, the featured US band was the Harold Austin Orchestra, which played at the ballroom and on the Canadiana during the summer, and appeared at The Dellwood Ballroom in Buffalo during the other seasons. Austin was responsible for introducing Big Band Music to the area by presenting all the most popular big bands, including the Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and other bands. These national bands first appeared at Crystal Beach and later played at The Dellwood, along with other Buffalo dance halls and theaters.
Austin also entertained on the daily Crystal Beach Boat trip to Crystal Beach and was featured on Sunday Dance Cruises. The final season of the Crystal Beach Boat was 1956 and on the final approach to the Buffalo docks, Harold Austin played “Taps” as the last song.
When the popularity of big band music waned during the 1950s, polka bands were introduced to the Crystal Beach Ballroom. The national and regionally popular polka bands included Frank Wojnarowski, Frankie Yankovic, Joe Macielag’s Pic-A-Polka Orchestra, Walt Jaworski, and the Eddie Olinski Orchestra. These bands continued to appear at the park through the summer of 1967, when the ballroom was replaced by a roller rink.
Music returned to the Crystal Beach Ballroom in 1984 but the size of the dance floor was reduced because of a fire in 1974. The first band to perform was Buffalo Swing, the big band that was featured in the movie The Natural, that was filmed in Buffalo. They released the album Ten Cents a Dance to commemorate the former dance policy at the Crystal Beach Ballroom. Buffalo Swing and Maynard Ferguson also performed at Save the Canadiana fundraisers to preserve the former Crystal Beach Boat.
After the Crystal Beach Ballroom reopened in 1984, in addition to big bands, it also featured local and nationally touring polka, country, and, finally, rock bands. These various styles of groups continued until the park closed at the end of the summer of 1989.
It was ironic that the final building at Crystal Beach Amusement Park to be demolished was the ballroom, remaining the final memory of the park’s glorious past. There were many other memorable beach or waterside nightclubs in WNY’s musical past, and we will reminisce about them in a summer issue of Forever Young.
Rick Falkowski is the author of History of Buffalo Music & Entertainment and co-founder of The Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. Send questions or comments to email@example.com.