The Silver Spray Gardens
by Gary Topping
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.
The enterprising Bandon businessmen who collectively decided in 1924 to invest in what became the Silver Spray Gardens dance pavilion probably did not have Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem in mind. The pleasure palace they created, though, certainly became the most exotic and celebrated establishment in the history of Bandon and perhaps of the entire state of Oregon. It is the story of an improbable history with a disastrous ending.
During the 1920s the United States was on the move. Though the national railroad network had made rapid long-distance travel available, it was limited to established routes and destinations and rigid schedules. The development, mostly after World War I, of relatively reliable—or at least easily reparable—automobiles offered a flexible alternative access to a multitude of new destinations not reached by the railroads. With the horrors of the late war a receding memory and the prosperity of a booming economy, people began to hit the road. To serve that new mobility, western states began a Good Roads movement, entrepreneurs invented a new institution called the motel, and chambers of commerce began advertising nearby attractions for the new tourists. The economies of western states and communities began to acquire an entirely new dimension.
Bandon came to this new idea almost suddenly, in the spring of 1924. Though the city government supported the new emphasis, it was carried out almost entirely by private enterprise. One thing the city did do, in the general lack of lodging for the vast numbers of travelers it anticipated, was to open up the city park to campers, who quickly took advantage of the opportunity. The newspaper, the Western World, began running pictorial advertisements touting the beauties of the Bandon beach and the salubrious summer climate. And private developers began creating tourist facilities in about the only big, open, level area available near the city park at the west end of 11th Avenue on the bluff overlooking the beach. The first was the “natatorium,” the immense indoor swimming pool known as the Wecoma Baths, filled with sea water heated by a furnace stoked with driftwood. Close by was a gradually increasing complex of tourist cabins for those who preferred indoor accommodations to the al fresco living in the park.
The anchor to all this development, though, was an immense dance pavilion unlike anything ever seen on the coast or almost anywhere else in Oregon. As construction got under way, the newspaper sponsored a contest, offering an extravagant prize of five dollars to anyone who could suggest the best name for this oceanfront marvel. The winning name was “Silver Spray Gardens.”
The catalyst for the pavilion was a Portland promoter named Bob Gee, “an experienced amusement director,” who either created or capitalized on the new tourism interest. After supposedly surveying a wide variety of potential sites up and down the Oregon and California coasts, he settled upon Bandon. In February Gee convinced a group of far-sighted businessmen to form a “Bandon Investment” company to raise $10, 000—an immense sum for a small town in 1924--for the extravagantly ambitious project scheduled to open June 1.
(It is worth noting that there was resistance: no less a person than George P. Topping, a prominent lawyer and former four-term mayor who later became the central figure in the Silver Spray Gardens, had spoofed a prior and equally ambitious organization called the Bandon Boosters. So ambitious were they, he quipped, “that if the organization is to do all that it might well be called ‘The Whales.” He would, in time, come to see things differently.)
The architecture of the building was stunning in its scope. “The dance floor will be 84 X 100 feet in size and of first class construction,” the newspaper reported. “The building will be of the bungalow type, shingled on the exterior. The roof will be supported by trusses, thus eliminating the necessity of having posts as supports. An orchestra stage and sounding horn will be built at the most suitable place in the hall.” As actually built, the dance floor was extended to 97X100 feet. As construction proceeded, further details were revealed: “The upper portion of the roof will be covered with patent roofing, the balance with shingles. The siding will be rustic. A ten-foot veranda will be built extending the full width of the building on the ocean side. This will have seats. The floor will be of three-inch vertical grain hemlock, which has been both air and kiln-dried. Strips a foot apart will be placed between the floors to add to the strength and paper will be placed between them to deaden the sound. This will make it noiseless.”
Besides the floor, the bandstand was the most important part of the structure. Making the music heard over such a vast space, in the infancy of electronic amplification, was a challenge. Some wise acoustical savvy went into the bandstand’s design: “The stage is suspended from the trusses on the west end of the room and is built with a huge sounding board which will add greatly to the acoustics,” the newspaper announced. Suspending it above the floor meant that the music was directed at the dancers’ ears rather than their knees. Finally, the instrumentation of the band was a critical factor in its acoustical projection. Chosen by Vane “Bum” Gartin, a well-known musical empresario in southern Oregon who became the longest-serving bandleader at the Silver Spray, the band relied heavily on brass instruments and banjos which could easily make themselves heard over a considerable distance without supplementary amplification. Like the more famous contemporary bandleaders Ben Pollack and Chick Webb, Gartin led the band from behind the drum set. One can easily imagine the pounding Dixieland rhythms in Robert Redford’s film of The Great Gatsby. There was nothing much subtle about it, but it was audible.
