The Lehigh Valley lost an entertainment landmark yesterday when an early morning fire destroyed the Castle Garden ballroom at Dorney Park.
Three generations of music lovers had gone there to dance and listen to the sounds of the Big Bands, rock'n'roll, disco, country swing and lately the area's own musicians. Now nothing is left but memories.
The multi-alarm fire was spotted by a night watchman about 2:45 a.m., and fire officials said half the wooden building was engulfed when they arrived.
Six fire companies were called out, according to Police Chief Donald McConnell of South Whitehall Township, but they never caught up with the fire.
"It's an all-wood structure. That's why it went up so fast," McConnell said. No one was injured. The fire was under control at 5:30 a.m.
Three South Whitehall fire companies - Cetronia, Woodlawn and Greenawalds - responded and were assisted with ladder trucks from Western Salisbury, Wescosville and Allentown fire departments.
The Red Cross also was there to supply hot drinks and doughnuts.
Patrolman Harry Bensinger of South Whitehall police said that as he approached Castle Garden about 2:46 a.m., he saw a large amount of black smoke over the entire roof area.
Flames could be seen at the center of the structure and at its main entrance, Bensinger said.
Fire officials were on the scene until dark yesterday, sifting through the charred, wet debris with brooms, rakes and shovels to clear a small part of what was left of the dance floor. Smoke continued to rise from several locations.
McConnell said the fire broke out in the western end of the building near its main entrance. He estimated it may take a long time to determine the cause.
"It depends on how much of that (the dance floor) they have to uncover," he said. "I'm sure it may be quite a while before any conclusions can be made."
Neither Willis "Bud" Oswald, South Whitehall Township fire and electrical inspector, nor George Umberger, state police fire marshal, who both spent most of yesterday on the scene, was prepared to make any statement on the cause of the fire.
Yesterday afternoon, Chief Barry Albertson of the Cetronia Fire Co. said investigators were trying to put back all the pieces that were still there, around all the pieces that weren't. He said clues were slow in coming because of the devastation.
"There was tremendous heat," said a firefighter yesterday. "The building went up very quickly."
Flames apparently broke out in the front of the building, away from the kitchen and anything electrical, said Dorney Park spokesman and marketing director Michael Crowther.
Crowther said he arrived at the park about 3:30 a.m. yesterday. "There weren't a lot of orange, shooting flames," he said, "just a lot of smoke."
Castle Garden was a part of Lehigh Valley culture, said Crowther. "Half of the Lehigh Valley met their husbands or wives there.
"The place was in its second Golden Age. This weekend would have been the busiest of the season. Thanksgiving is when everybody comes home from college. A Magnum concert was scheduled for tonight," he said yesterday. "Everybody is just devastated."
Crowther said Castle Garden was owned by Dorney Park but operated by the David Victor Corp., which is owned by two of the principals of Dorney Park, Harris Weinstein and Robert Plarr. Dorney Park leased the building to David Victor, he said. The park is owned by Weinstein and the Plarr family.
"Bob Plarr is the person who made Castle Garden what it is today," said Crowther. "When disco became popular," he said, Plarr opened the dance hall for disco. When the disco phase lessened, Plarr converted Castle Garden to a country swing format, with a riding bull like the one at Gilly's Bar in Texas, scene for most of the movie "Urban Cowboy."
"Then when roller skating came back really heavy a few years ago," said Crowther, "the Garden went to roller skating. From there, it went to the nightclub/party format, with recorded music and dancing.
"Robert Plarr has his finger on the pulse of what the public wants," said Crowther, who has been involved with the park for 15 years.
Plarr said he began operating Castle Garden about seven years ago. "It was very profitable," he said. "We were open seven nights a week.
"It's a tragedy for me. I built the business up. I lived, breathed and ate this place seven days a week.
"We had a lot of people coming here for a very unique aerobics class," said Plarr. In fact, he led an aerobics class for more than 100 men and women Tuesday night, the last event of the Garden's history.
Aerobics classes were held five nights a week, alternating one- and two- hour sessions.
