Discover the Rich Music History of the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
The intimate (and ancient) Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom has hosted The Doors, Led Zeppelin and U2. But its back parking lot is where fans can truly brush shoulders with music history
Myles Kennedy (left) and Slash wow the crowd at the historic Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom this spring. Photo by Ilya Mirman.
It sounds like the plot of a cheesy movie: A small seaside town gets overrun by long-haired hippies and decides to ban rock ‘n’ roll. But the power of music eventually wins over local officials, who reverse the edict and restore the beach’s heart and soul.
On July 8, 1971, a crowd of 4,000 Jethro Tull fans outside the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom wouldn’t take no for an answer. The show was sold out, a positive omen for the British rockers’ breakout album “Aqualung,” but those without tickets tried to storm the building. Young fans were climbing up ladders into second-story windows, while others used rope or tied blankets together. Meanwhile, on the ground floor, youths tried to kick in the locked doors.
The screaming banner headline in the next day’s Union Leader, which curiously did not mention Jethro Tull by name, said it all: “BAN ‘ROCK’ AT BEACH.” The town called in State Police, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s crowd control unit and additional officers from Exeter and Seabrook. Casino owner John Dineen passively accepted the ban on future rock concerts, declaring: “I have had it with this type of entertainment. I feel that the beach as a whole is certainly deserving of a better image.”
One fan who made it inside legally was Jake Fleming, who has been the general manager of the Casino Ballroom since 1977. Fleming was working at the property’s sister establishment, The Ocean House hotel (where McDonald’s now stands), and wanted to see what the commotion was about. “It wasn’t a riot, but it was mayhem,” he recalls. “I saw people trying to climb the drainpipes and scale the building in any way they could.”
“But it stayed outside. It never got in the ballroom,” he says. “People at the concert didn’t know what was going on unless they were standing by the window. The funny thing is that they came back in the 1990s to play again. We were joking around that the kids who were climbing those drainpipes were now using the handicapped lifts.”
Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre corroborates Fleming’s version of events. “Like the riot in Red Rocks in Denver [which also resulted in a rock concert ban], we were quite unaware of the unfolding chaos happening outside until we were forced to halt the concert,” he wrote in an e-mail to New Hampshire Magazine. “I always loved that venue. As a keen runner, the beach was a treat!”
A back row seat at the Casino might be considered a premium one at a larger arena like the
Fleming, who is also the co-owner of the adjacent Purple Urchin restaurant, recalls that the Casino Ballroom had to nail plywood over its open screens and make it as soundproof as possible before town officials would allow concerts again in the late ’70s.
Hampton’s “Hallowed Hall”
The Jethro Tull incident is but one of many historic music moments in the venue’s 116-year lifespan. Whether they are listening to a national act or a local band, fans can’t miss the series of wooden placards commemorating the most transformational concerts during the building’s first century.
“Everything is in the same location,” notes Andrew Herrick, the Casino’s marketing director. “Things have been fixed up. But it’s the same set-up. The floor was completely replaced three years ago for the first time. The stage has been done over, but it certainly hasn’t moved or anything. You can definitely say that if the walls could talk they definitely could tell a lot of stories.”
“There’s a lot of new places like House of Blues that are built for today’s comforts, but it doesn’t feel authentic when you’re there. I liken it to going to a sushi restaurant at an airport. It might be a nice place, but it doesn’t really seem to fit. There’s a hallowed hall kind of vibe to this place that gives you the same feeling they were trying to capture in that movie ‘Almost Famous.’”
The Casino Ballroom has been a Hampton Beach landmark since 1899.
Walk around the room and you’ll see markers honoring Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Seinfeld and U2. Janis Joplin played Hampton before she crushed it at Woodstock. Shortly after playing here, Phish moved on from small clubs to massive outdoor festivals. The night of Jerry Garcia’s death, his longtime Grateful Dead partner Bob Weir (with his band, Ratdog) was playing here. The Casino put speakers on the back steps so thousands of people in a candlelight vigil outside could listen as Ratdog performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
“The history actually helps get more bands here than it does to get more fans,” says Herrick. “I know when the Stone Temple Pilots played here a couple of years ago, it was a big deal for us and for them. They stopped the show and talked about the history of this room. They were psyched to be here. We’ve seen that a bunch of times. John Fogerty, Barenaked Ladies, Crosby, Stills & Nash — they’ve all said to their fans, ‘Hey, we’re having a special night tonight. This is a smaller place than we normally play.’”
