WHEELING - By 1972 the Big Band and Swing music era was supposed to be long over. After running successfully through the 1930s and '40s, many of the most significant big bands broke up around 1946, and through the 1950s and '60s attention turned toward the new rock and roll genre. For devoted enthusiasts in the Ohio Valley, however, a whole new swing and big band experience was about to begin with the Swinging 200 Club.
"In '72, the general atmosphere from mainstream media was that swing music was dead," Wheeling's Lee Kelvington, one of the original Swinging 200 Club founders said as he recalled a meeting with fellow music enthusiast Jack Serig after work one day that year.
"I told him I was thinking about forming a name band club to have dances at Oglebay," Kelvington said.
Dozens of couples take to the floor in a big band swing dance.
Not only did Serig approve of the idea but he told Kelvington about Bob Berry, a local big band leader whose group toured the Ohio Valley playing in Moundsville, Wheeling, Weirton and other cities. After gathering enough interest and speaking with Berry, club founders reached out to Oglebay Park officials, who agreed to provide the Pine Room as a venue.
"The idea was to target 200 couples which is the capacity of the Pine Room," Kelvington said. Thus the Swinging 200 Club was born, its membership quickly overflowing with interested couples. He said tables for dances often spilled out of the ballroom and onto the deck but nobody ever complained.
"We not only had 200 couples; we accounted (for) memberships up to 220," Kelvington said. "We even had a waiting list of at least 150 couples. It was just a verification of what we knew. Mainstream said 'swing is dead.' No, it wasn't."
Berry turned out to be an extremely valuable asset, not only able to handle dancers but also using his knowledge of booking and connections in the music industry to bring in other big name bands including the Glenn Miller Estate Band, Harry James (who Frank Sinatra still affectionately called "boss"), Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Sammy Kaye and Bob Crosby.
At its height, Kelvington said the Swinging 200 Club's membership included some of the area's biggest families including George and Ellis Boury, Bill Nickerson, Leo Bonenberger, Jack Maloney and many more.
"This was probably the best social organization I ever belonged to," Kelvington said.
The Swinging 200 Club, now just called 200 Club, continues to sponsor big band dances in the Ohio Valley, now holding events at the Osiris Shrine building in Elm Grove. One of the greatest challenges facing the club now is time and its inevitable effect on the Swing Era generation.
"The bigger bands are getting harder to come by," 200 Club Vice President David Demarest said. "So many of the band leaders retire and they disband."
But Demarest and club president David Beaver continue to find bands and hold usually five or six dances annually, with groups such as the Vince Villanova Big Band led by Lou Casini or at January's recent dance the James Cunningham Band out of Butler, Pa.
"It's been alive and well for quite some time," Beaver said. While attendance averages at 60 to 70 couples now, he said the increasing involvement of some younger couples gives hope for the future.
For Kelvington, big band and swing music will never die.
"To me, swing has become America's own classical music," Kelvington said. "The big band and swing era was the last pop music era which was enjoyed by all generations. A lot of the music then was timeless. The nature of the music was such that younger and older generations could always listen to it.
It was directed toward romance and respect, even though it covered two of the most extreme decades in history. People then dealt with depression, denial and war and they didn't complain either. This music is really the music of the Greatest Generation."