Tuesday, June 05, 2007

1951 … dancing at the TOTEM POLE BALLROOM



I spent my high-school, and most of my college, years living in Wellesley Hill, Massachusetts. The town of Newton was very nearby and it was home to a wonderful recreation area called Norumbega Park. It featured canoeing, picnicking, an outdoor theater, a penny arcade, a zoo, a colorful carousel and a huge Ferris wheel.

All of these attractions were enticing but the “icing on the cake” was the amazing dancehall called the Totem Pole. Virtually every famous swing band in the country appeared at that venue. These included, among others, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James & the Dorsey Brothers. Music from the ballroom was broadcast nationally over the NBC, ABC & CBS networks.

A night at the Totem Pole was pricey so most of us in the teenage bracket had only dreamed of going. However, shortly after I turned 18, I met a college man (sigh!) who actually had the means to buy tickets and we spent a memorable Saturday night there.

As I recall they didn’t have a name band the night that we were there, but that didn’t dim our enthusiasm. I was mesmerized the minute we walked in. We were on the upper level of a huge hall. A large staircase led down to the main dance floor and couches and small tables were interspersed on the way down.

There were actually three dance floors…the enormous one in front of the live orchestra and two smaller, intimate, ones on either side of the seating arrangements. It was all very posh and incredibly romantic. The lighting was soft and the music was dreamy and just right for slow dancing. I doubt if I was as much enthralled by my date as I was by the idea of it all; but, it was certainly a night to remember.

Of course it all came to an end,,,not just that night, but the Big Band Era itself...and in 1964 the Totem Pole closed it’s doors for good. Today the area is the site of a large Marriott Hotel.

But the city of Newton has preserved ten acres known as the Norumbega Park Conservation Land. It has access to the Charles river and is a popular jogging and dog-walking site during the day.

During the night? I can’t help but wonder if it is occupied by “Totem Pole ghosts” of the past ,,,romantic couples on an enormous dance floor, swaying to the hypnotic swing tunes that dominated the 50’s and 60’s.

27 Comments:

Blogger Pam said...

I would be one of the ghosts, part of me is still back there dancing and canoeing on the Charles.

1:18 PM  
Blogger kenju said...

How lucky you were to have had that experience. I went to a club in VA Beach in the 60's that had quite a bit of history, but it wasn't anywhere near the fanciness of yours!

8:46 PM  
Anonymous caroline potato said...

Hi Ginnie,
I've been away from my computer for a week or so. I seem to have missed some of your posts. You have evoked the sounds, sights and even smells from a time gone by. I've only seen things like that in old movies. It sounds grand.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Cazzie!!! said...

That would have been a marvellous time. I know when my nan used to cater for a masonic lodge in the 1970's and I was a little girl, I loved to see the ladies and gents dancing and swooning and dressed all lovely. No one likes to dress nice these days to go out. Pity, because I am all alone in it when I do go out.

3:50 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I loved the old dance halls. In those days you could actually talk to a girl when you were dancing with her and she could hear what you were saying.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Maya's Granny said...

What a lovely memory. Sadly, I'm just enough younger than you that I never went to a ballroom. Rock and roll had taken over with the young by the time I went to dances, but I remember the big band music from my childhood. My father had played drums in a band in the 30s and he sang many of those songs to me.

4:59 PM  
Blogger KGMom said...

I enjoyed reading this remembrance, though I confess I never learned to dance! One of the regrets of my life, but I grew up in a very conservative Protestant home, so dancing was out!
Now, I feel too clumsy to even try.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous millie garfield said...

Hi Ginnie

I know just what you are talking about! I had a date that took me to the Totem Pole. He didn't have a car so we got there by street car, subway and bus. I lived north of Boston.

The ballroom was beautiful, the band was great and the couchs were cozy. I remeber each couch had a lamp that was dimly lit.

Some couples would shut the lamps off - There was an employee that would go around and have them put the lamps back on!!

Loved the picture of the Totem Pole. Brought back so many memories!!

Thanks

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Oh, Ginnie, I really enjoyed this post. I grew up hearing about the Totem Pole. I'm pretty sure my aunt went there once.
And I really enjoyed your description of it. I was way too young to have visited there and I was 17 when they closed it. But I got to "visit" it via you.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories. I danced at the Totem Pole as a teenager and remember how romantic those booths and little lamps were. I think it was there that I saw Peter, Paul and Mary in all their beautiful, youthful fervor. Several years ago I saw them again, all of us decidedly middle-aged, at my daughter's music camp in Michigan. The parents swayed and sang along -- the kids thought we were so funny. Thanks again for your interesting blog.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, metaphorically a million miles from Newton and the Totem Pole Ballroom, but I remember what a magical place it was back in the early 1950's. Only couples were admitted and I remember that there was a sign near the entrance stating that no alcohol was allowed, either internally or externally. The setting was as romantic as could be and we all felt a bit like Fred Astaire (or Ginger Rogers).

