The Hampton Beach Casino: Then and Now

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(And She Is Still Kickin' Up Her Heels)

By Bob Young -- Summer 1988

[Seacoast Life -- Volume 3 -- Number 4]

In the summer of 1927 Dorothy Wiggin watched with anticipation, from her Post Office desk, while laborers put the finishing touches on the Casino's latest addition. Soon, the newlywed bride was dancing nights away in the new ballroom. Decades later, her daughter Sally, enchanted by Patti Page, swayed beneath the dance floor's mirrored ball. More recently, Sally's daughter Cindy saw Talking Heads and Los Lobos perform under the same roof.

Across generations the Casino has been above all, resilient. In her 89th year, she still rules the center of Hampton Beach, a thriving enterprise and landmark. She is the resort's oldest survivor, its dowager queen. And but for a little cosmetic surgery she kept her original form.

New ballroom skyboxes testified to her standing in 1988. Designed for Club Casino's corporate clients, the ten boxes were sold before whirring saws and pounding hammers had even finished their work. Each box features eight seats, cable TV, intercom, private entrance, restroom and bar service. Prices for the 90-day season started at $12,500 per box.

By changing with the changing times, the Casino has remained the resort town's top draw and link to the Big Time. She has outlasted rivals in Salisbury and Old Orchard, where the saying goes, one day the tide went out ..... and never came back.

Like the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, the histories of the Casino and Hampton Beach have grown inseparable and rich in lore. In the saltwater taffy pull of fact from fiction, one thing is certain. Prior to the century's turn, the beach was a desolate place, a stretch of high, shifting sand dunes, muddy clam flats and barren marshes.

Only the law-breaking deeds of local fisherfolk made the beach a bathing resort. The dunes, topped by high grass, rolled for miles along the coast; the fishermen, who lived on the Hampton River inlet couldn't see the ocean unless they climbed atop them. A town ordinance prohibited removing the dune grass. So the fishermen, determined to view the sea from their cottages, went out night after night and under the cover of darkness pulled up the grass. The tides and northwest wind did the rest, laying the dunes flatter than Kansas. With a little polishing, the perfect bathing beach would become a multi million dollar pearl.

In 1897, Wallace D. Lovell returned to his native Massachusetts from a string of business disasters in Mexico and acquired the controlling rights to the Exeter and Hampton Railway. By Independence Day, Lovell's electric trolleys ran from Exeter to Hampton Beach. He planned to expand the line to Amesbury, where the system could connect to Haverhill and the bustling mill cities of the Merrimack Valley.

In the same year, the scions of four prominent Hampton families -- the Hobbs, Blanchards, Dearborns and Batchelders -- presented the town with an offer it could not refuse. They proposed to develop the seemingly useless beach into a seaside resort.

The town leased, for 99 years, the prime beach property to the newly formed Hampton Beach Improvement Company. In turn, the company leased a parcel to Lowell's railway for an oceanfront terminus.

Erected to stimulate riders to the beach, the Casino celebrated its opening on July 15, 1899. The 2 1/2 story wood structure ran 190 feet along the boulevard and featured full-length verandas on both the ground and second floors.

Baseball behind the casino
Ballfield at rear of Hampton Beach Casino.

By trolley and horse-carriage, under parasols and straw hats, visitors flocked to the new attraction. The ground floor housed a dining room and cafe, plus billiard tables and bowling alleys. The second story offered an entertainment hall for dancing and more spacious and sophisticated dining room. An athletic field and playground sat behind the building. The Exeter News-Letter reported: "By night, the casino is brilliantly illuminated by electric lights, which, viewed from a distance, make a spectacle of striking beauty."

No historical accounts reveal, nor can resident experts say how the Casino got its name. That secret is apparently buried with Wallace Lovell. But "casino" did not then connote a gambling establishment; the word is Italian for "summer house." Lovell probably chose the term because at the time all things European were vogue in America; it sounded exotic; and was familiar to thousands of immigrant workers in Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill.

Despite the patronage of day-tripping area residents, Lovell knew that the largest surrounding towns of Amesbury and Exeter had respective populations of only 9,000 and 5,000. Once described as "the most bold and skillful master of frenzied finance ever seen in New Hampshire," Lovell was deeply indebted to New York bankers. He needed to make whopping summer profits, so he began two additions.