With such an ambitious project, it is little wonder that the opening date of June 1 was pushed back to June 14 and finally to June 28. But open it did, and it was an affair of almost unbelievable scope, certainly unlike anything ever previously seen. A reported 2,000 cars showed up, from points as remote as Eugene and Roseburg and throughout Coos and Curry counties. “The huge floor space proved none too large,” said the newspaper, “and was soon thronged by dancers, as many as 750 couples being on the floor at one time. The space reserved for spectators was jammed to capacity and many failed to get in at all.” Vane Gartin’s seven-piece band, “The Midnite Sons,” consisting mostly of University of Oregon students, was brought in from Eugene.
In view of the still-primitive nature of the unpaved roads in the region, that kind of traffic is almost unimaginable. It is difficult, too, to visualize the parking space for that many cars, which to the mid-twenty-first century mind suggests Costco on a Saturday morning, and one easily suspects that the count was exaggerated. The newspaper report, though, calls the number an actual count, and similar numbers on opening days in subsequent years are verified by traffic management officials. Clearly, Bandon had inaugurated its tourism program in the grandest style possible.
“The new pavilion, which is owned by the Beach Investment co., comprised of local business men, bids fair to become a successful unit in the plan to put Bandon on the map as a desirable pleasure resort,” the Western World predicted; “There will be dancing both afternoons and evenings during the holidays, when it is expected that the crowd will tax the capacity of the hall to the limit. It is planned at present to hold dances regularly twice a week during the summer.” That prediction seemed borne out at the end of the season in September when the student members of the band had to return to classes, and Gartin put together a new orchestra, a six-piece ensemble of musicians from Roseburg and Portland to keep the place running.
Alas, it was not to be. Already, in October, the establishment closed, announcing that revenues had not been sufficient to cover indebtedness and the Bandon Investment company passed into receivership. On November 26 it was announced that the dance pavilion had been sold, apparently to the city, for outstanding debts owed not only to the city and First National Bank, but mostly to the Moore Mill & Lumber Co., suggesting that not even the construction materials had been paid for. Bob Gee had demonstrated that business promotion and business management were two different skills. The place was not only a huge financial disaster, but it also (although this is not mentioned) must have called into serious question the wisdom of the whole new tourism emphasis as well as the other facilities that had been built in pursuit of it.
At the end of January, George P. Topping, apparently having had a change of heart regarding ambitious tourist-promotion projects, came to the rescue. Although primarily a lawyer, Topping had had substantial business experience as well. As a young man, he had worked in an apple exporting business marketing Pacific Northwest apples to the Far East, and as adjunct to his legal practice had sold fire insurance. Although we are only partly aware of the factors that went into this major turnabout and his decision to shoulder such an immense financial risk, one surmises that he must have been impressed with the initial turnout on opening day and have seen the potential of the large geographic scope of the market. He himself had grown up in Josephine County, had studied law in Jackson County and had practiced all over the southern part of the state including trying several cases before the Oregon Supreme Court and in Federal courts in San Francisco. He had connections. Perhaps he could turn those to business advantage.
But he had another compelling motive as well. An avid musician, he had been a primary organizer of the Bandon Concert Band and its first cornetist and sometime conductor. When the band had fallen apart as a result of the major population exodus (including musicians) after the 1914 fire, he became concerned to provide stable employment for musicians, either in music or other jobs, so they would stick around and form a core of the reorganized band. The Silver Spray Gardens, he thought, could be one means of doing that. “In taking the lease [on the pavilion] Mr. Topping has in mind the interests of the Bandon Concert band as well as his own,” the Western World reported. “While he will conduct it in his own name and be responsible financially he aims to make it possible to be of direct benefit to the [Bandon Concert] band, particularly to keep good musicians for the band by giving them employment in orchestra work.” As things turned out, he seems to have had only limited success at that, but he found ways to turn the Silver Spray Gardens into a lucrative business anyway.
Although the building was barely half a year old, Topping planned some major renovations. When the Silver Spray Gardens reopened, it would be something new. ”Geo. P. Topping has secured a lease on the Silver Spray Gardens and plans to open it to the public as soon as contemplated improvements on the place can be made. Among the improvements will be a new roof,” the newspaper reported. “Changes and decorations will be made on the interior to the extent that conditions warrant at this time while a general improvement plan is under consideration.” A new roof? The “patent roofing” that covered the “upper portion of the roof” had apparently proven to be inferior or for some reason Topping deemed its durability to be suspect, for a roof would seem to be one of the least likely things to need replacing in a building only six months old.
