25 April 2011

What a Story--Louis Armstrong in Great Falls, Montana

Once in a while I receive an email that is an absolute gem! This is one of them, from Tom Simmons of California, who grew up in Great Falls:

MR. ROBINSON. I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIND THE DATE THAT LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS ORCHESTRA PLAYED A ONE NIGHT STAND AT THE CIVIC CENTER BALL ROOM IN GREAT FALLS BACK IN THE MID 1940S. I KNOW YOU HAVE BEEN DOING WORK ON BLACK HISTORY IN NORTHERN MONTANA AND ON THE OZARK CLUB IN GREAT FALLS.

ON THE EVENING LOUIS ARMSTRONG WAS TO PLAY, MY FRIEND, TED CORONTZOS AND I WENT DOWN TO THE CIVIC CENTER WITH THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF TRYING TO SNEAK IN. WE WERE 14 OR 15 AT THE TIME AND BOTH LOVED MUSIC AND PLAYED INSTRUMENTS. TED PLAYED TRUMPET AND I PLAYED TENOR SAX. AS WE WERE TRYING THE DOORS ON THE SOUTHSIDE OF THE CIVIC CENTER, A LINE OF BLACK MEN CAME ACROSS THE LAWN FROM THE RAILROAD DEPOT. MY GOD, IT WAS LOUIS ARMSTRONG. HE CAME UP TO US AND ASKED IF WE KNEW WHERE THEY COULD GET SOME SANDWICHED. WE SAID SURE, HE THEN ASKED IF WE WOULD GET THEM FOR THE GROUP. WE WERE THRILLED TO DO IT. HE GAVE US MONEY AND WE RAN DOWN TO THE LITTLE HAMBURGER STAND ON THE NEXT CORNER, GOT THEIR FOOD AND WAS BACK IN 15 MIN. HE ASKED US TO SIT WITH THEM WHILE THEY ATE AND OFFERED TO SHARE THEIR FOOD. WE WERE IN THE LITTLE PARK AREA IN FRONT OF THE DEPOT. HE ASKED WHAT WE WERE DOING DOWN THERE. WE TOLD HIM THAT WE WANTED TO HEAR THEM PLAY, THAT WE DID NOT HAVE THE MONEY AND WE WERE TRYING TO SNEAK IN. MR. ARMSTRONG PUT HIS ARM AROUND ME AND SAID, YOU BOYS DON'T HAVE TO SNEAK IN, YOU ARE MY GUESTS. LONG STORY SHORT, WE SAT UP THERE ON THE BANDSTAND, TWO LITTLE WHITE KIDS. UNTTIL THE DANCE AND CONCERT WAS OVER. ONE OF THE GREAT MOMENTS OF MY LIFE.

I AM TRYING TO FIND THE DATE SO THE TRIBUNE CAN CHECK THEIR FILES FOR PICTURES ETC. BY THE WAY, I KNEW THE LAMARS, BEA BETTER THEN LEO. I SOLD THE LEADER (NEWSPAPER FROM THE TIME I WAS 11 (in 1941) UNTIL I WAS ALMOST 16. MY CORNER WAS THE OLD FALLS HOTEL ON FIRST AVE SOUTH AND 4TH ST. BEA LET ME CLIMB UP THE STEPS OF THE LAMAR HOTEL AND SELL PAPERS TO ANY OF HER CUSTOMERS WHO WANTED ONE.

HOPE YOU CAN HELP ME. THANK YOU. TOM SIMMONS

My answer back:

Hi Tom,

So good to hear from you, and what a fun, great story! Thanks for sharing it. Louis Armstrong brought his band to Great Falls July 10, 1943. An ad in the Tribune read:
5 Jul Ad for Louis Armstrong the Trumpet King of Swing and His Famous Orchestra Civic Center Arena 10 Jul featuring Sonny Woods, Velma Middleton, Joe Garland, Louis Russell Come Early and hear the Real and Original King of Swing Dancing Starts at 9 P. M. Admission $1.10 No Charge of Dancing. [GFTD 5 Jul 1943, page 8]

If you don't mind, I'll add your story to my black history file. And, if you remember more about your night with Louis or about the Lamars or Ozark or other blacks in Great Falls I'd enjoy any stories you have. Do you ever get back to Great Falls?

Ken

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