Excerpts from

The Crystal Beach Tennis and Yacht Club - a gated community of houses seemingly all built from the same set of blue prints, now occupies the land where Crystal Beach Park stood. A few remnants of the park remain in 2009 to indicate that there was once something else on these grounds. Indeed, the houses themselves appear to be in-fill, inappropriately placed among the ruins. The concrete pier still stretches out into Point Abino Bay, that after nearly 90 years, Mother Nature is slowly erasing. Most of it, unless physically removed, will still probably be there 90 years from now. The seawall built in 1924 remains and will remain well into the future otherwise the sub-development be washed away by Lake Erie storms. Parking lots overgrown with weeds are still marked at their entrances with large cement blocks that once served as the base of decorative pylons; their bright colorful paint now faded or weathered away.

Opposite the gated subdivision, a once vibrant resort community stands in decay with boarded up business fronts that once catered to thousands of visitors and seasonal residents. It’s almost inconceivable that the Crystal Beach of today was once a vibrant, thriving resort village and the long-gone park was the nexus of summer amusement on the Niagara Frontier that attracted people by the thousands.

A number of excellent nostalgia videos and tomes capture the essence of a day at the park. Within each are memories of time spent dancing to orchestras in the ballroom or on the steamer to and from Buffalo. These recollections are a mere glimpse of the spectrum of live entertainment offered at Crystal Beach Park between 1890 and 1989.

Buffalo Express, August 21, 1892.
131 bells to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. A.G. Pritchard, J. H. Williams, Duncan S. Miller - Conductor, H. Havart and W.J. Havart were the Royal Hand Bell Ringers, who between them rang 131 bells on both sides of the Atlantic. The Dunbars were William Gerhardt and Della Dunbar. They worked for years as acrobats before becoming a team on and off the trapeze, taking Della’s name for the act around 1890.

The romantic accounts of Crystal Beach history that are frequently iterated in these productions are inaccurate, including the long-standing belief that Crystal Beach had its start as a Chautauqua; its religious and instructional programs foiled by the popularity of the side show attractions.  The only kernel of truth in this version of history is the existence of sideshows, but they came after Crystal Beach Park opened in 1890. Exploring the origins of Crystal Beach and John Rebstock’s Chautauqua are slated for a later volume.

“Sideshow” is a generic term under which many types of entertainment including Vaudeville. The exhibitions of human abnormalities and deformities, baby incubators, cheesy burlesque and other such attractions associated with the term sideshow, for the most part, never landed at Crystal Beach. Vaudeville, however, was welcome. Contortionists, jugglers, magicians, singers, comedians and even theatrical plays were diversions on the Midway. Many of the Vaudeville acts and performers are lost to time, probably forever. Crystal Beach Park management did advertise the major live attractions that included balloon ascensions, acrobats, contortionists, and daredevils. This style of live entertainment was part of the Crystal Beach midway from 1891 through 1952.

Cathy Herbert collection.
The building in the center was the nexus of musical entertainment - the dance hall, circa 1915.

Big band music was a major part of the entertainment line-up at Crystal Beach during its heyday, however big band music represents only a fraction of the music that echoed from Crystal Beach. The big bands frequently cited in the nostalgia productions were one-night stands. During most decades, dancing was a daily attraction and local and regional bands provided the music. Many of these local and regional bands have gone unaccounted for in local history until now.

The "new" dance hall opened in 1925.

Period newspapers indicate that the first mechanical amusement device, a carousel, appeared at Crystal Beach during its third season, 1892. Live entertainment predates the ride by one season. No documentation has surfaced that indicates there either were rides or live entertainment at Crystal Beach during its inaugural year of 1890.

In 1891, the first advertised attraction was a balloon ascension. In addition, the human eels White and Fulton freaked out audiences with their “most wonderful contortion and bending act.” Late in the park’s sophomore season, the newspapers advertised the first dance at Crystal Beach on August 29, 1891, though they did not mention the name of the band that would play.

Entertainment exploded onto Crystal Beach in 1892 - literally and figuratively with the first fireworks display. There were different performers throughout the season starting in May with another balloon ascension. Gillialand’s [sic] Well-known Band closed an extended season at the park on September 13. Gillialand’s, well known in 1892, are untraceable a century later as are many other advertised park entertainers. White and Fulton appear to be the first act to appear for two consecutive seasons. There were acrobats and daredevils, and concerts by Darrow’s Celebrated Ladies Military Band, Fenton Ladies Military Band, and Rice’s Colored Jubilee Singers whose histories have been swallowed by the black hole of time.