“Every one of our many rockouts at the mighty HBCB have been gloriously memorable,” echoes rocker Ted Nugent. “But as always, it is the spirit and music-loving attitude of the people in attendance that matters most. The physical layout of the HBCB is ideal for such a musical connection, and we all take advantage of the shared sweat and positive energy that permeates the place every time.”
Getting Closer to the Action
The seating capacity of the ballroom is 1,800 when there are chairs and 2,200 when the show is general admission open floor. When the concert scenario is the latter, the devotion of early-bird fans is rewarded handsomely: Music lovers can get close enough to reach out and touch their favorite artists (although such behavior is discouraged). And even if fans are halfway across the room, they still have the equivalent of premium seats at a larger arena. “The stage and seats are so close, you’re part of the show,” says avid concert enthusiast Buck Clow of Gilford, who estimates he has seen 25-30 shows at the Casino over the past few years. “Once I thought that George Thorogood was going to lean over and fall on me.”
Music fans get so close to rocker Billy Idol they can almost touch him. Photo by Ilya Mirman.
Micah Gummel, editor and chief photographer of NewEnglandConcertReviews.com, estimates he has been at more than 125 different concerts at HBCB. “The Casino is a memorable place for fans when they feel the history,” he says. “I feel like I’m documenting history. The environment is energetic and more personal than the big venues. I think it’s that energy that fuels me to many times get ‘The Shot.’”
On the flip side, the artists feel the intimacy too.
Mark Damon is the bass player for The Pretty Reckless, a New York City-based rock band that recently hit #5 on the Billboard 200 with their album “Going to Hell.” Having played festivals and venues across the United States, South America, Europe and the Philippines, he still has a special spot in his heart for Hampton Beach. He grew up here and could likely stare into the crowd and find classmates from Winnacunnet High School, where he played trombone in the band.
“The Casino Ballroom is such a great place to see and play shows because it’s such an open room,” he says. “As a fan, you can have a very good view from wherever you happen to be. The fact that the stage protrudes out into the room instead of being set into the wall gives the whole venue almost an outdoor amphitheater feel.”
“When performing there, I feel like I’m right there — almost inside the audience. Everywhere you look, there are people and even the skyboxes seem close enough that you could toss someone a beer. The Casino is close enough to connect without feeling cramped,” Damon adds.
To Dover’s Tim McCoy, the bass player for the Boston-based classic rock band Watts, the dance hall layout of the room contributes to its intimacy and aura.
“I’ve been going to shows here for 30 years and to me, it’s a local gem. It’s a room that simply doesn’t exist anymore and has a completely unique feel and vibe. I love the old-school way it’s set up,” he says. “Instead of being a long room, it’s wide to the right and left of the stage. The lines of sight are great. You can force your way into the middle of the room and get down and dirty or you can take a break on the sides and get a beer.”
“If the Ballroom were being designed today, there’s no way it would be designed this way,” McCoy adds. “You’re never really more than 100 feet from the band.”
Ambushing Your Idols
In one regard, the Casino is no different than any other performance venue if you want a guarantee you’ll meet your favorite artists. The best chance to hobnob with the stars is to empty your wallet. Purchasing a premium VIP ticket usually comes with special privileges, such as meet-and-greet photo ops and autograph sessions. Many bands have outsourced these VIP add-on experiences to professional management companies and charge up to several hundred dollars a pop.
However, some of these same bands will also pose for photos and sign autographs into the early morning hours if you catch them in the right mood after the show. For fans, the only cost is patience. With no place for the tour bus to hide, if fans plant themselves near the back stairs, their odds of at least making direct eye contact with their rock idols are high. The downside: Waiting for hours might not deliver any results. Musicians get tired and cranky just like the rest of us.
“Every one of our many rockouts at the mighty HBCB have been gloriously memorable for my band, crew and me, and certainly the professional staff and facility are indeed important components to an overall quality concert. But as always, it is the spirit and music-loving attitude of the people in attendance that matters most. The physical layout of the HBCB is ideal for such a musical connection, and we all take advantage of the shared sweat and positive energy that permeates the place every time.” – Ted Nugent Photo by Ilya Mirman.
Businesswoman Jill Patsfield, who owns two Seacoast Sewing stores in Portsmouth and Biddeford, Maine, is a veteran of the back-door waiting game. “Most bands are pretty friendly — a lot of the guys will sign autographs and take pictures,” she says. “But sometimes they’ve already left and you never see them at all.”