9:53 PM  
Blogger KC from Beverly said...

All of a sudden, I was overcome over thr weekend of memories of "The Boston Ballroom" with Bob Clayton on WHDH in Boston. That also brought back a flood of memories I had in 1960 qand 1961 dancing at the Totem Pole with my "first steady". I was one of three couplres that would trek up Route 128 from Beverly, ususally once a month to enjoy the long comfy couches, and the fantastic big band music. I think Dick Bachelder was in charge of the "house band". I enjoyed a New Year's Ever with the Four Lads, and who could forget having a snack in The Teepee? Thanks to Norumbega Park, I still enjoy listening to the Big Bands. I hope you do,,too.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Yes, KC, I still love the Big Band sound. Nothing really compares with the feeling we would get while listening to it!

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just spreading the word of a great new DVD called "Return To Norumbega" which is a 50 minute documentary of the greatest amusement park in New England. The late Bob Pollock, a Norumbega Park historian for 20 years and Joe Hunter of Remember Productions, have put together a great DVD sure to bring back memories to anyone who visited the park. Available from www.norumbegapark.com

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Gene said...

When I was at Fitchburg High School in the forties a group of us boys was recruited to go to the Totem Pole to meet and dance with a group of students from Bouve Boston School. I'll remember the wonder of that evening all my life. It was magic.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

I found a love letter tonight from my deceased husband and laughed because he said he just couldn't wait until Saturday night. It would be in the paper who would be at the Totem Pole.....it was Glen Miller's Band. We were going to Brockton High School and started dating at 15 & 17 after knowing each other all our lives and were married for 42 AWESOME years before he passed away from cancer.
What wonderful memories of that place. We went as often as his pitiful little grocery store job paycheck would allow.
Thank you for the memories. You made my day as I was sitting here missing him so much tonight.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Boston Globe just ran a great article about Norumbega Park in September of 2008. I aded the link below:

http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/09/14/for_your_amusement/

12:23 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

I'm originally from Boston and I do remember the Totem Pole Ballroom. As a matter of fact, I was researching for my Revere High School class of 1962 for Boston Ballroom because I was trying to locate hopefully the tape when we all danced on Boston Ballroom and was on TV. So far, no luck but in my search your Blog popped up.

I do have two blogs going on Blogger....one for me personally and the other for my class.

Hugs,Rose

1:23 PM  
Blogger oldyeller said...

oldyeller dropped by in search of more information on this phrase:
"Life must be lived forwards, but it is only understood backwards." Serendity perhaps guided me to your blog. What a gift, thank you.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Ginnie For some reason I was
dreaming about the Park and theTotem Pole. I grew up in Wellesley Hills and went there with
a date. The bands were wonderful and I especially remember Gene Krupa and how he played the drums.
Rumor had it he was on drugs,which
I had hardly heard of. What s magi-
cal place and no liquor so my
parents let me go.

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ginnie,

Thanks for posting information about The Totem Pole ballroom at Norumbega. I grew up (I'm now 70) in Newton and was one of the very lucky teenagers that used to take my "special" dates for a night of dancing at Totem Pole. Your blog brings back wonderful memories of the blissful evenings dancing and listening to the big band music of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and the many other top-name bands that played there. I remember that I never had a problem getting a date to go dancing at Totem Pole! LOL.

Elliot

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Hi Ginnie, I am 82, I lived in Newton, MA all my life I worked at the totem pole from 1944 to 1958 first on soda fountain then ticket booth, and then the hostess in the ballrom where i met my later to be husband who was the manager. you cant even imagine all the memories and happy images you brought to me.

5:51 PM  
Blogger George said...

I remember going to the Totem Pole a couple of times back in the early 60's before it closed. It truly was a romantic place for a date. Most importantly to me though was just the experience of having danced in such a magical place to what we considered a "big band".

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really good post!

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for the memories of the Totem Pole. I also remember seeing most of the big name bands and singers at the RKO Keith theater on Washington street, downtown Boston.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story, I was there a few times, the most memerable being my 1960 Newton High School prom

5:09 PM  
Blogger Mr. Chick said...

Going through my HS years in Newton, it was pure delight to take a girl to the Totem Pole... so romantic, and
such fond memories of our youth when we were so amazingly innocent! I believe one of the bands there was Larry Green, but could be mistaken. And the paddle-boats were delightful! We had no idea what made up a girl, but we sure loved 'em, and loved the music. Such nostalgia,
especially when everyone would go up by the bandstand and just thrill
to the special arrangements.

8:30 AM  

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