Most of the non-musical entertainment at Crystal Beach appears to have been free, especially high wire acts and other high-above-the-ground performances. 

And so went the non-music entertainment through the 1952 season. After 1952 and for the next 15 years, music was the only live entertainment offered. Except for a Punch-n-Judy show and an illusion show in the mid 1970s, there was no live entertainment until 1984 when the live music renaissance began.

The presentation of the live entertainment at Crystal Beach begins with the non-musical variety never before presented in any earlier production about Crystal Beach.

...from Chapter 4 - Daredevils


Cathy Herbert collection.
The launch ramp of the Daring Belz on the beach at Crystal Beach.

People who have seen the image below in post cards often mistake the large trestle/ramp with the spiral staircase as one of the toboggans or slides that were available to daring bathers. When examined under a magnifying glass, there are no guards on the ramp to prevent a bather from dropping off the side as there are on the smaller slide next to it. If this ramp were available as a toboggan for bathers, they risked a fall from a height that could cause serious injury.

The ramp belonged to the Daring Belz (Oliver Belz). Just before Belz came to Crystal Beach, he was thrilling spectators for a week at Hanlan’s Point, an amusement park in Ontario. Belz used an ordinary bicycle without pedals - gravity propelled him down the chute that launched him approximately 30 to 40 feet into Lake Ontario.

Belz was thrilling spectators at Crystal Beach during a two-week engagement. On July 27, 1904, while he was “making bicycle leaps off a trestle,” something went terribly wrong...

... from Chapter 5 - Melange


Buffalo Evening Times. July 31, 1928.
George Hall Sr. holds the starters gun at the onset of the Canadian American dance marathon.

Dance marathons began innocently enough in 1923 when a 32-year old American woman named Alma Cummings danced for 27 hours without stopping, breaking the previous British record. Her feat garnered brief national attention and inspired others to try to break the record set by Alma. Clubs and theaters around America started to hold contests for local people to compete for the record.

Sports and entertainment promoters realized that buckets of money could be made by commercializing and standardizing the contests. The contests became endless, grueling marathons that would continue for weeks, regulated by rules and heavily promoted for cash-paying audiences. No longer driven by dancers breaking records, money was now fueling them. Presented on a grand scale, the dance marathons offered non-stop entertainment - live band music, audience participation and sprint dances at regular intervals that pushed the envelope of the marathoners’ strength and endurance for cash prizes.         

During the sprint dances, couples raced around the dance floor - making a number of laps yet they had to exhibit the movement of the dance selected. The larger the dance hall, the more energy the couples had to expend from what little they stored to complete each lap. The promoters made thousands of dollars while cash prizes awarded to the dancers were comparatively meager. In order for a couple to be the last couple standing and walk away with the prize money, usually $1,000 to $2,000, they needed the endurance levels of a team of racehorses.  

The Canadian-American Dance Marathon held at Crystal Beach in the dance hall during the summer of 1928 was no different...

...with the bang of a starter’s pistol, the marathon commenced at 8:50 PM to the music of Thelma Terry and her Playboys (see page 178). Some couples danced at a fast pace but slowed shortly after the start to conserve energy...

... from CHAPTER 6 - The Local Sound


Courtesy Jean Klaus
Harold Austin (front row center) and his orchestra on the Buffalo dock of the Crystal Beach Line.

...Austin organized the Harold Austin Orchestra (HAO) when he was 22. They traveled to cities in the U.S. and Canada. They also had bookings at Lake Okoboji near the home of Lawrence Welk in North Dakota. According to Austin’s daughter Jean Klaus, Welk was so impressed with her father’s big band in the 1930s that he welcomed Austin to his home and they became life-long friends.

Austin leased the Dellwood Ballroom in 1926. It was on the second floor of a building at the corner of Main and Utica Streets in Buffalo just north of Downtown Buffalo. The first floor held a series of retail spaces; the ballroom was accessible by a singular door that faced Main Street.

