Ghost of club animates Mon Valley Academy for the Arts

JoeCampusThe Twin Coaches Supper Club, formerly on Route 51 in Rostraver Township, was a swinging big band joint with a history spanning from the early 1930s through its fiery demise in October of 1977.

The club was purchased in 1944 by Rose and Tony Calderone, who brought major acts to their newly enlarged hotspot – a must-stop venue for touring performers. Legends such as Tony Bennett, Charleroi native Shirley Jones, Canonsburg’s own Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr., graced the club’s stage through the years. Backed by the Frankie Barr Orchestra, whose top-notch professional musicians made easy work of even the most intricate of scores, the sound and scene were the best around.

Sometime in 1997, Charleroi resident and professional drummer, Mark Smith, purchased a 1938 vintage Slingerland Radio King drum kit. Further research revealed it was owned and played by original Frankie Barr Orchestra drummer Glenn Brady. And sometime in 2015, when Smith came across two suitcases full of 68 handwritten music charts from the Coaches, he decided it was time to breathe new interest into the Valley’s music scene.

Smith met with Susan Sparks, an artist with experience in non-profit arts management, and California area representative Pete Daley, to discuss the possibility of forming a charter music school or performance center with the idea “to take art to different venues.” But without sufficient funds or additional personnel, a clear pathway for their idea was not evident. However, Smith, with big band charts in hand and keen interest from original members of the Frankie Barr Orchestra, created an event to turn the ghost of Twin Coaches Supper Club into a living, breathing phenomenon.

On November 16, 2016 “A Night at The Coaches” gala music event took place. “We had a reunion concert at Belle Vernon High School, geared on the Coaches show, including nine members of the Coaches band,” Smith enthused, “It was our first big venue. We had 350 people for a two hour show dedicated to memory of the Coaches, a dance troupe, and five featured vocalists.”

Though the show was a great success, it also revealed a somber truth about arts in the Mon Valley. “We said ‘there is a void here,’” Smith explained, continuing “I made a living in the Valley playing. And in the Valley, the arts have fallen apart…for the last 15 – 20 years work has become difficult. In the Valley’s heyday you could make a living as a musician and raise a family. (In more recent years) it has dwindled, and all my colleagues have trouble, too.”

Still, “Memory of the Coaches sparked this renewed effort for live entertainment” in the Valley, Smith said. So, to fill the void, Smith and company “decided to create and incorporate Mon Valley Academy for the Arts (MVAA, a 501(c)(3), with Smith as president). Our mission is to create cultural events and incubate younger players with older players.”

To find those players, Joe Campus, 83, a trumpet player, conductor, and arranger from the Coaches “came up with the idea of the Twin Coaches Junior Stage Band,” Smith said. “We went to local middle and high schools and recruited 17 student musicians. Each had to be interviewed, auditioned, and rehearsed, just like the Coaches band.”

Students from areas traversing Woodland Hills to Waynesburg passed muster and became part of the junior stage band. With mentoring and teaching help from Duquesne University graduates, along with Joe Campus, those students are learning the ins and outs of both music performance and the music business.

Smith said of the mentoring process “We talk to them about the economy of the business – how to be on time, how to dress, how to spend your money, how to practice. We talk about the whole rounded business of being a professional musician.”

MVAA_JazzTrioFunding for charts, advertising, and more is provided in part by the Frick Tri-County Credit Union, which sponsored the junior stage band and provided an additional perk for each student who completed their 2017 concert: A $200 cash scholarship. An additional perk for the student musicians was playing with Joe Campus’s former Twin Coaches Supper Club band. “We did this as a tribute to Joe. We want to keep the junior stage band intact so it’s a working band with its own jobs” Smith said.

Word of the junior orchestra is out and having positive effects for live music in the Valley. In addition to Chess Park concerts by jazz and big band acts, along with The Twin Coaches Junior Jazz Trio, Smith received a “great call from a local dance studio that wants to do a dance recital with the Twin Coaches Junior Orchestra. Over the years, dance recitals went to records and CDs, but we’re talking about live music with dancers on the stage.”

The Mon Valley Academy for the Arts has also grown into its own permanent office at the newly renovated Mon Valley Chamber of Commerce Building, along with enjoying an expanded volunteer board, advisory board, and staff. Additional funding to keep the programs running is an ongoing need, and the MVAA continues working on grants to help cover expenses.

To find out more about the Mon Valley Academy for the Arts and its upcoming events, including its November, 2018 gala, art shows, and more, friend them at facebook.com/pg/monvalleyacademyforthearts.org/ and for the Twin Coaches Orchestra Project, facebook.com/groups/1694687720747275/about/ Contact MVAA via e-mail at info@monvalleyacademyforthearts.org

Story by Keren Lee Dreyer for Pennsylvania Bridges