Friday, March 23, 2012

Sepia Saturday: Mary E. and Betsy on the Town

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt is people "going out.”  If the stack of souvenir photos from the various night clubs around Norfolk and Virginia Beach is any indication, no one enjoyed going out any more than my mother Mary Eleanor Davis (Slade) and her best friend Betsy Ward when they were teenagers in the 1940s. 

Souvenir photos sold for $1.00 each.
One particular night, the girls were waiting for their dates to arrive.  The boys were running late; the girls were getting bored.  So they stretched out across Betsy’s bed and started playing with her old paper dolls.  When the dates arrived, Betsy’s mother greeted them saying, “Oh, the girls are upstairs playing with their paper dolls.”  Momma said she and Betsy were sooooo embarrassed.  I can’t imagine why.
Whether they were picking up ensigns or sticking with the hometown boys, Momma and Betsy enjoyed going to the dance clubs.   

High school sweethearts at the Palomar:  Tommy Watson and
Betsy Ward, Mary Eleanor Davis and Dickie Blanks
at the Spring Dance, Apr 23, 1945.  Music by Tommy Reynolds

The Palomar

Palomar, which advertised itself as “Home of Name Bands,” was one of the main ballrooms in Norfolk, Virginia in the 40s.  When the sale of liquor and dancing on Sunday were outlawed (gasp!), the Palomar made big news by experimenting with floorshows on Sundays.  Palomar booked various groups that were on tour in the area.  Despite the pleasure ban, crowds averaged around 600 on Sunday nights.  Cover charge varied from $1.60 per couple to $3.00, depending on the attraction.

Palomar -- Everyone signed this photo but not with their last names.
Glenn Somebody, Cookie Spencer, Betsy Ward, Bill Somebody,
Mary Eleanor Davis.  Surely there is a fellow missing.
The Palomar had been built as a temporary wooden structure to house church revivals.  But in 1946, the building was razed to make way for the million-dollar Coca Cola bottling plant.

Mary E. and Betsy with 2 unnamed fellows at the Frolics

Frolics Ballroom

In 1943, Art and Charles Lewis and Jock Greenspoon, who were well-known showmen-concessionaires, purchased Seaside Park in Virginia Beach for $275,000.  They added rides to the already popular Ferris Wheel, Whip, Magic Carpet Ride, Merry-Go-Round, and Laff-n-Dark;  they remodeled the ballroom, modernized the pool and bathhouses, and constructed four restaurants.  Plans also called for a “modern, fireproof hotel and theater.”  A fireproof hotel – what a concept!  Their involvement was welcomed as a harbinger of great prosperity for the city.  Judging by Momma’s hairdo, this picture was from 1946.  She and Betsy and their dates probably danced to the sound of the Johnny Morris Band or Les Elgart, swing jazz bandleader best remembered for his “Bandstand Boogie” that Dick Clark used for his American Bandstand show.
August 17-18, 1946  12:30 a.m. Ocean Club
George Savage, Margaret Wall, Mary Eleanor Davis,
Tuff Brown, Betsy Ward, Ralph Joynes
Ocean Club

Rain put a damper on the vacation season in Virginia Beach (get it? Rain - Damper?  Ha – I kill me!) As a result many clubs closed Labor Day, but the Ocean Club at 16th & Atlantic Avenue continued its big band policy through the end of the month.  After that they hosted small bands for dining and dancing.   Momma and her friends were there in August 1946 when Ray Robbins performed.  His band played music in the sweet style considered perfect for dancing and quiet conversation.
Momma didn't identify these people, but that's Betsy
in the center and Momma on the far right at the Surf Beach Club.

Surf Beach Club

The Surf Beach Club in Virginia Beach had been leased by the armed services during World War II.  The club reopened in May of 1946 with a full roster of big bands.  The following year Jimmy Dorsey and Carmen Cavallaro (“poet of the piano” who was a major influence on Liberace) were among the opening acts for a season that was already shaping up to be record-setting.   In fact, hotel operators reported that there was so much interest in Virginia Beach they feared they would have to turn vacationers away.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the Surf Club hosted Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra.  Louie Prima, who was a bandleader of a jazz band turned swing band turned big band, met Keely Smith in the crowd at the Surf Club and married her after hearing her sing.