“Security is usually very helpful. They’ll give you the scoop on whether it’s worth waiting or not. They might say, ‘Don’t waste your time. You’ll never see this guy. He doesn’t do the fan thing.’ But if you’re respectful, the staff will do whatever they can to make it happen.”
Jake Fleming, the Casino’s general manager, says he once received a request from country music legend Willie Nelson’s team to build a canvas “tunnel” covering the distance between his tour bus and the building.
“I soon learned that this was to protect the fans from Willie and not the other way around. If he’s stopped by a fan, he’ll talk for an hour and delay the concert. In any case, we never built that tunnel,” he says.
Fans of former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar got this close-up view of his alien guitar.
According to Fleming, Nelson once stayed in the Casino parking lot till 7 a.m., spending time with every last fan who wanted to say hello.
Hampton Beach might not have the same volume of celebrities as the “other Hamptons” in Long Island, NY, but gawkers along the boardwalk occasionally get lucky here too.
“When The Black Crowes were here for a couple of nights, Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson took their kid over to the playground and you could have just walked up to them,” recalls Andrew Herrick, the HBCB marketing director. “A lot of people didn’t even realize it was them. I remember Lisa Marie Presley was out on the beach all day when she was here — you know, that’s the King’s daughter. Nobody really mentioned a word to her either.”
“Or you might see someone like Louis CK walk up and down the boardwalk — and tons of people will recognize him and say hello,” he adds. “It depends who it is and how accessible they want to be. Some artists roll right outta here. Some stick around. You never know who you might meet around here.”
Tales of a Former Bouncer
For those who know writer/editor Bill Burke, it’s tough to imagine him as an intimidating presence. The Sandown resident is best known as the author of “Mousejunkies! Tips, Tales and Tricks for a Disney World Fix,” and the moderator of Mousejunkies.com, where Disney fanatics share advice on upcoming trips and swap cute photos of their kids mingling with Buzz Lightyear and Princess Ariel.
In the summers of 1990 and 1991, however, Burke was a bearded, bowtie-clad enforcer at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. Don’t call him a former “bouncer.” Back then, they called them “maître d’s.”
“Most of the time, nothing happened so we could stand there and enjoy the show,” Burke recalls. “I wasn’t eager to get beat up for $5 an hour. Even back then, I was Mr. Mellow. But I found if I glared at people, they’d leave me alone and not punch me.”
Turns out that was the exact personality type that the Casino was looking for. During his job interview, Burke recalls being told, “I don’t want meatheads who are going to go toe-to-toe with people. I want mediators — people who can talk to guests and defuse difficult situations.”
This idealistic vision of bouncer-fan harmony didn’t always come to fruition, however. Burke recalls a particularly rowdy Phish concert at which the Casino manager asked the crowd to stop dancing because of noise complaints from the people in the arcade below. Lead guitarist Trey Anastasio suggested the fans keep their feet off the floor by dancing on the chairs instead.
“We started walking around and pointing at people and asking them to please get off the chairs,” says Burke. “This was not well received. Things just got out of control. It was non-stop fights and I actually saw a Phish fan get thrown down the stairs.”
Most of Burke’s bouncer memories are far more tranquil.
Part of his responsibilities included helping roadies load and unload equipment so he got to see recording artists during their sound checks every night.
“I got to help Ray Charles out of the building when the place was packed,” he recalls. “I remember when Meatloaf was making a comeback, he was standing at the top of the stairs near the ticket takers — just hanging out and greeting people as they walked in. Nobody recognized him. He was much thinner back then and seemed mainly interested in talking about Rotisserie baseball.”
Undoubtedly, the Casino Ballroom must try to screen out overly starstruck fans from the application pool. But if you’re a music fan who can maintain a calm demeanor, scoring a job there could pay handsome dividends — at least in stories you might be telling two or three decades later.
“The backstage area is very small,” says Burke. “It’s not like the bands can go back there and just disappear.”
You don’t need binoculars to see the bands at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, but some fans want to get even closer. Meet five New Hampshire music enthusiasts who recently met their idols after the show.
A “Pretty Reckless” Sweet 16
When one of her Pinkerton Academy classmates introduced her to The Pretty Reckless song “Make Me Wanna Die,” junior Alex Fongemi, of Auburn, was hooked.
Her parents took notice too, and for her 16th birthday, Fongemi found herself rocking out with her dad Ryan and the band at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. It was her first concert, period.
