Sarah Vena Masso flipped through the pages of a new book about Bridgeport's Ritz Ballroom. She stopped on page 92. Staring back at her was a younger version of herself in a photo taken well over a half-century ago. In the picture the then-16-year-old Harding High School student is standing alongside three other teenagers, all being embraced by musician Vaughn Monroe.
"Can you believe this? It makes me cry," said Masso as she recalled that 1946 visit and other forays she made to the ballroom.
Masso was among more than a dozen area residents who made their way to Saturday morning for a meet-the-author discussion and book-signing of "Home of Happy Dancer: The Story of Bridgeport, Connecticut's Ritz Ballroom." Written by Jeffrey C. Williams, the book chronicles the ballroom's life as a major social attraction in Fairfield County during the big band era.
A popular place for youngsters to congregate, the Ritz Ballroom was where Masso and her husband Frank had their first date on Dec. 15, 1951. Their first dance together was to the song "Where or When." Joey Zelle's house band was playing. Masso cherishes every detail, especially since Frank died three months ago.
Stories like Masso's led Williams to put together the book, a collection of posters, newspaper clippings, photos and other Ritz memorabilia. Several contributed copies of their own items to the work.
"So many people told me stories, and I thought, it's a shame people don't hear the stories. So I decided to do this," Williams said.
Williams, a Shelton resident who hosts a radio show featuring music of the late 1930s and early 1940s, took visitors on a brief excursion of the Fairfield Avenue ballroom's history Saturday.
The expanse opened in 1923. It could hold thousands on its wooden floor, transplanted from a Trumbull skating rink. The final performance was a New Year's Eve event that took place Dec. 31, 1961. The ballroom closed Jan. 1, 1962. Many of its artifacts were destroyed in a 1970 fire.
Singers and musicians who graced the ballroom included Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine, the Dorsey brothers, Louis Armstrong and Les Brown, to name a few.
"The Ritz was an important stop on the [big band] circuit," noted Williams.
Seeing renowned performers was nice, but for local residents the Ritz Ballroom was more important on a personal level.
It's where Pam Hutchinson's parents met. Beverly Tabak enjoyed participating in the special dances for returning servicemen. Joe Olayos, a trumpter, performed there with local groups. It's where Fairfield resident Diane McGrath's parents first set eyes on each other.
"My brother and his wife met there," recalled Kay Anthony Allen. "They courted there and eventually married."
For many, the Ritz Ballroom almost seemed like a second home.
"A lot of people made really nice connections, Williams said. "People went there to meet with other people."
For more information about the book, Williams' broadcasts or upcoming events centering on the Ritz Ballroom, visit www.attheritz.org or call 1.800.529.8497.
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