In the early 1930s, the Cleveland city dump was located next to Municipal Stadium on the lakefront. The foot of East 9th Street was a mess, with trash and garbage literally falling into Lake Erie. In the midst of this mess and the Depression, when jobs, food and fun were hard to come by in Cleveland, local movers and shakers decided to fill in the dump and do something dramatic to add some punch to the tired city.
They raised a million dollars in private funds and got about 200-thousand from the federal government’s Works Progress Administration, the WPA, and built a world’s fair-type site on the lakefront. They called it "The Great Lakes Exposition." One writer at the time described it as "a city of ivory, a new Baghdad risen in the desert."
There was a grand entrance from the Cleveland malls, lined with towering silver eagle pylons. The Great Lakes Exposition covered 135 acres -- stretching from Public Hall down to the Stadium and as far east as 22nd Street. More than seven million people went to the Great Lakes Exposition during the summers of 1936 and 1937. They saw all the commercial exhibits that would, a couple of years later, highlight the highly-publicized New York’s World’s Fair, as well as a midway that included such acts as 260-pound ballerinas, an 8-foot-4-inch man, snake shows, boxing cats, and a 90-pound sturgeon.
But, the centerpiece of the Great Lakes Exposition was a marine theatre at the site of what is now the Great Lakes Science Center. There were bleachers facing out toward a floating stage in Lake Erie. It was called "The Aquacade." The show was produced by entrepreneur Billy Rose, who, at the time, was married to entertainer Fanny Price. The stars of the Aquacade show were former Olympic swimmers Johnny Weissmuller, who later played Tarzan in the movies, and Eleanor Holm, who would later become Billy Rose’s wife.
You might ask what all this has to do with jazz? Well, playing at Billy Rose’s Aquacade at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition in 1937 was the Bob Crosby Orchestra.
The Crosby band was formed two years earlier, in 1935, when most of the members of Ben Pollack’s band walked out on him and hired singer Bob Crosby to front their new band. Pollack, incidently, came to Cleveland, formed a new band, which included a young Harry James, and played at a club called "The Mayfair Casino" in what is now Playhouse Square. The new Bob Crosby band won wide popularity and came here to play at the Aquacade in the summer of 1937.
At about the same time, longtime Cleveland bandleader Austin Wylie was breaking up his current band which included two young trumpet players, Billy Butterfield from Springfield, Ohio, and Bob Peck from East Cleveland. Peck, who had played briefly with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, said that as soon as the Wylie orchestra was disbanded, Butterfield joined the Crosby band. Peck said, "The band broke up in the fall when Bob Crosby was playing at the Aquacade and they were looking for another trumpet player to replace Charlie Spivak."
A few years later, Spivak would break-in his own band at the Trianon Ballroom at East 98th and Euclid in Cleveland. But, in 1937, young Billy Butterfield and Bill Stegmeyer, from Cleveland’s Austin Wylie Orchestra, joined the Bob Crosby band at the Great Lakes Exposition’s Aquacade in Cleveland. Butterfield quickly became one of the most admired trumpeters in jazz. Two years later, he helped his old Cleveland band mate, Bob Peck, to join the Crosby band. Peck stayed with the high-flying Crosby band until he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
After the war, he joined Butterfield’s band and later toured with Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill, who had been a member of the Austin Wylie Orchestra in the late 1920s with a young clarinetist named Artie Shaw.
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Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).