Canobie Ballroom Record Hops

Wayne Ulaky was a bassist and vocalist for the Beacon Street Union.

I first moved to Salem, New Hampshire in 1958, aged 10. Salem was a very small town at the time, and Route 93 did not yet exist over the NH border. The only access from Massachusetts was via Route 28, or by train that stopped at “Salem Depot.” In fact, that was officially the name of the town, and they dropped “Depot” years later when the train system was discontinued.

Rock ‘n Roll music was still in its early stages, but booming like crazy. Ever since Elvis had performed on Ed Sullivan in 1956, that event triggered a massive amount of interest in music among young people– grade schoolers through college– and it seemed like every week new legends of rock were being born. By the late ‘50’s, every car manufactured and sold came with a AM radio, or at least the option to have one.

Around this time, the phrase “disc jockey” was also born, as it was the popular name of the guys who played our favorite records on the radio. Rock ‘n Roll music made people want to dance, and the DJ’s knew it and capitalized on it. Every weekend it seemed, there was a local “record hop.” Here is where a DJ would book the auditorium at the school, or the local function hall. He’d bring a record player and a bunch of 45 r.p.m.“singles,” (aka ‘45’s). He’d plug his little record player into a larger amplifier, and spin the hits of the day while all the kids danced.

My father and two partners, all in their thirties, bought an old broken down amusement park in Salem, NH. The glory days of Canobie Lake Park were declining in the post- war era, and the big old barn of a building known as the Ballroom was in significant decay. But two events were to eventually turn that around. The first was the completion of Route 93 across the border into New Hampshire in 1960. The second was the boom of Rock ‘n Roll music.

Throughout those early summers from 1958 to 1961, some families would come to the Park during the day, but there would be very few people around at night. The day crowd left early because it was a long ride home, and there was not enough local population to support staying open most nights.

WBZ-radio in Boston was the powerhouse “top-forty” station in New England, and through advertising, my father connected with one of their most popular DJ’s, Dave Maynard. Dave and his business manager Ruth Clenott from Boston (more on her later), convinced my dad and his partners that a Friday night “record hop” would bring out thousands of kids, which would be good business for the Park, and good exposure for WBZ-radio. At the time, admission to the Park was free (you bought ride tickets separately), and they decided to charge 50 cents to attend the record hops in the Ballroom.

So I was around 13 or 14 years old at the time, and the first summer or two, Dave Maynard would spin his records and kids would dance and socialize. An important thing to note was that there was a dress code to attend the record hops in the Ballroom. Guys had to wear jackets and ties to get in, and the girls wore dresses accordingly. This policy presumed that if kids were dressed up, the event was more formal, and that would keep away any hooligans or trouble-makers. Parents in the area loved the policy, because they knew their kids were out in a relatively safe environment.

During the record hops, Dave Maynard would have contests– like dance contests– and give out prizes. Most of the time those prizes were copies of the popular singles on the radio at the time, and kids loved to participate to win those souvenirs. Every now and then, a celebrity would be in the Boston area plugging records, and Dave would bring them up to do a meet and greet autograph session at the weekly record hop. This soon expanded into an interesting phenomenon, where Dave would spin the performers record and the performer would simply sing live into a microphone accompanied by his own music. One of the first acts to do this at Canobie was Johnny Tillotson, a teen-aged heart throb with a big hit called “ Poetry in Motion.” So instead of just hanging out and signing autographs, Johnny jumped on stage and sang along to his own record. It sounded pretty good, as I recall.

Well, this was a big hit with the kids, and they swamped Dave Maynard with requests to bring more acts like this to the record hops throughout the summer, and he did. Since many of these acts were in the Boston area every week to plug their records (remember, WBZ was all top-forty, all the time), it was a simple move to drive them up to Salem, NH to perform their songs in front of live crowds. Then came one great hit-maker after another: Bobby Lewis singing “ Tossin’ and Turnin” , Del Shannon singing “ Runaway” , and Curtis Lee singing “ Pretty Little Angel Eyes.” All these great acts were right here in our little town, and all it cost was 50 cents to see them and get an autograph. Each summer the crowds got bigger and bigger.

Dave Maynard’ s business manager Ruth Clenott was very well connected in the music biz, and soon she took things to a new level. One night she brought in “ Dick Clark’ s Caravan of Stars” which included not just one, but a whole bunch of acts all in the same show. This included not only Dick Clark himself, but Gary U.S. Bonds, Dick and DeeDee, Chubby Checker, and a relatively new group from Detroit called The Supremes (yes, with Diana Ross). This was amazing!