“I walked around the room and I had a clear view of the stage from every angle,” she says. “This was pretty huge. My dad loves the band too.”
Fongemi’s birthday gift included a VIP meet-and-greet with the New York City-based hard rock band, which includes Hampton native Mark Damon on bass.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but the whole thing was pretty exciting. I felt like I could talk to them forever,” she says. “They were easy to talk to and didn’t seem like they were in a rush at all. [Lead singer] Taylor Momsen was sweet. She gave me a hug.”
As a singer in the Pinkerton Academy Chorus, Fongemi especially appreciated Damon’s advice about overcoming stage fright: “He told me that the nerves never go away. The best thing you can do is just go up there and give it your all.”
Mark Damon, bass player for The Pretty Reckless, grew up on Hampton Beach and has since toured the world. In his own words, here’s how he got his start:
“I played trombone in the school bands at Hampton Academy Junior High and Winnacunnet High School. At WHS, I was heavily involved in the music program. I did concert band, jazz band, chorus and chamber singers. It was a great program that really encouraged the students to excel! I didn’t start playing bass until after high school.
The high school band director, Stanley Bednarz, was very influential. He gave me lots of encouragement and opportunities to grow as a musician. He’d let us do jam sessions in the band room during study hall/after school and allowed me to compose a tune and direct the jazz band in a performance of it. He lent me my first tenor saxophone because I was interested in learning to play that, too.
Mr. Bednarz also brought me to some of my very first live concerts (James Cotton, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton) as part of Jazz Band field trips. He was very encouraging of my musical development, but also wasn’t afraid to tell me when he thought I was slacking. He pushed me to always strive to be better and take pride in what I was doing.
The choral director, Richard (Dick) Ray, was also very influential. He was also the bass player/vocalist for a local band called the Spectras, who often regularly played the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom back in the 1960s and ‘70s. He hired me to play horns for the band a couple times when I was still a senior in high school. Those were my first paid professional gigs!
Mr. Ray gave me my first glimpse of how a pro band runs, how to handle myself on stage and taught me to transcribe horn section parts from recordings. I also quickly realized that being on stage with a band was where I felt at home. It confirmed that I had found my path in life. He passed away about a year ago, but his influence on me is still very much alive.”
He also shared what the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom means to him:
“Growing up in Hampton, the Casino Ballroom was always THE venue I dreamed of playing someday. As a young musician, I would see the ads for the HBCB in the paper or hear all the acts coming in advertised on the radio and think, ‘Someday, I’ll be there on that stage, they’ll have my band name in that paper, they’ll be announcing my band’s name on the radio.’ The history of that place is just so deep! Louis Armstrong, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, U2, Zeppelin. To know that kind of musical history happened right in your own back yard is definitely inspirational.”
Want My Autograph … right NOW?
It’s not tough to predict what Gilford’s Buck Clow will be doing this weekend or next. Over the past three years, the computer programmer has averaged more than 50 concerts a year, including about 10 each year at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom.
In that same time frame alone, Clow has seen ZZ Top 12 times. He’ll drive virtually anywhere to see Styx. And he has playfully posed for photos with Alice Cooper, pretending to choke — and be choked by — the demonic rocker.
But on the surreality scale, nothing can match what happened when he was recently in the front row for a Doobie Brothers show. Clow was clutching a copy of “Toulouse Street,” The Doobie Brothers’ second album best known for the hit singles “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus is Just Alright.”
“I wasn’t even thinking about my record, but during their fourth song or so, (singer-guitarist) Pat Simmons gets down on one knee and makes a hand gesture. I hand him the album and he signs it right in the middle of the concert!”
Later, after the show, Clow got to meet the rest of the band outside the Casino.
“People think I’m crazy to go to as many concerts as I do,” he says. “Every moment is worth it. When you’re in the front row looking up at these guys on stage, and they are looking back right at you, life doesn’t get any better than that.”
An Unconventional Mother’s Day
Some songs were never meant to be hummed together by mother and son. Like “Community Property,” an irreverent heavy metal ballad by Steel Panther arguing the merits of infidelity. Or pretty much any song by Steel Panther, whose profanity-laced lyrics will never be found on a Disney soundtrack.
But Sandown’s Jill and Isaac Patsfield aren’t your typical mother and son.