When the Silver Spray Gardens reopened, Topping’s “general improvement plan” proved to be almost as ambitious as the original design, and came in with a final price tag of $2,000. The Western World described it in some detail: “The gardens have been completely remodeled and re-decorated on the interior. A new portable orchestra stand with resonating shell sounding board has been added, elevated seating arrangement with ample aisles and passage ways on three sides of the floor put in, and an additional ticket booth installed in the front center of the hall near the entrance. More space has been provided near the entrance to relieve congestion. A new roof has been put on the building at a cost of $1,000 and the floor is being completely redressed and repolished. Some painting is being done and the interior is being decorated under the direction of A. N. Young of the Golden Rule store, a man of wide experience in that departure [sic].” Most interesting, perhaps, is the “new portable orchestra stand with resonating shell sounding board.” The portability might have meant that the bandstand could be completely removed to allow the hall to be used for purposes other than dancing, or perhaps to experiment with acoustically advantageous locations once the hall was full or only partially so. Fortunately, we have a photograph of the new sounding board, a parabolic reflector designed to resemble a clamshell (appropriate to a seaside facility) which would enhance projection of the sound.
A. N. Young’s interior decorating skills did indeed change the appearance of the place. Whereas the walls of the original structure had been decorated with a fishnet motif, “through the use of hundreds of rolls of green and white crepe paper Decorator A. N. Young and his corps of assistants have converted the enormous pavilion into a most pleasing and inviting place. The entire ceiling has been covered with twisted crepe, which is tacked in wave-like effect and draped down to the sides. The color scheme of green and white has been followed throughout all the decorations.” Once again, the photograph of the bandstand, in 1932, shows the crepe decorations around the top and the sides. The use of crepe paper probably brings a smile to a reader in the 21st century, reminding us of preparing high school gymnasiums for junior proms. Even the announcement at the beginning of the 1932 season that the “entire crepe paper decorations have been replaced, and this time with Dennison’s, which is considered the finest in the world,” the humor is hardly diminished. One needs to be reminded, though, that crepe paper had only made its first appearance in this country in the 1890s, and by the mid-1920s was apparently still regarded as innovative.
In preparing for the May opening of the new facility, Topping applied all his business acumen. For one thing, he set a precedent by sending his son Paul on a long trip through the southern counties distributing advertising material; Topping himself would later undertake such trips, capitalizing on his family connections and reputation. Also, he showed an awareness that people also came to dance pavilions for other reasons than dancing, and he began a tradition of offering door prizes and floor shows to diversify the experience. This time, he offered prizes of agate jewelry fashioned by his son Paul, an accomplished jeweler specializing in agates. Finally, he carefully tied the Silver Spray pavilion in with Bandon’s other tourist attractions: “Many will come for the week. . . to enjoy the beach and Wecoma Baths as well as . . .to dance.”
As things turned out, his preparations paid off handsomely. Some 1,200 people paid the cover charge of twenty-five cents and stayed to dance. And as time went by, the crowds got even bigger: in the 1929 season, some 2,000-3,000 people were reported in attendance. When one considers that the population of the entire town of Bandon in 1920 was only 1,440, the Silver Spray Gardens was big business indeed. Visitors were recorded from as far away as Roseburg, Medford and perhaps Eugene where they had advertised. Perhaps not surprisingly, crowds that large created a traffic jam on the narrow, crooked Coquille River road.
“The floor was in good shape and Jimmie Benson’s Troubadours furnished the kind of music that makes you want to dance and then dance some more,” the newspaper reported. Benson’s band, one of the few in Silver Spray history that had not been recruited by Vane Gartin, was “a Seattle organization that has been broadcasting over KOWW at Walla Walla, Washington. It is composed of Taft Baker, banjo, entertainer and comedy dancer; Don Patterson, trumpet and violin; Charles Fitzpatrick, saxophone, clarinet and oboe; Howard Deye, saxophone, clarinet and arranger; Jack Douche, drums and singer; Jimmie Benson, piano and director. There will be two additional members of the orchestra.” One’s eyebrows raise at the unusual instrumentation including violin and oboe, but it illustrates the experimentation necessary during the pavilion’s early days.
It is unclear where any of the bands that played the Silver Spray got their arrangements, but Benson’s was unique in having its own arranger. During their tenure in Bandon, in fact, Howard Deye wrote an original waltz, called ‘Longing,’ for the band. It even had lyrics, which the newspaper published. Manager Topping touted the waltz highly as a special attraction. Deye himself had a sense of humor: “If you like it,” he quipped, “give me the credit; if you don’t like it, blame it on the orchestra.”
