Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom History

For over 100 years the Casino Ballroom has been “second to the sun” at attracting crowds to Hampton Beach. Below is a little walk down the “rock n roll” lane of the 1900’s.

The Hampton Beach Casino Complex

It began shortly before the 1900s, when Massachusetts businessman, Wallace D. Lovell, owner of the Exeter, Hampton and Amesbury Street Railway Company financed the construction of a two-story wood-frame building in the hopes that it would draw people to the Hampton Beach area and stimulate business. The building, which opened its doors on July 15, 1899, was christened the "Hampton Beach Casino."

At that time, the word "casino" did not connote a gambling establishment as we understand it today. The word is Italian for "summer house" and came to describe a social gathering place, a room or building where one could dance, listen to music, and gamble. Lovell likely chose the term because, at the time, all things European were vogue in America. The name sounded exotic, and was familiar to thousands of immigrant workers in Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill.

Though it is not yet classified as such, the Hampton Beach Casino is, to many, a historical landmark. It has been and will continue to be the heart of Hampton Beach. It has been the center attraction at one of New England's most popular summer resorts for more than 100 years.

The Casino's doors were first opened to the public on July 4, 1899. The top floor of the building contained sleeping rooms for employees as well as a suite of rooms made available to summer renters. The second floor was comprised of a large dancing and entertainment hall and also housed a spacious dining room, complete with a grand fireplace erected with sea stones and lined with seashells. The bottom floor, also containing a dining room and a cafe, boasted two bowling alleys, one billiard and two pool tables. The rear of tbe building was reserved for recreational activities, namely baseball and tennis. Just across the street, facing the Casino, was a kiosk of sorts for music entertainment such as bands and singers.

The facility expanded in 1900, with the construction of a 57-room hotel, the Ocean House, to the north of the Casino. The hotel, which was connected to the Casino by a bridge, advertised electricity and running hot and cold water in every room. In addition to the hotel, a two-and-a-half story convention hall was built at the Casino's south end. One year later, construction of the Opera House was completed. The first floor housed 156 dressing rooms for local beachgoers. On the second floor was a large auditorium with a capacity of 700. Two hexagonal towers were added to the front corners of the casino, providing sightseers with a commanding view of the surrounding seacoast.

The Casino provided 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, on the street level. Baseball, now popular to many, was played frequently in the back to sizable crowds. Like most Atlantic resorts, the Casino flourished during the industrial revolution. Beginning in 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.

Casino Ballroom

In 1927, the Hampton Beach Casino was purchased by John J. Dineen, John Cuddy, and Napolean Demara and a new era in the Casino's history began. A little more than a quarter of a century after the Casino's founding, radio, records and motion pictures were creating a new kind of entertainer - the national star. The new owners quickly moved to design a "ballroom" large enough to accommodate 5,000 people.

Patterned on old English ballrooms, the new owners incorporated part of the old Opera House and added space toward the south end of the complex. The ballroom's wooden dance floor was one of the largest in the region and it soon became the most popular nightspot in the area. Each week, more than 20,000 people danced in the air-conditioned ballroom.

The Big Band Era

The Casino Ballroom's popularity reached a new peak in the mid-1930's big band era. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington all headlined the ballroom. Though liquor was prohibited and the dress code strict - men rented ties for a nickel - thousands crowded onto the dance floor to dance. Patrons lined a fence outside and bought tickets or "checks", usually five for a quarter, that admitted them onto the dance floor. The "check-dancing" rage had begun. The Casino Ballroom became one of the highest-grossing ballrooms in the country. Sammy Kaye, Frankie Lane, the Dorsey Brothers, Bing Crosby and numerous other internationally known orchestras filled the hall.

The introduction of Rock 'n' Roll

In 1937, John Dineen, Sr. died, leaving his share of the Casino operation to his son John and his family. By the early 1950's, John Dineen, Jr. and his family were the sole owners of the entire complex and would go on to operate the Casino Ballroom as a family interest.

After the war, Dineen's nephew John took over and ran the Casino for the next 30 years. He was often referred to as "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 Ballroom was Dineen's first and lasting Casino love. Well into the 1950's, he kept the bands coming - Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Guy Lombardo and the Dorsey Brothers, to name a few. The rules were strictly enforced. One hot night, Tommy Dorsey dared to remove his suit coat. Dineen upbraided the bandleader and Dorsey promptly put his jacket back on.

Dineen's adamancy made the nightspot secure. William J. O'Brien, a frequent patron, told the Boston Globe in 1976, "The ballroom was the only place where mothers would let unescorted girls go becuase they knew how well policed it was. You got away with nothing, believe me."

In the 60's, rock 'n roll started to creep into the Ballroom with acts like the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Four Aces. Plus there were folk acts like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. Gradually, louder bands were added to the schedule -- The Beach Boys, the Fifth Dimension, the Who and the Lovin' Spoonful.

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 Ballroom crowds, who paid ten times more admission than the check-dancers had. In the 1960's and 1970's, the rock music scene exploded, and marvels such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin blew the minds of thousands at the Casino Ballroom.

One fateful night in July, 1971, more than 3,999 ticket-less fans showed up to a sold-out Jethro Tull show. A human tidal wave besieged the building, fans scaling walls and dropping through skylights on the roof. Though no one was injured, ten youths were arrested and one police officer was injured. It was immediately following this event that the town of Hampton banned any further rock performances. "With great respect for John Dinneen, who over the years has conducted a fine, clean operation, it is with regret that the action had to be taken."

