Popular pastimes took minds off war worries

Municipal Beach
Summer distractions
Municipal Beach, on the current site of Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne, was a hot spot in the summertime during WWII, and Trier's Amusement Park (later renamed West Swinney Park) drew mobs of thrill-seekers.
By WILLIAM CARLTON of The News-Sentinel

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.

Folks in Fort Wayne took that age-old adage to heart in the war-torn '40s, flocking to downtown clubs, theaters and concert halls for entertainment relief.

Fun-seekers would dance at Valencia Gardens with Larry Fenton and his orchestra, or hear Sigmund Romberg, "the man who wrote the songs America sings," play selections from "The Student Prince" at the Shrine Theater.

Swing music was king during the war years, and fans such as Leah Tourkow have vivid memories of jitterbugging at the Emboyd Theater (later renamed the Embassy) to the hot sounds of Les Brown and his Band of Renown with singer Doris Day.

"A lot of the theaters in Fort Wayne booked big bands on the weekends," recalls Tourkow, who hosts the "Nightflight" program on WBNI, 89.1-FM. "I was a big fan. I must have heard them all — Les Brown, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman."

Many servicemen were stationed here at Baer Field or on leave from other assignments. Tourkow says safe, friendly fun could be found at local clubs for officers and enlisted men. "They were open 24 hours a day. It didn't cost much to have a good time and hear great jazz."

For something "gay, daring and different" in the mid-'40s, Barbara Stanwyck was flashing her flesh in "Lady of Burlesque" at the Maumee Theatre, and Ann Miller was dancing her gorgeous gams off in "Reveille with Beverly" at the State Theatre.

War movies were hot as well. The marquee of the Eastern Theatre blazed with the story of the U.S. Marines' gallant stand on "Wake Island."

Municipal Beach was a hot spot in the summertime, and Trier's Amusement Park (later renamed West Swinney Park) drew mobs of thrill-seekers.

People seeking a more refined time could hear the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1944. It was an outgrowth of the Fort Wayne Civic Symphony founded in 1933. The first Philharmonic conductor was Hans Schwieger, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. The players were a mix of earnest amateurs and seasoned pros recruited from orchestras in Chicago and other major cities.

The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre also came of age in the 1940s. The city's leading theater company began as the Old Fort Players in 1931 and performed at the old Majestic Theater until 1940. A few years later, the troupe was transformed into the Civic Theatre. While death touched many local residents who lost friends and family in the war, the area experienced the loss of its link to Hollywood fame, screwball actress Carole Lombard. Known to her local friends as Carol Jane Peters, she had it all — fame, riches and a husband (Clark Gable) who was the undisputed king of Hollywood. Then on Jan. 16, 1942, while returning to California from a war bond rally in Indianapolis, the silver screen idol died when her plane crashed near Las Vegas.

Fort Wayne mourned with the nation, put up a plaque in her memory and lived it up again.

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