On the Casino's north end the Ocean House hotel, boasting electric lights and hot and cold running water, was built and connected by a second-story bridge.

The south end addition was nearly as large as the original Casino. Its lower floor held more billiard tables and bowling alleys. A convention hall occupied the second floor.

The next year an Opera House was added to the south side, with 150 dressing rooms for bathers on the first floor and a 700-seat auditorium on the second floor.

The Casino advertised entertainment for the whole family. Vaudeville shows ran in the Opera House. A penny arcade, merry go-round, and shooting range, complete with live ammunition and clay pigeons were added below. The popular, new sport of baseball was frequently played on the athletic field to sizable crowds.

Children's parade in front of the Casino
Children's parade in front of the Casino.

Like most Atlantic resorts, Hampton Beach and the Casino were produced by the industrial revolution. Beginning with the first two weeks in July when the mills shut down, workers escaped their dark, ten-hour work days and streamed to the shore for sunlight and fresh air. Running on the new alternating current, the trolleys made the resort accessible to those near and far. The droves grew larger with the automobile's advent, and by 1914, hundreds of Henry Ford's inexpensive Model T's were parked in front of the Casino.

Vaudeville gave way to motion pictures. Regular concerts and dances brought in the curious and fun-loving. Octogenarian Roland Bragg, today's oldest surviving person born on Hampton Beach, was then both. One night Roland snuck into the Casino with some workmen. He hid in the bathroom to evade the admission charge and when the band started he emerged, clad in knickers and blazer.

Roland was working on the first Hampton-Seabrook drawbridge at the time for fifty cents an hour. "The pay wasn't too awfully bad," he recalled, "but it wasn't too awfully good either." It was enough money for the Casino. He went "all the time" with his first wife Doris, a terrific dancer who taught him to waltz and fox trot.

In his home, Roland has a clock that runs backward -- literally. Sitting under it, he lamented on those more proper ("Today people don't dress up to go to the beach, they undress.") and sober ("No alcohol was allowed on the beach. Police used to wait for the Salisbury trolley, pinch the drunks and put them in the hoosegow.") times.

After running in the red for years, the railway to Hampton Beach died in 1927. Ironically, the Casino lived on when four Lawrence businessmen, led by John J. Dineen purchased its lease from the town.

They immediately replaced the Opera House with a ballroom large enough to hold 5,000 people. There were few dance floors as large in New England and no nightspots as popular in the vicinity.

The big bands of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller came. So did Dorothy Wiggin.

Though not even a glass of beer was sold and the dress code was strict (men rented ties for a nickel). Dorothy and Fred Wiggin queued up around a fence and bought tickets or "checks", usually five for a quarter, that admitted them onto the dance floor. Thus, the "check-dancing" rage was on.

Neither the Great Depression, nor World War II thinned the crowds. People always seemed to find enough money for a night of dancing and the promise of love. Thousands of couples came together in the Casino, some for gossamer summer flings, others for eternal romance.

Richard Murphy was just 18 and "full of fun" on a Saturday night, when he stumbled and fell while climbing stars to the ballroom. Embarrassed by his clumsiness, he barely glanced at the young couple who helped him to his feet. Until that moment, he never believed in love at first sight.

"There she was," he recalled, "a vision of loveliness. Tanned and eyes sparkling with an air of sweetness that possessed me. Luck must have been with me because her escort asked me to join them for the evening taking the words right out of my mouth."

"It was a typical American boy meets girl story," he said. They spent days swimming and sunning; nights strolling the boardwalk and dancing. "Two months later Cathy and I were married."

In subsequent years, the couple struggled to raise a family on Richard's weekly $39 salary and couldn't afford to return to the Casino. But Richard had a treasure in Cathy's sparkling smile.

After the war, Dineen's nephew John took over and ran the Casino the next 30 years. His name grew synonymous with Hampton Beach and appeared regularly in the society columns of Boston newspapers. They called him the Baron of the Boardwalk, but royalty scarcely suited John Dineen. The former FBI agent was a hands-on executive, often manning the soda fountain, stocking supplies and washing dishes in his trademark brown and white wing-tip shoes.