Around this time I became friends with a local kid named Fred Bramante. Fred loved Rock ‘ n Roll music, and had a keen ability to memorize who performed this record or that, what was on the ‘ B’ side, and what label put the record out. Needless to say, he was with me from then on at almost every remaining Friday night record hop at Canobie.

Then came more great acts, week after week, summer after summer. The Angels performed “ My Boyfriend’ s Back” and got the crowd screaming as they wiggled their backs while they sang. Then, in another week, there was Gene Pitney, Brian Hyland, and Bobby Vinton—all in the same show! Now the acts were bringing their own bands or back up groups instead of just syncing along with their records. One of the biggest nights I recall is when Ray Charles performed at Canobie. The Ballroom was packed, and so was the whole Park.

Week after week the acts kept coming, and for all us kids in the area, it got better and better. Jerry Lee Lewis rocked the house, and in fact appeared two additional times at Canobie. Brenda Lee was a huge star at the time, and she played at Canobie, again to a

packed house. Sam the Sham and Pharoahs (“ Woolie Boolie” ), the Kingsmen (“ Louie Louie” ), Paul and Paula (“ Hey Paula” ), and even the Beach Boys. The show by the Beach Boys was memorable because it was their first tour without Brian Wilson. To take his place on bass and vocals, the Beach Boys hired an unknown “ session” musician at the time named Glenn Campbell, and there he was in his striped shirt and white Fender Precision Bass. When Campbell later left the group to pursue his own career, he was replaced with Bruce Johnston, who performs with what remains of the group to this day.

Then came the British Invasion, and that summer several groups from across the pond played at Canobie. The first was the Searchers (“ Needles and Pins” ), followed by Herman’ s Hermits, Peter and Gordon, and The Yardbirds (with Jimmy Page). By this time the original dress code had vansished, and people were showing up in bell-bottom pants and paisley shirts. Another era had begun.

The final days of the record hops at Canobie began in 1965, right after what was probably the biggest night in the history of Canobie Lake Park and it’ s Ballroom. Through Dave Maynard, my father had signed a contract with a brand new act called Sonny and Cher. The contract came about a month before their appearance, and since they had no hits at the time, I recall the contract price being somewhere around $1500.00. What no one could predict was that shortly after both parties signed the contract, “ I Got You Babe” became a national number one hit. Sonny and Cher were now huge stars, and their management said they wanted more like $10,000.00 for an appearance at Canobie. My father said he would hold them to the contract price of $1500.00, and they eventually agreed and showed up as advertised. One young lady from here in Salem had a little Kodak flash camera with her that night, and the pictures show Sonny and Cher on stage at Canobie, flanked by at least four police officers for their protection.

Thereafter, I was in a band of my own, and didn’ t get to Canobie much anymore. But on one remaining night, there appeared my favorite group, Barry and the Remains, who later went on tour opening for the Beatles in 1966. Then, as part of a massive radio promotion, another new band known only locally at the time, appeared at Canobie— Aerosmith.

But after 1965, the crowds became more rowdy and disorderly, so Canobie Lake Park began phasing out what were once cute little record hops, that had turned into superstar concerts. The contract demands by acts were also becoming prohibitive in costs and absurd terms and conditions. One such case was the potential performance by The Young Rascals. In addition to a huge amount of money, their contract demanded that each of the four guys in the group must have his own dressing room, each with its own bathroom, any police on duty must not carry firearms, and the Park would have to rent all the instruments, including a Hammond B-3 organ. They also required that they be picked up at Logan Airport in four separate limousines.

My father and his partners said no thanks. And that was the end of the live Rock ‘ n Roll era at Canobie Lake Park.

Ruth Clenott, Dave Maynard’ s manager, went on to open her own rock night club in Boston, and named it the Where It’ s At. It eventually closed right after the opening of the original Boston Tea Party on Berkley Street. My high school buddy, Fred Bramante, later went on to own and operate a chain of musical instrument stores called Daddy’ s Junky Music. Last year in 2010, we at Canobie refurbished the old Ballroom, which we now call the Dance Hall Theater, where we host tribute shows like Elvis and Michael Jackson. In the back of the theater, we built the Canobie Lake Museum, where you can see news articles and photos of the hundreds of acts that performed there over the decades.

–Wayne Ulaky, May 2011

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