Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom - Act II: Reflections

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents

1899 - 1999

The area was originally called Winnacunnet, which translates as "the place of beautiful pines."

In 1638, a small group of men and women looking for a place to settle, and having been granted granted permission by the General Court of Massachusetts, sighted the wide open beach and eyed the land, which at that time was covered with giant pine trees. The band included the Rev. Stephen Bachiler and Robert Tuck.

According to a short history written by Rev. Edgar Warren and published in the official magazine of Hampton's 300th anniversary in 1938, the land nestled close to the Atlantic ocean was chosen by the group because the great marshes in the area were "covered with a luxuriant growth of grass, which would furnish an inexhaustible supply of feed for their cattle." They cut down the trees, built a Congregational Church and the town was incorporated in 1638.

But, as the history written by Rev. Warren points out, any writing on the town of Hampton with "no reference to Hampton Beach would seem to many like a description of a wedding with the bride's name omitted. And for yet nearly 200 years the town did not realize that in the beach it had its biggest asset." Those words are prophetic.

With the passage of those two hundred years, from the time the town of Hampton was incorporated, we come to the time, around 1890, when the Hampton Beach Casino was being considered as an attraction on the beach.

According to Glen French, president of the Hampton Beach Chamber of Commerce, "In 1890 there wasn't too much down at the beach. A few beach houses, a dirt road and a few businesses that had no idea that this sandy beach could serve as an attraction for people to come to the Seacoast."

One of the businesses that did realize this was the Exeter, Hampton and Amesbury Street Railway Company, owned by a Massachusetts businessman by the name of Wallace D. Lovell. Lovell's railway line, which was actually the trolley system, put up the money for the construction of a 2 1/2 story wood-frame building which was promptly named the Hampton Beach Casino.

The word "casino" had a much different popular meaning in 1899 than it does today. An Italian word meaning "summer house", a casino was generally described as a large room used for meetings, dancing and other entertainments. What Lovell hoped to establish with the Casino then, was a destination for the great wave of the newly created American middle class, which was experimenting with a little something called "a vacation."

"What we had," said French, "was a wide sandy beach, but we needed more. We got a new trolley, but we needed more. So the Casino became part of the destination."

According to an appreciation written to commemorate the Casino's 90th season and published in "Seacoast Life," the wood structure "ran 190 feet along the boulevard and featured full length verandas on both the ground and second floors." The Exeter News Letter on July 15, 1899, said the Casino "is excellently supplying a need long felt by visitors to Hampton Beach. Its convenience and attractions are many and fully appreciated." The beach began to blossom and soon "there was a wonderful collection of things to do," said French. "This was Coney Island North, if you will. This was the place to go for excitement." Entertainment included vaudeville, penny arcades and, later motion pictures.

Hampton Beach Casino

The Hampton Beach Casino.
In front is the Hampton Beach Pavilion.

[Photograph by Ralph Morang.]

The Ballroom

The ballroom of the Hampton Beach Casino.
[Photograph by Ralph Morang]

A little over a quarter of a century after the Casino began, radio, records and motion pictures were creating a new kind of entertainer: the national star. Because of that, in 1927 a new dance hall was added to the south portion of the original structure. It was now known as the Casino Ballroom, according to today's spokeswoman Cindy Burke, and it was one of the largest on the East Coast. That year Rudy Vallee, a superstar in the 1920s, came to the Casino and more than 20,000 people were dancing there every week.

"The ballroom is the crown jewel of the property," says owner Fred Schaake, Sr. "And as the Casino goes, so goes the rest of the beach." In the earlier part of this century, as Schaake points out, the beach was a cluster of family beach houses at which families stayed, often for the entire summer. Businesses included four of five grocery stores, as well as women and men's clothing shops. The area was designed for living long periods away from home.

We forget, Glen French of the Chamber notes, that 70 years ago air conditioning was generally unknown. Cities were hot and the middle class wanted nothing more than to get away from them in the summer.

"We have the northeast breeze that cools you in the summer," says French. "That was part of the attraction."

It still is part of the attraction, according to Bob Duteau, director of the Agency Division of Don Law Productions, which helps book acts at the Casino. Duteau points out, despite occasional press stories to the contrary, most acts hitting the road for a summer tour look more for ways to relax than getting into trouble. Because of that, the Casino is a favorite destination for many popular bands.

"Their bedroom is a bus, and they live their whole lives in some kind of facility or venue," said Duteau. "But Hampton is a nice one because you have the beach. They also have quality production and they handle the acts beautifully."

Bob Houle, the marketing director for the Hampton Beach Chamber, has both personal and professional ties to the Casino.

"I was hanging out with my older brother, this was the early 1950s, the Big Band era still, and we saw everybody there. The Dorsey Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton. Very exciting, I must say." He added that his son worked at the Casino parking cars. He also did the marketing for the room for twelve seasons, starting in 1978.

"My favorite memories are the ones when we helped produce the Roy Orbison shows. We started doing Roy in 1978-79, and we did four nights a year," said Houle. "He loved the room."

Orbison, as we shall see, was not alone.

Bob Houle

Bob Houle, marketing director
for Hampton Beach.

[Photograph by Ralph Morang.]

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents