SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 22, 2013

McAllister: The Willows, 'genteel' through the years

Essex County Chronicles
Jim McAllister

---- — April has arrived, and with it the reopening of our beloved Salem Willows amusement park. While the history of the wonderful waterfront park has been well-chronicled, there is still the occasional little-known tasty tidbit that deserves to be brought to light.

The Willows was designated a city park in 1858, a decade after the contagious disease hospital, a fixture in the area now occupied by the Salem Willows Yacht Club (1932), burned to the ground. City officials and local residents were protective of their parks, and by city ordinance, no alcohol was to be sold or consumed within their borders. When the Juniper House opened in an old farmhouse near the intersection of Fort and Columbus avenues (around 1877), one half of the building fell within the boundaries of the park. According to Sallie Belle Cox, in a 1941 magazine article about the Willows and its famous “shore dinners,” the inn’s popular bar was carefully placed in that part of the building that lay outside the park boundary.

When the Willows amusement area opened in 1880, there was widespread fear that it would attract the wrong element. In an 1881 “The Willows” column in the Salem Evening News, the reporter noted that while some felt the waterside park was “too democratic,” the editorial staff believed that everyone should be allowed to “mingle in the same pleasures so long as they behave in a decorous manner.”

A few months later, a serious breach of said “decorum” was reported in that same column. “A big fat woman,” not seeing any empty seats on the trolley car, “deliberately sat down on the leg of a rather medium-sized young man, completely extinguishing him ... he crawled from under the mass of fat and impudence, looking much as though he had been hit by a pile driver.”

Generally, the crowd was a bit more genteel. Many locals were drawn to the higher-brow shows at Willows Park Theater, a forerunner of the present-day band shell. The original version could seat 1,000 patrons and offered everything from concerts by Jean Missud’s beloved Salem Cadet Band (limited to sacred music on Sundays) to opera.

One of the attractions along the line was an early carousel known as the Hippodrome. While not as old as the original merry-go-round, which lasted until about 1906, or as well-known as Mr. Brown’s Flying Horses (located on the knoll opposite what is now the vacant Men’s Cottage), it was billed in 1929 as “the last word in flying horses.” The Hippodome featured horses and other animals that went up and down, as well as around, which Mr. Brown’s did not, and unmatched decor. The upper interior walls of the Hippodrome were adorned with three dozen oil paintings, evenly split between American landscapes scenes and portraits of past U.S. presidents, rendered by “the famous European artist, Mr. Kotzbauer.”

Dancing was an important attraction at the Salem Willows in its early decades. Professor Kennerson’s Casino at the corner of Bay View Avenue opened in the 1880s and attracted the serious dance crowd. It would inspire Lou Collins and George Hardy to pen the “Salem Willows for Mine Waltz” in 1919. Historian Joe Garland excerpted lines from the waltz in his wonderful social history of Boston’s North Shore:

“The dear ball-room floor is the place I adore/The waters with nice shady views/The music is grand, makes you dance, understand/It’s the place where you’ll never feel blue.”

The casino would give way to Charles Schribman’s famed Charleshurst Ballroom in the 1920s. Locals flocked to the venue to watch “Battles of the Bands” pitting Duke Ellington’s band against one headlined by local star Chet Frost. The late Carl Reed, a musician and Salem Willows resident, said the stage at the Charleshurst was really too small for the larger bands. “Putting a 14-piece band on it was like putting 22 people in a phone booth,” Reed recalled.

Mal Hallett, impresario of a popular local band, would open a hot dog stand in front of the casino/Charleshurst building after he gave up touring. Two other popular performers during the Charleshurst days would also become part of the tightly knit Willows business community. Dan Sweeney took over the Salem Willows Boat Livery in 1943 (Who doesn’t remember the orange rowboats?), while crooner Ted Cole built the miniature train, the roller coaster and other, sadly no-longer-extant rides.

For many, a trip to the Willows is about Hobbs popcorn and chop suey sandwiches. The former has been a fixture on the line since the 1880s, when Everett Hobbs and William Eaton rented space in the former pavilion building. The Salem Willows chop suey sandwich is probably not a Salem “invention.” Back in the early 1990s, a Brown University researcher, Imogene Lim, traced the origins of the popular sandwich to Fall River.

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Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.