Club Casino is born

During the mid 1970's, long-awaited transformation began. The Casino complex was taken over by a group of area businessmen determined to bring back the Grande Dame.

In 1976, Dineen's family sold the Hampton Beach Casino to Fred Schaake, Sr., Sam Waterhouse, Paul Grandmaison, Norman Grandmaison, James Goodwin, Sr. and James Goodwin, Jr. The plan was to restore the Casino to its original style.

Fred Schaake, Sr., president of the Hampton Beach Casino, Inc., which was comprised of the group of five men who purchased the six-acre complex, knew well the value and traditions of this landmark; he worked there as a teenager through the 1930's and 1940's. "We could cut it up overnight and turn it into year-round condos for the quick buck," said the developer, who had been in real estate following his graduation from the University of Massachusetts in 1950. "But we won't".

"This is the industry of the area. Going for the quick buck would have a devastating effect on the economy. It's the only commercial beach in New Hampshire; everything else is residential. To take that parcel of six acres and not do something enterprising for the whole region - it would be wrong."

The former Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, reopened in the mid-1970's as the "Club Casino". The first step in its re-design was to complete both cosmetic and structural changes to try to attract the younger crowd. A Massachusetts-based interior decorator selected the Club's colors - red, blue and olive green. A Scottish company custom made a paisley wool rug for the massive floor. The Club introduced a Vegas-style showroom with cocktails, 1,600 chairs and tables and a 144-foot bar (which was, at the time, the longest bar in New England!).

But the ghost of Jethro Tull still haunted the Casino. Town officials remained hostile and in the eyes of music agencies, simply remodeling was not enough.

Goodwin, however, had a plan. Due to its limited seating capacity, his strategy was to work at catching both rising and falling stars to build back the Ballroom's reputation with the industry and to eventually grab bigger stars at their peak. In booking performers, Goodwin garnered now household names such as Roy Orbison, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, George Carlin and Ray Charles. He fetched U2, Huey Lewis and Tina Turner before they rocketed to super stardom. Club Casino targeted an adult crowd with its upscale cabaret atmosphere.

Between 1977 and 1982, more than one million dollars in renovations were completed, work which included rewiring the entire building, demolishing the Ocean House hotel and partially revamping the interior of the complex. The most obvious work done to date is the buildings' new white-columned facade which was completed in February 1982. Goodwin's plan was coming to life. Club Casino was once again revered as a destination for the best in entertainment. The 1980's welcomed Jerry Seinfeld, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge and Phish, all of whom found their way to fortune and fame.

Repeated sell-outs in the 1980's allowed Club Casino to hold as many as 50 shows in a three month period. This grueling pace managed to take a toll and as the 1990's grew near it was evident that change would once again be needed in order to revitalize the historic building. Although Club Casino held its own in the early 1990's with the likes of Sam Kinison, .38 Special, George Thorogood, the Village People, the Stray Cats, Lyle Lovett and Joan Rivers, it was apparent to everyone involved that change was for the best.

Back to the beginning

The early 1990's saw a change in management, with various cohorts taking a stab at running the Casino. For a short while, the Casino experienced a bit of a bad reputation - strict no dancing rules" and rough bouncers - and as a result, some of the large name acts were passing over the venue during their summer tours. Change was needed and, in the minds of the Casino partners, it would entail a visit to the past. Hence, the Casino Ballroom was reborn. Customer service was of utmost importance, as was returning the Ballroom to its once-unparalleled fame and prestige. The goal, in short, was to play host to hundreds of thousands of patrons with one thing in mind - to have fun.

The Schaake family - Fred, Sr., Fred, Jr. and daughter, Kristin - took hold of the reigns. They began to build the Casino Ballroom back to form and the magic was almost immediate. One summer evening in 1995 soon became an unforgettable night when Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead performed with his band Ratdog on the eve of Jerry Garcia's death. Thousands of Garcia fans and numerous television crews surrounded the building, mirroring, in an instant, the fateful Jethro Tull concert some 15 years prior. However, with the new management in place, event security on tight duty and the new approach to customer service, the night went off without a hitch and has proven to be one of the most revered shows in the Casino Ballroom's history.

The Casino Ballroom was back on track. Nationally-renowned entertainers once again frequented the venue, forcing music fans all over the Seacoast and in the Merrimack Valley to anxiously await the announcement of the season lineup. The latter half of the 1990's saw such acts as Meat Loaf, Robert Cray, Blues Traveler, Live, Sinead O'Conner, Huey Lewis and the News, Sammy Hager, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Jewel, Ziggy Marley, Paula Cole, Creed, Buddy Guy, Hootie and the Blowfish and the Barenaked Ladies, as well as a handful of "regulars," such as Eddie Money, the Monkees and George Carlin.

Present Day

Today, the Ballroom enters into its third century on a high note, reputed one of the best venues to play by artists and one of the best venues to see a show by fans. During its extended eight month season (April - November), the Ballroom continues to draw some of the top names in entertainment. Recently, the Ballroom placed in the top 30 for worldwide ticket sales in venues under 3,000 seats. No doubt the Ballroom has come full circle and is, once again, New Hampshire's premier entertainment facility. Come see for yourself the musical experience so heralded by fans and musicians alike. History is made every day at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom and we invite you to partake in the memories...

History information taken from the following sources: hampton.lib.nh.us & "Hampton, a Century of Town and Beach" by Peter E Randall