Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beechwood was post-war jumpin' joint


Beechwood was post-war jumpin' joint

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

It was the late 1940s, and the joints were jumpin'.

Post-World War II America had much to celebrate after the troops came home, and for many, a night on the town meant dining and dancing to a live band in a club chock-a-block with other partiers.

And little South Hadley was home to one of the biggest and most popular clubs in Western Massachusetts.

For nearly a quarter-century - continuing well after the post-World War II glow had faded - the Beechwood and its successor, Conti's Beechwood, was not only an epicenter of area nightlife but also a popular destination for more sedate events such as wedding receptions, testimonials and banquets.

Today, the only evidence that the Beechwood used to border one side of the Beechgrounds on Main Street is a lone pillar, which stands next to the driveway of the apartment building built on the club's former site.

But, before it was demolished some 40 years ago, the hulking two-story edifice was such a trendy place to be that, in the words of former manager Frank Conti, "Some Friday and Saturday nights there would be 1,000 people upstairs and downstairs."

That was something no one could have foreseen when the spanking-new emporium opened its doors in the early 1920s. It was constructed to serve as a "Red Men's Hall," the local headquarters for a now-largely defunct fraternal organization that had headquarters in many U.S. cities (among them Holyoke, Northampton and Springfield).

The building was sold in the mid-1930s to Emile Lariviere, a South Hadley resident. He renamed it the Beechwood and transformed it into a collection of small businesses, including lunch rooms, bars, a cigar shop and even a bowling alley.

But, by 1943, new owner Jimmy Downing had other ideas for the Beechwood. A South Hadley real estate investor who lived less than a mile from the club, Downing also was the leader of the popular Jimmy Downing Orchestra.

Downing's dual interests meshed perfectly. His band had a permanent place to play, and it didn't take long for Downing's "new" Beechwood to catch on, starting with the men in uniform.

"The Westover GIs during World War II kept coming for the nightlife and then all through the years," said Conti.

The Beechwood was buzzing. In its heyday, it wasn't unusual to see lines of would-be patrons snaking down the sidewalk while waiting for admittance; inside, radio stations WACE and WHYN each broadcast live programs on Saturday nights A boxing exhibition with Willie Pep, the featherweight world champion from Hartford, was staged in the 1950s.

Even the more mundane was larger than life at the Beechwood. It hosted 25 consecutive policemen's balls, and it wasn't uncommon for the club to host five wedding receptions going on at once, according to Conti, who says the Beechwood was the site of South Hadley's first television set.

Other acts to play at the Beechwood included Bob Ezold's dance band (a member of the long-time Holyoke musical family and owner of the Pizzitola Music Studio, Ezold also was married to Downing's system, Helen) and Larry Chesky's polka orchestra.

In 1953, the Downings leased the club to Frank and Doris Conti, whose family owned several South Hadley restaurants. But as entertainment tastes changed, the club's business slowly dwindled and the facility closed its doors in 1968 when the Contis' lease expired.

Downing's plans to convert the vacant Beechwood into apartments didn't pan out, leading to its demolition. A new apartment building, the Parkview, instead was built in the early 1970s.

But even as it sat vacant, awaiting its demise, the Beechwood still had some music left in it. Jimmy Downing's son, James III, and his rock band Bear Mountain used the old building as a practice venue. Judy Van Handle is a member of the South Hadley Historical Society. To learn more about the society, go online to http://southhadleyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com/

1 comment:

p.anda said...

Thank you for this most interesting bit of South Hadley history. My parents were married at St. Patrick's in 1940 and I was told that their wedding reception at the Beechwood. Now I know a bit more about what it was and where it was.