Isaac, 19, bought tickets for him and his mom to see Steel Panther last Mother’s Day at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. A few years ago, his friend brazenly played the song on his phone while they were riding in his mother’s car. Much to Isaac’s shock, not only wasn’t he in trouble, but his mom was amused.
Fast forward to the Steel Panther concert. Jill, a mild-mannered businesswoman during the day (she runs two Seacoast Sewing stores in Portsmouth and Biddeford, Maine), made a sign with a Sharpie and the blank back of a Casino Ballroom poster: “This Concert is My Mother’s Day Gift!! #MetalMom”
In the middle of the concert, the homemade sign caught the eye of Steel Panther lead singer Michael Starr, who grabbed it from Jill and applauded its message on stage. Starr and guitarist Satchel then riffed on the idea of each of them hooking up with the Metal Mom after the show.
“Satchel started talking about menopause and that there was no risk of getting me pregnant,” she recalls. “It’s all a big spoof. It’s all done in fun.”
Jill noted that Steel Panther is a comedic act that satirizes the heavy metal hair bands of the 1980s, including the stereotype (or accurate portrayal) of womanizing party animals.
“The crowd was chanting ‘Metal Mom! Metal Mom!’ The bartender called me that too,” says Jill. “And now whenever I go back to the Casino now, the bouncers haven’t forgotten my nickname.”
As for Isaac, he started to see his mom in a new light. “Some guy came up to me and said, ‘I wish you were my son!’ and everyone my age was telling me that my mom is the coolest.”
After the show, mother and son staked out the Steel Panther tour bus and experienced Part 2 of the surreal evening: Michael Starr grabbed Isaac’s phone and called up his buddy who originally introduced him to the song “Community Property.”
“Michael said, ‘Hey, man, why didn’t you come to the concert? You really screwed up,” Isaac recalls. “All the Steel Panther guys were wicked nice. Real salt-of-the-earth kind of guys.”
No Need for a Babysitter
By age 10, most kids’ taste for music hovers between whatever they’re peddling on the Disney Channel and the soundtrack to “Frozen.” Not the case for 10-year-old JJ Whitten of Milford. Along with his parents, Jess and Sue, and his 14-year-old brother Joshua, he’s already seen live performances from Slash, Santana, Black Sabbath, Kids, Iron Maiden, Lynyrd Skynryd, ZZ Top and Motley Crew.
This past May, the Slash show with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators at Hampton Beach was his 51st concert.
“My husband and I want our kids to have the same love of music that we have,” says Sue. “The shows aren’t exactly family-friendly — there is foul language and drunk people — but so far we haven’t had any issues.”
At last summer’s Slash concert, the Whitten family waited in torrential downpours with occasional thunder and lightning with hopes of meeting the band. “After it rained for a good amount of time, we just about gave up, thinking there was no way they were going to come out. So we got into our vehicle and were ready to leave, when it stopped raining.”
“Even though we were completely soaked, we headed back and the band finally came out to sign autographs and take pictures. You could tell they were happy to do it. I’m a pretty shy person to begin with, so I really had no idea what I would say to them. Having JJ there makes it easy though,” Sue says. “I remember telling Brent Fitz, the drummer, that this was JJ’s 43rd concert. He turned to [bass player] Todd Kerns and told him, who then told someone else that this was JJ’s 4,000th show!”
When you’re meeting your rock idols, being drenched doesn’t matter much.
“Myles was very nice. He signed our tickets, and JJ’s set list, took a picture with us, and told my husband that he liked his shirt,” Sue recalls. “By that time we were shivering, but very happy we finally got our pictures with the band. Now we are just waiting for a picture with Slash.”
Sharing Buddy’s “Secret”
Considered a key influence on Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy was leaving the Casino Ballroom stage when he heard a fan yell out, “George!”
He stopped in his tracks.
“We were on the exit ramp, right between the left side of the stage and the bathroom,” recalls music fan Dale Varley Sr., of Farmington. “He was amazed that someone knew his birth name. He probably hasn’t heard anyone call him ‘George’ since his mother.”
Varley, 51, who works as a tooling technician, had Guy sign his April 2007 concert ticket stub, which is now displayed in his basement man cave. “He was really delighted that so many people showed up to see him in the freezing rain.”
Other artists Varley has met in the Casino’s back parking lot include bassist Billy Cox (who played in three different bands with Jimi Hendrix) and blues rockers Derek Trucks and (his wife) Susan Tedeschi.
“Most artists are pretty gracious after the show,” he says. “They understand where their incomes are coming from.”