HIGGS: The 'Golden Days' of music in Niagara Falls

Norma Higgs

The Local History Department at the Niagara Falls Public Library on Main Street is a great place to reminisce and learn about our past. This week we are going to “bar-hop” around Niagara to hear music. I collected some former Gazette columns “Music notes” by local musician Jerry D’Amico and found one covering this very topic. Written on Nov. 16, 1980 he covered most of Niagara Falls where music was live and popular.

He also noted that downtown Niagara Falls during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was jammed with “people from every state of the union and almost every country in the world, and we had night life coming out of our ears.” So let’s get started while it is still early before the bars close.

Over on Niagara Avenue in the North End was a place called Luigi’s owned by Aldo Centofanti and Angelo J. Trapasso. Guitarist Hal Palumbo, along with Kenny Brown, piano, Tony Scibilia, bass and Cy Leone vocals, were there for our enjoyment. This place changed ownership and names several times over the years but was always a “hot spot.” The Club Rhapsody at 317 Riverway, owned by Dom Ianuzzi featured Dom LaScala, a highly respected saxophonist and trumpet player Joe Leo. Downtown, guitarist Lou Morell was at The Whirlpool Bar and Restaurant at 107 Main St. Owners Benjamin F. and Walter Kindzia always looked for the best talent available and there was plenty around to choose from. The fans had plenty to choose from also. There was music at the Plantation, the Snake Pit, Boulevard Casino, Strand Lounge, The Turf, The Old Glass bar and, of course, the Hotel Niagara. The Glass Bar at 372 Third St. was owned and operated by Peter Panayiotow and had name acts and Joseph Santoro’s LaGondola Restaurant at 625 18th St. served clams with their music. Al Giambattista said the building was formerly a fish market so he kept up the theme. Al’s group, The SophistiKats played there frequently.

Let’s find a place where we can hear jazz! Everyone knew the Ontario House was the place to be. If you wanted to hear saxophonist Joe Marillo and guys like Charlie Chiarenza on guitar and Art Talbut on piano, you went there. D’Amico said, “If you felt like going nuts, you headed down to John’s Club.” There was a polka fest every night on 20th Street at the corner of Niagara Street. Lower Main Street was like Canada’s Tijuana according to Jerry D’Amico. It was called The Strip and all the wildest clubs were on it. Bars like The Wonder Bar and Restaurant owned by Russell V. D’Anna at 323 Main; DeFazio’s at 309 Main, DeDario’s on Elk Place, Joseph Sacco’s The Victory Grill at 321 Main, Keogh’s Fitzgeralds, and “the king of the whole street, Mrs. Ninfa DiRocco’s “Ninfas.” Tony Infantino later took over after her retirement.

The former penny arcade on Falls Street became The Club Restaurant, owned by Edward Ghougasian featuring the “longest bar in town.” Keyboardist Jimmy Corsaro played opening night with John VanDine on drums, Lou Cubello, bass and Tiny Rufrano, clarinet. The Main Restaurant owned by Paul Ghougasian was a popular spot also at 1 Falls Street. Guy’s Restaurant was another new club in town, with music in the lounge and name big bands appearing in the ballroom. Located on the corner of North Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard, it was owned and operated by Guy DiRuscio.

Not to be outdone, the East Side was cooking along too, with clubs like the Moosehead and the Vet’s Club at 16 West Falls St. Thomas Hiller was the club secretary.

Sax player Larry Magnifico was at Murphy’s at 619 Erie Ave. and playing next door at 621 was the Otis Café featuring Bobby Franks on piano, Prez Freeman on drums, and Marcus on vocal. There were day and night “jams” at Albert DeMunda’s Skyview Restaurant at 912 Main St., and Wanda Bilski’s The Topper Tavern at 492 19th St., and the CIO Hall at 4th and Niagara streets.

Jerry D’Amico noted “Of Course, I can’t fail to mention The Three Corners Restaurant, the birth place of rock and roll in Niagara Falls. I can still see those fugitives from ‘Happy Days’, Pee Wee Falcone, Joe Cappy, Mary Caridi and Dorothy Veyksner. Those were good times and happy times and was certainly “the golden years of entertainment in this city.” Stay tuned.

Contact Norma Higgs by email at niahigg@aol.com.