The Troy Street Observer

August 19, 1939: Artie Shaw on the Ritz Roof

Photo of Artie Shaw
The casual Artie Shaw

The Ritz-Carlton, at Arlington and Newbury Streets, was always the hotel of the Proper Bostonians, with their afternoon teas and debutante balls. They just let the rest of us use the roof for dancing during the summer months back when FDR was President.

The Ritz wasn’t the first hotel roof to offer dancing under the stars during the summer—that was the Westminster, which stood where the John Hancock Tower now stands—but it was the best-known.

Name bands were at the Ritz Roof by 1936, when Benny Goodman first played there. The barely remembered bandleader Orville Knapp, a pilot with his own plane, died when it crashed in Beverly, during his July engagement at the Ritz.

Nineteen thirty-eight was the year the Ritz Roof really made it as a name-band showcase, with Goodman, Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Shaw, and Basie on the schedule. Basie was there in September when the Hurricane of ‘38 struck. The band reported for work and found the bandstand blown onto Newbury Street.

All those bands were back in 1939, and by then, the Ritz Roof was feeding live broadcasts to the NBC Blue network. WBZ, with Fred B. Cole at the microphone, carried the broadcasts from “one of the Hub’s smartest summer spots, the beautiful terrace on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the City of Boston.”

Things slowed down in 1940, and perhaps the high price of talent was to blame. Artie Shaw got $8,000 a week in 1939, plus a percentage of the door, and it took deep pockets indeed to afford paydays like that. Shaw’s was probably the highest paid band in the land in 1939, but booking Goodman, Ellington, Herman etc. couldn’t have been cheap. There were fewer top bands in 1940.

During the war, the emphasis was on sweet bands, like those of Leo Reisman, Nat Brandwynne, and Al Donahue. It was Reisman’s first Boston engagement in a dozen years, and Donahue, after years on the West Coast, decided to hunker down in his hometown for the duration. Gone, apparently, were the Count and the Duke.

The Ritz Roof might have had a summer season in 1944, but if they did they didn’t advertise it. Nor did they advertise in 1945, or anytime after. I’m guessing the Ritz Roof’s last season was 1943, and the hotel itself says the roof closed in 1944. Perhaps they had a house orchestra that year, and didn’t see the need to promote it. Either way, dancing on the Ritz Roof ended before the war itself did.

The Roof reopened for summertime dancing 50 years after its wartime close, but as far as I know, none of the ghost bands played it.

Artie Shaw opened on August 18, 1939. On the 19th, one of the tunes his band played was “Carioca,” and a recording of that performance survived. In fact, Shaw himself chose to include it in the Self Portrait boxed set (Bluebird/BMG 09026-63808-2) released in 2001. This was a fine Shaw band, with Buddy Rich, Georgie Auld, Tony Pastor, and John Best, and including three Bostonians: pianist Bob Kitsis, trombonist Harry Rodgers, and guitarist Al Avola. Here’s the Shaw band, 74 years ago tonight, with“Carioca.”

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