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Big bands and Spanish connections — Saranac Lake in the 1940s

Latin American patients and family members pose at the Saranac Lake Union Depot. Alfredo Gonzalez is second from left. His wife Alicia is third from left. (Photo courtesy of Joe Benero)

Last week, we brought our “Letters from the Porch” series to a close. It was a fun way to stay in touch during quarantine times. Now we are starting a new weekly article series called “History Matters” that will present history on a wide range of topics relating to the rich history of the Saranac Lake region.

The articles will run each week in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and we will share them on our online blog. We welcome your help with this project! Our good friend and local history expert, Phil “Bunk” Griffin has agreed to be a regular contributor, starting with an essay on bootlegging next week, so stay tuned … We promise, you will learn something new each week!

1940s big-band dancing

This advertisement for Gonzalez Cottage appeared in the Journal of the Outdoor Life. (Historic Saranac Lake collection)

The decade of the 1940s was a dramatic time in Saranac Lake. Emerging from the Great Depression, the TB economy was booming again as the world geared up for war. Saranac Lakers flocked to the Pontiac Theatre to watch motion pictures like “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The horrors of World War II came to an end in September of 1945, and it was time to celebrate. Big-band dances were all the rage. New romances flourished while dancing the Lindy Hop.

The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra played in the Harrietstown Town Hall for the “Post Ball” in 1949. It was the climax of the four-day encampment of the New York Veterans of Foreign Wars. Eight hundred people danced until 1:30 a.m. The orchestra played a number of request selections and introduced “I’ve Got That New Look,” written by Ernie Burnett and Thomas Sheridan of Saranac Lake. As the dance concluded at 1:30, Mrs. Dorsey, mother of the two nationally known band leaders, was introduced to the dancers.

The Latin American connection

Big-band dances in Saranac Lake during the 1940s weren’t all swing music. There was quite a lot of Latin American music played, too. Music from Cuba was all the rage, and thousands of people came to Saranac Lake from countries all over Latin America for the fresh air cure.

Many Spanish-speaking people in Saranac Lake were guests of Alfredo and Alicia Gonzalez. Alfredo Gonzalez was born in Puerto Rico in 1903. He came to Saranac Lake with TB at age 17. Alicia was from Havana. The couple met and married in 1926. Together, they operated cure cottages in Saranac Lake for some 40 years. Alfredo and Alicia established Saranac Lake as a destination for patients across Latin America. Walking through town, you would have heard Spanish being spoken at many cure cottages throughout the village.

Alfredo Gonzalez was active in the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild, founded in 1935 to bring the benefits of occupational therapy to the community and to patients outside of the Trudeau Sanatorium. Mr. Gonzalez taught Spanish at the guild from 1941-45 and 1954-57. He helped to get a Time magazine radio series called “Let Us Learn Spanish” onto local radio station, WNBZ. He also established an active Spanish Club, which met for regular parties in the ’40s and ’50s at peoples’ homes and area sanatoria. Alfredo’s Spanish Club and classes laid the groundwork for some fabulous dances at the Hotel Saranac.

Dances at the Hotel Saranac

From 1942 to 1952, Alfredo Gonzalez organized a major annual fundraiser for the guild, the Harvest Hop dance. For the 1942 Harvest Hop, the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C., loaned a complete set of large flags from all 21 Latin American countries, which were used to decorate the hotel. The event included a pageant in which “21 beautiful girls” participated, each representing a different country. There was a Latin dance contest. Entertainment was provided by the band Señor Uvanni and his Caballeros, and the singer, Louisa Paván Hennessey.

In 1948, the annual dance was renamed the “Fiesta Hop.” The head of the Armed Forces of Venezuela, Mario Vargas, who was a patient at Gonzalez Cottage, served as honorary chairman of the dance. Old-timers recalled Vargas’ uniform weighted down with medals. The general arranged for shipment by air from Venezuela of 100 native orchids for the female guests. The hotel was decorated with Latin American murals. Mr. and Mrs. P.J. Seralles of the Don Q. Rum Company did a Samba exhibition. Alfredo’s friends from the El Chico nightclub in New York City, Rosita Rios and Benito Collada, were the star performers, along with the music of Raul Barragán and his five-piece orchestra.

The end of an era

With the advent of the antibiotic treatment in Saranac Lake, the cure cottages emptied out, and suddenly very little Spanish was spoken in Saranac Lake. The big-band dances at the Hotel Saranac became a thing of the past.

We were looking forward to bringing the decade to life again, with plans for a 1940s Big Band Gala at the hotel this summer. Like so many events, it has been postponed due to the virus. But we look forward to the day when we can put on our dancing shoes and dance the Lindy Hop and the Mambo again.

Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.

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