Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 117 - Tommy Dorsey’s Dance Caravan
Story filed December 14, 2007

It was November of 1941. The German army was marching toward Moscow and the Japanese were planning an attack on Pearl Harbor that would plunge the United States into World War II just a month later. In Cleveland, the Rams were struggling with the worst record in professional football. But people here, recovering from the Depression, wanted to party and turned out by the thousands to dance.

Norman Siegel, writing in the Cleveland Press, said, "The town has never seen anything like it." Forty thousand people flocked to the Public Auditorium at East 6th and Lakeside over five nights to see, hear, and dance to the non-stop music of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and the Shep Fields Orchestra. It was called "The Dance Caravan" and it was part of a long tour promoted by RCA Victor Records.

The tour began in New York City where there was a confused send-off party at Grand Central Station. The party was planned aboard a special ten-car train, but somehow, the train got lost in the yards and the guests were scrambling all over the big terminal looking for the party. In Buffalo, Dorsey broke his glasses and nobody recognized him until he found another pair.

In Cleveland, the doors to Public Auditorium opened at 7 p.m. for the first night, Wednesday, November 5, 1941, and more than six thousand people poured into the big hall to see and hear the bands. Newspaper writer Siegel said, "There were loud cheers for Dorsey and Fields when they took the two bandstands with their 40 musicians." The advance publicity said, "Your dance dream come true! Biggest fun party Cleveland has ever seen! World’s largest dance floor! Famous celebrities!"

Looking back, jazz historians like to categorized various big bands as either "swing" or "sweet." The Shep Fields band was definitely a sweet band, playing strictly for dancing. But, Dorsey straddled the two categories – playing both swinging jazz, with top instrumental soloists, and beautiful sweet music, with leading vocalists, for dancing – all with a high degree of musicianship. The combination made the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra one of the most popular in the world at the time.

During the Dance Caravan, thousands of teenaged jitterbugs crowded around the celebrities – mostly Dorsey and the star members of his band – trumpeter Ziggy Elman, drummer Buddy Rich, and singers Connie Haines, Jo Stafford of the Pied Pipers, and Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra, a skinny little singer (he was hardly five feet seven) with huge ambitions and no shortage of confidence, had joined the Dorsey band less than a year earlier and had already made several hit records with the orchestra. The teenagers frequently swooned when they heard him sing.

At the time, just before World War II, Dorsey and the other big, so-called "name bands" were more popular than rock stars in the 1960s. Dorsey was doing several national network radio broadcasts each week. While he was in Cleveland, he originated his regular broadcasts from the stage of the Public Auditorium. On Thursday night, November 6, there was a radio broadcast carried by Cleveland station WHK and transmitted across the country by the Mutual network from 10:15 to 10:30, during the Dance Caravan. Al Helfer, a long-time baseball play-by-play voice, was the announcer on that broadcast.

Also while the Dorsey and Fields bands were in Cleveland, the leaders spent one afternoon at a local high school football game, conducting the two schools’ brass bands at half time. According to columnist George Tucker, the battle of the high school bands "resulted in some furious blasting, with honors about even."

On Thursday afternoon, the Cleveland News said the two leaders went to Burt’s Record Department on the 6th floor of the Terminal Tower to greet fans and sign autographs.

After five nights at Cleveland’s Public Hall, the Dance Caravan moved on to Dayton on Monday night, Columbus Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Cincinnati Thursday and Friday nights, Indianapolis on Saturday night, and Louisville on Sunday night. The following week, the Dorsey band played four nights (beginning November 20th, 1941) at the Palace Theatre in Akron and attracted 33,000 fans. That was followed by two nights at the Youngstown Palace Theatre. In Detroit, two young girls waited so long for Dorsey’s autograph that they were afraid they would miss the show. Dorsey crowded them into his car and personally drove them to the dance.

Dorsey later said the Dance Caravan tour left him exhausted, but he quickly headed for California to begin shooting a movie called Ship Ahoy for MGM.

Shortly after the Dance Caravan left Cleveland, the local promoters were so impressed by the huge turnout that they began planning another big event – a New Year’s Eve party at Public Hall, featuring the Artie Shaw Orchestra. But, by early December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into war, and that New Year’s Eve party was not held. The Dance Caravan, with the Tommy Dorsey and Shep Fields Orchestras, attracting 40-thousand people for five nights at Public Auditorium, was Cleveland’s last big party before the big war.

Copyright 2007 Joe Mosbrook

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