Austin’s music business acumen evidenced by his success operating the Dellwood while leading his own orchestra caught the attention of George Hall Sr. The two men talked and worked out a deal in 1935 where Austin would manage the Crystal Beach dance hall. It was the start of a relationship that would span 20 years...


Courtesy Eddie Olinski

Eddie Olinski Orchestra, circa 1960. Front row from left: Carl Suhr, Eddie Olinski, Henry Winkowski. Back row from left: Larry Struzik, Bob Radominski, Wally Pigeon, John Kuzma, Matt  Kantor, Al Carlin.
...Eddie had the privilege of seeing many movies free during his teen years at the Roosevelt Theater where his father was the manager. The war movies popular at the time that glorified the military inspired Eddie, so he dropped out of East High School after his sophomore year and joined the Marines. Shortly after, he found himself in the Korean War.

“I was a gung-ho marine until I got my ass shot up, twice,” Olinski stated, noting that he received his discharge when he was twenty-one years old. 

Tommy Tomlinson, lead guitarist for Hank Williams was in Olinski’s troop while they were in Korea. Tomlinson started a band in the camp that rehearsed near Olinski’s tent. Eddie approached Tomlinson about perhaps sitting in, but Tomlinson was reluctant because an accordion did not fit Tomlinson’s style of Country music. Tomlinson did acquiesce; Olinski got his hands on an accordion through the Marines’ special services and started playing country music.

“After our tour of duty was over, we stayed there playing, even after armistice was signed in 1953,” recalled Olinski. In spite of Tomlinson’s hesitation to include an accordion in his country band, Olinski’s mastery of the instrument and ability to adapt it to Tomlinson’s repertoire won Tomlinson over. When it was time to return stateside, Tomlinson wanted Olinski to follow him to Louisiana to continue playing. Olinski, however, declined the invitation...

... from CHAPTER 7 - Sounds from the Golden Horseshoe


Courtesy David Louis
Toronto big band leader Benny Louis.
Benny was born with a rare disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis - a progressive, painful and debilitating arthritis that begins to manifest between late adolescence to 40 years old. In severe cases, with age, the spinal vertebrae, hips and other joints will eventually fuse and the body will exhibit a number of physical deformities. (Some accounts of Benny’s life note that an old lacrosse injury precipitated the arthritis he suffered from. According to his children, the lacrosse injury was a story concocted by their mother to conceal the fact that Benny was suffering from a genetic arthritic condition.) In spite of the arthritis, Benny continued his pursuit of a career as a professional musician...


Photo: Alison Wardman, Courtesy Chalk Circle.
Chalk Circle: From left:Tad Winklarz, Chris Tait,  Derrick Murphy, Brad Hopkins.

The roots of Chalk Circle originate at Clarke High School in Newcastle, Ontario and a band called The Casualties that was formed by Chris Tait, and included Brad Hopkins, Terry Miller, and Stan Veselinovic. With the later addition of Derrick Murphy, The Casualties became The Reactors.

The new wave band Chalk Circle emerged in 1983 after the departure of Miller and Veselinovic; the name inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle about fighting for your convictions in the face of pressure.

The band grew their popularity playing in Toronto area nightclubs. After capturing a CASBY in 1985, they added classically trained pianist and Polish refugee, Tad Winklarz. Winklarz fled Poland just before the Polish government declared martial law late in 1981 in reaction to the founding of the independent trade union “Solidarity” by Lech Walesa...

From the CHAPTER 8 - The Obscure and the Forgotten


Innes and his Band came to Crystal Beach for a two-day engagement that started on July 26, 1895. According to the advertisement, there was much more to Innes than just music - they were going to stage a major audio and visual production of  “War and Peace” and “A Day at the Fair.” The visual effects were supplied by a “battery of electric fire artillery; gunners; a corps of pyrotechnicians for the fireworks display; assisted by local military veterans and choruses.”

Innes made the point that he had a commission contract with clauses guaranteeing that Crystal Beach would sufficiently advertise the performance. Because there were so few ticketed patrons the commission earned would not be adequate to feed his group. Innes claimed Crystal Beach did not live up to this clause in the contract. Therefore Innes and his business manager decided to produce only the war part of the War and Peace drama and forego the musical pieces for the first matinee of the engagement.  Innes noted that 5,000 people swarmed the area on hillsides where the band was to perform, but there were few if any paying patrons on the benches where the stage for the band stood... 
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