Dancing at pavilions like the Silver Spray was a different experience from modern night clubs, where a couple perhaps pays a cover charge and a drink minimum, then just gets up and dances whenever the mood strikes. Dancing at the pavilions, instead, bore quaint overtones of the Hapsburg Empire, with its dance cards and Strauss waltzes. One did pay an entrance fee, which varied from perhaps as little as twenty-five cents to a dollar or more. Then one would buy a ticket for each individual dance. Those tickets could vary in price, but “jitney rates” were very popular—a nickel apiece. The dance floor was roped off; when one dance ended, an attendant would move the rope across, sweeping the dancers off through one gate while ticket holders for the next dance would come onto the floor from another. Behavior at the Silver Spray was similarly decorous. The liquor prohibition of the 1920s did not mean that alcohol was not present (Coos County possessed a fair number of moonshine operations and bootleggers whose capture was a common news story of the day), but relatively few people, nevertheless, would imbibe, and behavior was accordingly subdued. And Topping was apparently a stern manager who would tolerate no misbehavior. On only one recorded occasion did a patron step out of line during a weekend dance, and Topping had him arrested and hauled into court on Monday, where he pled guilty and was assessed a fifteen dollar fine—a pretty stiff amount which would have paid for much more than a whole weekend of dancing at the pavilion. Perhaps because of Topping’s zero tolerance policy, orderly behavior continued even after the return of legal alcohol in 1933.
Managing the Silver Spray Gardens was a very big job, and it involved the entire Topping family, from carrying advertising throughout Coos and neighboring counties, to refinishing and preparing the floor at the beginning of each season, updating decorations as appropriate, to taking tickets, managing the crowd between dances, and even playing and singing with the band. But that was what it took to make the operation profitable, and it was clearly very profitable indeed.
One of Topping’s most popular and innovative decorations was installation of a “Myriad Reflector,” a huge rotating ball of small mirrors suspended from the ceiling. Its intended effect, Topping said, was to create ‘a marvel of kaleidoscopic charm—a brilliant fairyland of flashing, changing, living colors.” Together with the ocean waves of twisted green and white crepe paper, it would transport patrons of the Silver Spray Gardens into a fantasy world perhaps not too dissimilar, after all, to Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure dome.”
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the Silver Spray Gardens’ success is the emergence of competition. At the beginning of the 1931 season, a second dance pavilion, the Azalea Gardens, was erected about two miles east of Bandon. A slightly smaller facility—overall dimensions of 64X100 feet with a dance floor of 40X80 feet—it was still a very large structure. The floor, like that of the Silver Spray, was vertical grain wood. It is an amazing tribute to the popularity of those dance pavilions that for the next five years, until the 1936 fire, both facilities profitably existed side by side. And dances were frequently held at smaller venues throughout the county all the time. It seems to have been a friendly competition, too, for on at least one occasion the Azalea Gardens closed its doors in deference to a benefit dance at the Silver Spray.
We have noted Topping’s awareness that people could be lured to the Silver Spray Gardens by other features than dancing, as shown by the offer of agate jewelry door prizes. Over time, those special features became more and more elaborate, and even bizarre. Floor shows were among the most common. At one point, Mrs. Orris Knapp’s children’s dance class put on a performance. On another occasion, “The ‘Tap, Tap,’ New York’s newest dance sensation,” was introduced as an intermission feature, danced by a couple called “The Masked Dancers.” To spice up interest in the Wednesday night dances, which presumably were less well attended than the ones on the weekends, Topping offered a “special intermission entertainment. A fast one is promised for next Wednesday night when Lee Weber and Bart Woodyard [two of the band members] do their double acrobatic stunt. . . . There was a good crowd present,” the newspaper reported, “and the comedy went over big. Even the iceman made a hit.” (One wonders how the iceman fit into the act.)
One of the pavilion’s biggest floor shows, the “Silver Spray Dancers,” appeared during the 1928 season. A sextette of local girls, Katherine Topping Davis, Marie and Evelyn Manciet, Dorothy Lorenz, Betty Zentner and Elizabeth Littlefield, developed a “repertoire of dances” which they performed each week under the direction of one W. A. Stanchfield. “Since disbanding at the end of the 1928 season some of the members of the group have moved away or married,” the newspaper reported, but the group reunited in 1930 to perform one Wednesday night one of their most popular routines, “Dancing Scarecrow.”
