By Andrew Staub
During the heyday of swing music, Downtown York’s Valencia Ballroom attracted some of history’s greatest bandleaders and singers, including Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo and even a rising star by the name of Frank Sinatra.
This month, music lovers will have the chance to relive that era, when the Big Swing Thing II brings the excitement of the big band years back to Valencia on April 27-29. It starts with a welcome dance on Friday evening and really gets kicking on Saturday, when six big bands transport the Valencia to the days when Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” graced the airwaves of local radio stations.
“We’re trying to rekindle that particular golden time,” said Terry “Dutchie” Downs, one of the organizers behind Big Swing II. “And with the care and restoration work that’s been done up to the present in the Valencia, it’s like taking a step back in time. It just has all the qualities and nuances of when it was a very fine ballroom.”
The Hepcats, and Chelsea Reed and the Fair Weather Five will performing during the Welcome Dance. Saturday's lineup features Riversaide Rhythm, the Gettysburg Big Band, the M&J Big Band, the Reisterstown Jazz Ensemble, the Powerhouse Big Band and the Unforgettable Big Band - a York-based big band featuring some of the area's top musicians.
Those new to swing dancing can take advantage of classes and workshops presented by the Victrola Dance Hall, as well as regional instructors and performers.
Tickets for the Big Swing Thing II are available now. The event offers an unforgettable way to experience one of just four grand ballrooms remaining from the Swing Era, and organizers expect to draw Big Band enthusiasts from across the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.
Built in 1911, the Valencia was originally known as the Coliseum Ballroom and served as a lecture hall, gymnasium and entertainment venue.
The Tassia family, who were green grocers and wholesalers, eventually bought the building with the idea York could benefit from a music hall that could feature bands traveling throughout the East Coast. York’s access to rail lines such as the Western Maryland and Pennsylvania made it an ideal place for artists to stop, Downs said.
Designed with acoustic perfection and featuring a spring-loaded dance floor, the Valencia quickly became the go-to place to enjoy swing music and dancing through the 1930s. The ballroom’s popularity soared through World War II, drawing plenty of visiting soldiers thanks to its location near the USO, Downs said.
“The Valencia was the jewel in the region,” he said.
But as the Swing Era faded, the Valencia reverted to a place for lectures, meetings and the occasional revival for a traveling pastor.
It closed in 2015, but didn’t stay shuttered for long. Thanks to the efforts of Kinsley Properties and the White Rose Bar and Grill, it reopened in 2016 as a catering and event venue.
All the while, it maintained its bones and the feature that made it iconic, like the ticket window, coat-check room, finishing and fixtures. Renovations have kept authenticity in mind, Downs said.
During the Big Swing Thing II, the Valencia will relive its heyday. Downs will be right there, dressed in period clothing and enjoying the music his parents listened to while he was growing up.
“When I walk in there and I hear a band play, it’s just very transformative for me,” Downs said. “I could be swept back into the period.”