The colorful Dineen was frequently at odds with the more reserved Yankees who owned the beach, but nonetheless impressed them with his work ethic. "I was taught by my father, a grand old Irishman, that hard work was the best asset." Dineen once told a reporter," and I try to pass that advice on to all the kids." Indeed, he counseled hundreds of teen employees and lives in their memories today.

One former employee recalled the night Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. While crowds gathered around every television set, Dineen led a couple of young men outside. He gazed skyward and his audience waited for a profound message. At last Dineen spoke. "Gentlemen," he said, "It's been one helluva good weekend for business. It didn't rain until 10:30 Sunday night."

The ballroom was Dineen's first and lasting Casino love. Into the fifties he kept the bands coming -- Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Guy Lombardo, the Dorsey Brothers. The rules, with no exceptions, were strictly enforced. One hot night, Tommy Dorsey dared to remove his suit coat. Dineen upbraided the bandleader. Dorsey promptly put his jacket back on.

The Casino was the kind of place a mother didn't mind her unchaperoned daughter going and Sally Lewis went regularly with her girlfriends. She remembered one "magical" night when Patti Page performed. "She disappeared again and again for costume changes and each time she came back in a lovelier dress or gown. I had never seen anything like that. It was one of the bright spots of my summer .......The Casino was so classy then -- nothing like the honky-tonk it became."

Hampton Beach had always defended itself against the rowdy invasions of nearby Salisbury. But the times were a changin'. And fast. Fast cars, motorcycles, electric noise and dope were the currency of youth in the 60s. And beach goers like Sally Lewis who held precious memories of the Casino tended to blame it for what they saw happening.

The businessman in Dineen couldn't resist the lucrative allure of rock 'n roll. The Doors, Janis Joplin, the Who and Chicago played to sold-out Casino crowds who paid ten times more than had the check-dancers for admission. Yet Dineen kept order and prided himself on once emptying 4,740 concert-goers from the ballroom in 4 minutes and 22 seconds.

He maintained his stern rule until July 8, 1971 -- the night Jethro Tull came to town. That evening the British band, at the height of their "Aqualung" popularity, were booked for one show. But ads continued to run on Boston radio three days after the room was sold out.

More than 3,000 ticketless fans showed up. When they couldn't get in, a human tidal wave besieged the building. They scaled walls, using ropes, wooden and human ladders. They dropped through roof skylights and climbed over the porch at a rate of ten per minute, in some instances helped by police and Dineen himself, who explained that once they had got that far, they couldn't be turned back without risking injury. No one, in fact, was injured. Ten youths were arrested and one police officer was treated for exhaustion.

In the aftermath of the "riot", rumors abounded that the show was oversold and bogus tickets were printed. But Dineen provided invoices to prove only 4,000 tickets had been ordered. Hours after the melee, Dineen met with the town fathers. Officials banned any further rock performances and issued a statement that said "with great respect for John Dineen who over the years has conducted a fine, clean operation, it is with regret that the action (ban) had to be taken."

Dineen immediately returned to Tin Pan Alley, but the era was long past. The Casino slid into decline and neglect. In a few years, the grande dame was hosting high school proms.

Tired, aged and bereft of a male heir, Dineen opted to sell his pride and joy. Some prospective buyers had plans to raze the building, cut up the six-acre lot and build condominiums.

Six local men offered Dineen $1 million for the Casino. The group's point-man, Fred Schaake knew the building well. At age 14, he started working summers at the Casino. He wanted to protect the old landmark. His pitch struck a responsive chord in Dineen.

However, the deal had its risks. Schaake's group put $150,000 down. They had 60 days to finance the purchase, or forfeit their money. The land under the Casino still belonged to the town and bankers balked at the notion of loaning six men nearly $1 million to lease a wooden dinosaur.

The group got their financing, but the gambit was still a long way from paying off. "With all due respect to John Dineen, he had let it go to a terrible state of disrepair," Schaake said.

The new owners began renovations, many of which Schaake had suggested to Dineen during friendly conversations in the past. Dineen watched carefully. "It was like 'Okay, smart ass, now you've got your chance'." Schaake recalled.

