Tonawanda News — A digital photo album exists on the Town of Tonawanda’s website. Many of the pictures are historical in nature and from the archives of the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society, but one in particular isn’t. Taken from a 1931 newspaper, and under the headline “Crooner Entertains Aged,” its caption reads thusly:
“The old folks have not been forgotten by Bing Crosby, famous radio star, during his week in Buffalo. Yesterday Bing brought a note of happiness to the ladies of the Wheel Chair Home in Kenmore. He is shown presenting his audience with a box of sweets in a pre-celebration of Mother’s Day.”
And there he is, in a bow tie, offering a big box of chocolates to his elderly and female fans.
(The Wheel Chair Home, you should know, occupied that grassy knoll adjacent to the Eberhardt Mansion at Delaware and Kenmore Avenues. A twin of its next-door neighbor, it was demolished in 1978 to make way for, well, a grassy knoll.)
Funny, what a person can learn from trolling the Internet. A few generations later, Keanu Reeves shot a movie, and greeted his fans one afternoon for an autograph session, across the street from where Bing Crosby performed. (Yes, Bing did a gig at the Wheel Chair Home. “My Wild Irish Rose” evidently rocked the place.)
The photo, the story, tells a lot. Yeah, celebrities occasionally wander through Kenmore; Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Franklin Roosevelt, a rap artist whose name I forget and recorded some material in Kenmore’s Select Sound Studio, the aforementioned Mr. Reeves, all took care of some business here.
It also speaks of the way stardom was done in the old days. A guy like Bing Crosby, as big a star as could be found in the radio days (and movies and recordings, and later television), came to Buffalo for a week to promote, to generate interest, to generally beat the drum for his next project, then moved on to another city of similar size and clout.
As late as the 1970s, this sort of thing was the practice. North Tonawanda’s Melody Fair, near Wurlitzer Park, was a tent hosting summertime productions in the round, and an act like Danny Thomas or Englebert Humperdinck (ask your grandmother) essentially set up shop in town for a week. In between performances the star could be seen making the local rounds, on the antecedents of “AM Buffalo” and the like, shopping at the Broadway Market, visiting radio stations and making his or her presence known. The (several) newspapers would invariably run a photo; “Mitzi Gaynor Visits Veterans in Hospital” (ask your grandfather) or something similar, and thus was the publicity wheel greased.
Imagine Steven Tyler or Christina Aguilera doing that.
It’s different now. Of course it’s different now, but here forward, when I walk from my Kenmore home, past the space formerly occupied by the Wheel Chair Home to Starbucks and back, it’ll be with the knowledge I tread the same sidewalk Bing Crosby trod. What that’ll do to me is anyone’s guess.
Those of us of the historical bent cannot imagine going through life without knowing, and reveling in, this sort of stuff. Needless to say, a person can live a perfectly rewarding life without it, but the quality of life goes through the roof (this person’s roof, at least) when he or she has a grasp on life before his or her arrival.
Getting back to Mr. Crosby: Kenmore was essentially an outpost when it was installed as “the new suburb on the north” in 1899. Think of what the advent of radio did, roughly 1920, to and for those first intrepid settlers. Suddenly a home with a radio wasn’t such an isolated place to be. (I’ve browsed through local newspapers of the era, and every retail business along Delaware Avenue in Kenmore seemed to sell radios, phonographs and phonograph records.)
Before long Crosby’s b-b-b-burnished crooning (that low voice of his was perfect for recording; he struck it rich in part because he arrived at precisely the right time for his sort of voice) was likely available from open windows all over town. No wonder the gals at the Wheel Chair Home went pre-celebration of Mother’s Day nuts.
Bing Crosby died in 1977, weeks after recording that celebrated Christmas duet with David Bowie. The vacant Wheel Chair Home fell the following summer. I don’t know if Bowie ever passed through Kenmore.
Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.