Plarr said Castle Garden, which is along the southwest corner of asmall lake at the park's entrance, was built in 1923.
"It was one of the few original ballrooms in the country," said Plarr. "Everything was made of oak. The dance floor was hardwood maple, 8,000 square feet," he said.
"Three generations of people danced and romanced there. All the Big Bands of the '30s and '40s appeared there, the major acts of the 1950s - Fabian and Bobby Darren - and it was one of the first to install black lights in the 1930s."
The Garden also boasted a $100,000 lighting system and a huge sound system.
Plarr said he could not begin to estimate the value of the destroyed Castle Garden, in terms of how much it would cost to reconstruct.
"This couldn't have happened at a worse time," he said. "Thanksgiving is the biggest weekend of the year. From now until April is when all the people come out.
"I would say we are going to do everything possible to reconstruct another facility," he said.
The Castle Garden blaze is the second major fire at Dorney Park in two years.
On Sept. 26, 1983, a $3-million fire hit the park and destroyed a number of amusement rides, including a wooden carrousel built in 1915.
The 8,000-square-foot Castle Garden building had an assessed value of $19,180 for real estate tax purposes, indicating a combined tax loss of an estimated $1,325 annually, which includes South Whitehall Township, Parkland School District and Lehigh County.
The dance pavilion's assessed valuation indicates an appraised value of $38,350 about 10 years ago and something close to $90,000 at today's replacement costs, a county official said yesterday. The figures would not include sound and lighting systems.
Chester Gilkey, South Whitehall Township manager, said yesterday, "We're sorry to see such a conflagration. Castle Garden was a landmark in the township."
He said South Whitehall police requested a fire investigation as a matter of standard operating procedure. "We do that for all big fires."
Gilkey said he doesn't expect to receive a report on the cause of the fire for a week or 10 days.
He said the township received special amusement taxes from operations at Castle Garden, though the spacious building was part of the Dorney Park complex.
He said he didn't know what the taxes amounted to without researching this.
Township and Dorney Park officials have been engaged in a bitter legal battle involving non-payment of amusement taxes by the park, thereby contributing to a possible $392,000 deficit in the township's budget for 1986.
South Whitehall officials have opted to overcome the deficit by budget cuts in the township's police, public works and community development departments.
The tax battle began in October when Dorney Park filed a lawsuit in Lehigh County Court saying park officials had overpaid the township $610,000 in taxes since 1980.
Park officials want a refund, but township leaders countered that park officials haven't paid taxes since April, and until this is done there will be no talk of a refund.
Township officials on Nov. 1 revoked operating permits for both Dorney Park and the new Wildwater Kingdom and several days later filed a counter-suit against park officials.
Township officials last week suspended Wildwater Kingdom's temporary occupancy permits.
The Castle Garden fire drew a lot of interest from the electronic media. At 8 p.m. Saturday, WLVT-TV Channel 39 television will carry a two-hour special that was taped at Castle Garden last summer.
In tribute to the end of an era, WAEB radio ran a two-hour show yesterday afternoon, featuring music of the performers who appeared at Castle Garden in the 1950s and 1960s during its Castle Rock period.
Kerm Gregory of WAEB said Castle Rock began as a summer attraction that was extended year-round by popular demand and ran from 1957 to 1964. He was its originator and first host.
"Many of the stars at that era appeared there," he said, including Freddy Cannon, Connie Francis, Annette Funicello, Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon.
"Kenny Rogers was there one time too," said Gregory, "with his very first record."
Gregory said Castle Rock '85 began last January, "as a Castle Rock reunion thing, for people to live the good old days all over again. The last one was last Friday, so that really added to the nostalgia of the building."
Jeffrey Lee, owner of the Mandarin House Restaurant, across the park entrance from Castle Garden, said the fire will not affect his operation.
"We always close for Thanksgiving," he said, "but we will be open as usual on Friday." Dorney Park guards will be at the park's entrance, but restaurant patrons will be allowed to enter.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun