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History in the Hills: Concerts remembered

For many summers while I was in college, I worked out at Star Lake in Burgettstown as a ticket taker. At that time, it was called the Post-Gazette Pavilion. Now in its most recent rebranding, I am glad to see it being called “The Pavilion at Star Lake” while embracing its history once again.

Being a ticket taker was possibly one of the best summer jobs I ever had. After the show started and the tickets were collected, there really wasn’t much to do until the end of the show when we had to stop, mostly inebriated, visitors from making off with the facility’s rental chairs. The group of folks who worked in that department in those days were wonderful, and on concert days would all bring a covered dish to share. During the down time, we were often permitted to walk down to the stage and watch the show for a bit. During my time there I saw Dave Matthews, Steve Miller, Tom Petty, Kiss, Ozzy Osborne and Joe Cocker, just to name just a few.

Now I am blessed to be able to work again at a place where I can enjoy live music. Historic Fort Steuben’s annual Summer Concert Series has been going on now for 15 years, this year beginning on Memorial Day with local band the Stereos and the Vogues, then every Thursday, weather permitting, through the end of July. The Berkman Amphitheater has hosted many talented groups during the years, national and local, continuing the tradition of great live music in Steubenville.

Looking back, Steubenville has played host to many well-known acts over the years. Attempting to make any sort of list of performers is very difficult due to the fact that there are so many bands, clubs, restaurants and dance halls where groups would perform that any attempt at compiling a complete list would be monumental. Also, some records are scant, especially from the 1940s, on the online databases I use. So one must rely on the memories of friends, co-workers and family who attended the shows, or at least remember the groups coming to town.

The biggest reason the groups came to Steubenville in the early years was due to the fact that Pennsylvania, specifically Pittsburgh, had what were known as Blue Laws, that prohibited entertainment establishments from holding programs on Sunday, among other things. So when national acts booked gigs in Pittsburgh, for instance at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts), groups would travel one hour west to Steubenville on Sunday to play, typically at the magnificent Capitol Theater.

The Capitol hosted “the top big bands, radio personalities and movie stars,” according to John Holmes in his book, “Remembering Steubenville.” Holmes lists several Big Band greats who played there such as Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne among others. In February 1940, band leader Benny Goodman performed a live show there with his orchestra. From July 3-9, 1942, Tommy Dorsey opened at the Stanley for a week engagement, and expectations were high that he would break the house record for attendance. On Sunday, July 5, he played Steubenville’s Capitol Theater for his weekly Sunday night radio program sponsored by the U.S. Treasury Department. Dorsey in those days also employed Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford as singers, who most likely made the trip to Steubenville. Others who performed there were Sammy Kaye, Artie Shaw and Harry James, and my grandmother remembers seeing Cab Calloway, all performers at the Capitol.

By the 1960s, the laws prohibiting Sunday entertainment were repealed, ending the necessity for bands to look for Sunday venues. That being said, Steubenville still attracted some great artists.

The 1961 season in Steubenville seemed to be particularly exciting with many shows being held at the then-new Diocesan Community Arena. Buddy Morrow and his Night Train Orchestra appeared there in September followed by Johnny Mathis. The Brothers Four performed in October. Undoubtedly, they played their hit song “Greenfields” that was released the previous year. Also in October, the Supremes took the stage followed by the Woody Herman Orchestra. In November, Bobby Rydell played with Bobby Vinton, a Canonsburg native. Vinton was in Steubenville more than once, playing at different venues. In February 1962, Chubby Checker appeared here with Bobby Comstock and the Counts.

Others who performed in Steubenville during the years included bandleaders Eddy Duchin, Gene Krupa, Jose Feliciano, Lionel Hampton, and “The Polka King of Chicago” Lil’ Wally and his Famous Polka Band. One performance remembered fondly was given by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown. Truly a show worth seeing.

More local bands also were in demand like the 006s, People’s Choice, Universal Joint, Crack the Sky, The Fantasy’s and B.E. Taylor. The locally founded, but nationally known, group Wild Cherry with Mingo Junction native Rob Parissi made it big with its 1976 hit “Play that Funky Music.” It’s still a favorite in our area. And, who can forget our native son “The King of Cool” Dean Martin, born Dino Paul Crocetti right here in 1917.

Steubenville has a lot to be proud of in its musical past. So, this summer I would encourage you to come out and enjoy the many opportunities to hear great live music right here in town without going too far away. We can add those bands to the growing list of performers who have entertained us right here at home.

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