To see who else is going out, go on over to Sepia Saturday.

“Best of Big Bands Vol 2.”  Radio Archives. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

“Lewises Sell Interest in Seaside Park.”  The Billboard (4 Oct 1947): 56. Google Books. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

“Seaside Changes Hands; $275,000 Paid for Virginia Beach Spot by Lewis, Greenspoon Combo.” The Billboard. (23 Oct 1943): 42. Google Books. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

“Sunday Floorshows Click in Ballroom.”  The Billboard. (6 Nov 1943): 17. Google Books. Web. 20 
Mar. 2012.

“Surf Beach Reopens with Orks After 4 Yrs.” The Billboard. (25 May 1946): 47. Google Books. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.
“Va Beach Hotel Operators Fear Turnaway Flack." The Billboard (31 May 1947): 47. Google BooksWeb. 20 Mar. 2012.
“Virginia Beach Notes.”  The Billboard (14 Sep 1946): 80. Google Books. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.
“Virginia Spots Fall Behind 1945; Weather Main Reason.”  The Billboard.  (14 Sep 1946): 80. Google Books. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

©2014, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. It is fabulous that you have the photos & souvenir books! In the Palomer photo they all look very young, too young to be out on the town. ha. Reminds me of a photo of my parents at a club in New York City.

  2. How nice to have photos of your Mum as a youngster out enjoying herself. I don't have any photos of my Mum from before she was married - maybe the family didn't have a camera when she was a teenager. I really enjoyed your pics :-) Jo

  3. Enjoyed seeing your photos. What great pics to have of your mother was she was a teenager. Looks like Mary & Betsy had lots of fun together when they were young.

  4. Goodness, what a store of photos. How lucky you are to have these pictures of your mum and her friends so obviously enjoying their nights on the town. A very enjoyable post.

    1. Wendy, these are fantastic! Your Mom and her friend were popular beauties, and it was fun to learn of their favorite clubs. You have preserved a lot of history in this post.

      Have a great weekend,

      Kathy M.

  5. I wonder why I can only find one fellow smiling? I can't envisage a no alcoholic venue - although I would have been too young in the 1940s/mid 50s.

  6. That's a nice little collection of souvenir photos. Your mother must have had a lot of fun going out when she was young.

  7. Wow. Your mom sure liked to go out, didn't she? It's amazing how you have all these photos of her with her friends at all the different night spots. There must have been roving photographers at every club. That's something don't see much anymore. Everyone now has a cell phone to take their own photos.

  8. How ironic that alcohol was outlawed at the Palomar and then it was eventually knocked down for a coca cola plant. Wonderful set of photos, with such history, and fun too.

  9. All wonderful shots and the girls are so stylish and pretty.

  10. She and Betsy were tons of fun, even when they didn't go out. It is funny to look at Momma in that last picture. She held her hand the same way throughout her life. What a beautiful smile she had! I noticed that Cookie wasn't with George! LOL. I wonder where he was!

  11. As I read your fascinating post I could hear the music of those big bands in my mind. If only we could travel back in time, I would be off like a shot for a (sepia) Saturday night out.

  12. Oh such style and grace and young-ness quite a difference from many of the goings out today! Just loved seeing all these great photos from such a grand era!

  13. All the photos depict the times when dressing up was the norm and expected. I chuckled over the paper dolls tale! All the guys in sport coats or suits, today do young guys even own a tie! Nice tour of the times that were//

  14. Wow, they did go out a lot. Lucky girls. I'm so glad that somebody had the foresight to take pictures. Wouldn't they be amused if they knew the Sepia Saturday participants from around the world would be viewing these pictures.

  15. Great shots- looks like they enjoyed going out and having a good time. Love to see the guys in their suits and ties.

  16. My mom loved going dancing but there are no pictures, that I know of... Splendid collection from this era. Would she smile seeing these again, or even blush?