At the beginning of the 1931 season, there are hints that Topping’s ambition may have gotten away from him. He announced that he had engaged the orchestra of one Val Bisonnette, “which is composed of 10 men who each play several instruments and who offer singing and entertainment that promises the dancing public the very latest and best on the coast.” The orchestra was apparently from outside the region, but at any rate its presence required the dismissal of Vane “Bum” Gartin, who had either led or played the drums in most of the bands hitherto engaged at the pavilion. No open rift between Topping and Gartin is recorded, and the Bisonnette orchestra was popular enough that they extended their stay for two days beyond their contracted engagement, but Gartin took his own band into competition at the Azalea Gardens. Later he made an announcement, which could have been interpreted as a rebuke to the Silver Spray, that his excellent trombonist, Marion Stafford, had made the big time and was touring Japan and making records. If there had been some little ill feeling, it blew over soon, and Gartin was back for the 1932 season leading a new Silver Spray Orchestra. It may be worth noting that Gartin valued his affiliation with the Silver Spray so highly as a selling point, that he continued to bill his organization as “The Silver Spray Orchestra” for years after the pavilion itself was gone.
The Silver Spray Gardens reached the height of its popularity during the 1935 season. Manager Topping spared no effort to advertise the June opening, traveling in person from Medford to Salem with stops at all points between. The resulting crowd was the biggest ever: “Traffic officers in charge of the parking in the vicinity of the hall,” the newspaper reported, “estimated that there were some 500 more people in attendance than last year. They estimated that the crowd numbered close to 3,000.”
How to account for the ongoing popularity of the Silver Spray Gardens, which began in 1924 at an almost unbelievable level and seemingly just continued to grow, even after the stock market crash of 1929 widened into the Great Depression? Several explanations are possible. Careful maintenance of the hall is one: patrons could expect the floor to be in excellent condition and the decorations to be replaced or touched up frequently. Good entertainment is another, for Topping, a musician himself, always hired good musicians, often local people who would have their own followings, and he was always on the lookout for good floor shows and other entertainments to complement the music. Finally, one speculates that during the increasingly hard times people welcomed a weekend escape valve to help them forget the problems of their workaday world.
Whatever the reasons, that popularity continued through the 1936 season, so much so that Topping announced that there would be a fall season, beginning on September 26. It was not to be.
September 26, 1936 became the most fateful day in Bandon history. Bandon already had a long history of devastating fires, but the extraordinarily dry season of 1936 rendered the city especially vulnerable to the conflagration that broke out that morning and visited a holocaust upon the community that beggared everything that had gone before. Fed by a strong east wind, the fire barely gave citizens a chance to grab a few precious possessions and flee to the beach for safety. By nightfall the entire city was in flames and when morning broke on September 27, Bandon was little more than a heap of ashes and the twisted concrete shells of formerly proud and prosperous buildings.
Like virtually everyone else, the Topping family lost everything. The Radio and Electric company where Rex Topping was a partner with his brother-in-law Rufus Truman was gone. The Bank of Bandon where George P. Topping had his law office with its extensive law library was a burned-out skeleton. The family home up on Douglas Street where Paul Topping once ran his agate jewelry business was a pile of ashes. And nothing remained of the Silver Spray Gardens but its concrete foundation. The dance pavilion, on the far western side of town, may have been one of the last structures to go, and one can barely imagine the inferno its all-wooden construction would have created.
There is no scale of values upon which one could rate the relative levels of devastation wreaked by the loss of home and livelihood. Everyone lost in the Bandon fire. But destruction of the Silver Spray Gardens was a community deprivation of the first magnitude. For one thing, it was an immensely popular symbol of the greatness of imagination of the people of Bandon. No other city could boast such a thing. Even more than that, perhaps, it was a place where people all over southwestern Oregon could find momentary surcease from the mundane frustrations intrinsic to modern civilization. Shakespeare said that his actors “are such stuff as dreams are made on”: it was equally true of his Globe Theater, of Coney Island, of Saltair, of Disneyland, of the Silver Spray Gardens. That dance pavilion was more than the crepe paper ocean waves, the Myriad Reflector, the clamshell bandstand with its pulsing music. Those were only the raw materials out of which people created their own Xanadu, their weekend escape from the travails of the Great Depression, the late mortgage payment, the lost job, the troubled marriage. It provided a fantasy land of enchantment, a world of escape. One could have expected much less from an establishment that was, after all, only a dance hall.
Gary Topping (firstname.lastname@example.org), a retired historian and archivist living in Salt Lake City, is a grandson of George P. Topping. His research notes for this article are on file at the Bandon History Museum (and through the link), though his sources also include unrecorded reminiscences of Rex Topping.