Schaake pulled out the obsolete bathhouse and bowling alleys that occupied prime space. He put in two "mini-malls" and leased them to 30 tenants. Old shopkeepers like Lilian Clark, the "silhouette lady" who cut and sold paper figures for five decades gave way to a modern generation of retailers like Paul Attaya.

Attaya's parents had run a beachfront sportswear store and the second generation merchant moved his t-shirt shop into the Casino's ground floor in 1976. "It's the focal point of the beach and the location pays off," he said. The "Put-On Shop" has prospered enough to expand Attaya's business to year-round wholesaling to resort customers from Maine to Florida.

The modernization continued. Schaake's machine tore down the ancient Ocean House and replaced it with the first seasonal McDonald's (which grossed over $1 million in its maiden summer) and a water slide.

Schaake vowed "to do whatever it takes to accommodate tourists. We have to adapt to changes in entertainment trends and still have something to appear to all age groups and every family member on a rainy day.

One of his original partners, Jim Goodwin, resurrected the ballroom as Club Casino. But the ghost of Jethro Tull still hung over the Casino and town officials remained hostile to rock music.

Goodwin came to regard their opposition as a blessing because it forced him to diversify acts and broaden his market. After three years he found his audience and turned a profit. He settled on a mix of MOR, middle-of-the-road, performers, with few exceptions, Club Casino has straddled the yellow line.

The 1,600-seat venue draws the majority of its patrons from the Merrimack Valley. According to Marketing Director Bob Houle, only 2 to 3 percent of the average nightly gate is drawn off the beach.

Due to its limited seating capacity, the club catches stars rising and falling, but rarely at their peak. In booking performers going either way, Goodwin has garnered Roy Orbison, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, George Carlin and Ray Charles. He fetched U2 (for 2,000), Huey Lewis and Tina Turner before they rocketed to super stardom.

Club Casino aims for an adult cabaret atmosphere and targets an upscale crowd. Tickets average $20 and decorum reigns supreme in today's ballroom. But the club wasn't always quite so orderly.

At a 1979 Talking heads performance Dorothy Wiggin's granddaughter saw a friend stabbed, albeit superficially, in an altercation that erupted at the show's climax. The club beefed up security and now employs 40 large, young men it calls "maitre D's." But in service to truth and beef, the gents lack the sophistication of title. In plain English they are bouncers. During last summer's Los Lobos show, Cindy rose from her seat at the imploring of singer Cesar Rosas. The bouncers told her to sit or be ejected. That's the price of orderliness, club officials concede.

In pursuing a good reputation, Goodwin refused the Rolling Stones in 1982. The band was rehearsing in the area and did some impromptu, free gigs at local clubs. "It would appear stupid to turn down the Stones," Goodwin qualified, "but their agency insisted on giving away tickets. I said 'No Way -- It would be a circus.' I offered to give the ticket proceeds to charity. I just wanted some kind of control."

He maintains it was a wise decision. The club has since approached the stature once enjoyed by the grand ballroom. "I feel a link to the past, sure," Goodwin said. "Only we've adapted to the 20th century."

After $1 1/2 million in renovations, the building still needs a coat of paint, Schaake admitted. "But first things first. We did structural repairs on the roofing, plumbing, wiring and framework. It's a helluva lot better than when we bought it."

"It's a challenge to preserve the original structure -- considering the area under the roof is used 90 days a year -- yet keep it modern and entertaining. You don't want a museum. But you don't want a coastal Fox Run Mall either."

In 1997, the Hampton Beach Improvement Company lease expires and much of the resort property will be up for bid. Schaake predicts a boom, expects to receive seductive offers, and wonders "when do you stop saying 'no' to that kind of money?"

He also foresees a revitalized Casino -- more Disney than Trump in character -- and the day when tourist will deposit their cars at giant lots in the shadow of Seabrook Station and ride monorails to the beach. If his vision materializes, the Casino will have come full circle from Wallace Lovell's electric trolleys, and be the same as it ever was.

[Post Script in 1988: Bob Young went to his high school prom at the Hampton Beach Casino. He lives in Wells and is writing a book about the U. S. Justice Department.]
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