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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Toto's Zeppelin Nightclub

Today we visit a place that’s long gone and by probably most forgotten. It’s a 1930s nightclub in the shape of a zeppelin.

No, really. Have a look here at the photo posted by our friend John at his blog Robert Frost’s Banjo. These photos were taken by his roving amateur photographer father, and the caption he wrote notes it is a nightclub “outside of Springfield”. The photo was taken in 1938. Later that same year, in November, the restaurant caught fire and was destroyed (one wonders if there were morbid analogies to the Hindenburg disaster of the year before - see this post on the famous newsreel covering the event on Another Old Movie Blog).

Located in the neighborhood known as Smith’s Ferry on Route 5 in Holyoke, Mass., the nightclub in the shape of the world famous Graf Zeppelin was aluminum-coated, 100 feet long with an upper and lower deck. It was built in 1933, damaged in a 1934 fire. Under new ownership by Salavtore “Toto” LoBello, it was re-christened “Toto’s Zeppelin”, one of the most popular dine and dance restaurants in an age when aviators were heroes and “roadside” architecture a sign of the times.

According to an article by Springfield historian Larry Gormally in the now defunct Springfield Journal from 1998, Toto’s Zeppelin was popular for college dances, high school proms, weddings and a great place to stop and have a meal if you were on your way north or south in western New England. Before Interstate 91, Route 5 was the main artery from Connecticut to Vermont, occasionally hopping the Connecticut River which it followed like tag-along sibling. Likely John’s father found the restaurant as an unexpected discovery on his way either back to Vermont or leaving for the Cape and the sites of his other great photos (see John’s blog - Robert Frost’s Banjo).

Toto’s Zeppelin, however, was destroyed in the November 19, 1938 fire, possibly not long after the picture was taken, but rose from the ashes as a refurbished, rather Art Deco-looking modern restaurant without the zeppelin shell. The business was situated on six acres, and so there was an expansion of the building in 1947, including a picnic grove, a softball field, shuffleboard and handball courts.

According to Mr. Gormally’s article, Toto’s Restaurant was famous for its steaks, seafood, a menu of 40 different sandwiches, and rousing group sing-a-longs with the orchestra. John F. Kennedy, before his days as a Senator, was a guest here, as well as singers Vaughn Monroe and Patti Page.

Perhaps the only reference to the days of the restaurant’s former zeppelin motif was in the three triple-decker grinders (for those not from western Mass., a “grinder” is a submarine/torpedo/hoagy/po’boy/fill-in-the-blank sandwich), named for the three zeppelins owned by the United States Navy. You could order an Akron, a Macon, or a Shenandoah.

The ad for Toto's above was taken from a 1947 theatre program from Holyoke's The Valley Players (for more on The Valley Players, see this Wednesday my blog Tragedy and Comedy in New England). Thanks so much to John at Robert Frost’s Banjo for reviving the memory of Toto’s Zeppelin in the photo taken by his father.


John Hayes said...

This is just great-- thanks for all the wonderful info & also for the kind mentions of RFBanjo. Love that old menu!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

If nothing else, this proves your father didn't Photoshop the Graf Zeppelin onto a McDonald's.

Poetikat said...

What an excellent bit of research you've done here! John's blog is always fascinating and it's so nice that you've filled in some missing pieces for him in his retrospective on his father. I'm sure he's very pleased and grateful.

I was wondering if the band Led Zep ever had a chance to check this place out (until I read about the '38 fire.) Shame.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Kat. Led Zeppelin might have loved the place (although the music played here was not up their alley, I imagine).

Redtelephone66 said...

All that's left of Toto's is the wishing well that was located at it's entrance and a concrete staircase at it's north end.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for this additional info on Toto's. I believe the wishing well was used to raise money for local charities.

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