April 14, 2013

Dancing at the Old Cavalier. Virginian-Pilot file photo.
Do you remember?

As you walk around the grounds of the old Cavalier Hotel and maybe peer inside, as you observe the still manicured gardens, can you feel, along with the breeze wafting in from the Atlantic, the drumbeat of history, the slipstream of memory?

Such recollections may seem all the more poignant as potential buyers for the old and new hotels, as well as the sprawling acres surrounding them, submit bids later this month and divulge whether or not they intend to demolish one of the region’s best-known landmarks.
While all of that’s going on, what with historic tax credits and boardwalk extensions, we might just as well indulge in a bit of nostalgia.

It was April, 1927. Babe Ruth was about to hit the first of his 60 home runs and Charles Lindbergh was waiting for delivery of his new plane, which he intended to fly non-stop to Paris. And the Cavalier, hailed as one of the most luxurious hotels in America, had a spectacular opening.
Al Jolson, who would soon star in the Jazz Singer, the first movie with a soundtrack, sent congratulations while Ben Bernie’s orchestra almost certainly played “Ain’t She Sweet,” its number one pop single that year. The “Cavalier,” a fast Norfolk & Western train, geared up to deliver hotel guests from as far away as Chicago, and a fleet of limousines began arriving with guests who had journeyed to Norfolk by steamship.

Hotel guests had just about every amenity at their disposal, including bathtubs with a special spigot for sea water – supposedly a miraculous balm for the skin – and each sink dispensed cold water from an ice-filled tank on the roof. Gentlemen could bring their hunting dogs and provide the hotel’s cooks with fish and game to be specially prepared.
Within two years – but before the market crash – the Cavalier Beach Club would open on the oceanfront and all of the country’s greatest bands, including  Les Brown, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller would put Virginia Beach on their tours. So would presidents and the rich and famous, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Will Rogers among them.

The Beach Club was not only famous nationally, but locals couldn’t get enough of it. Generations of Hampton Roads residents danced the night away on the deck outside the club and others listened, danced, held hands and surely necked on the beach.

 A lot of people met and romanced there.

I worked in the gift shop which was located in the passageway during my college vacations,” Eloise Morton recently wrote to me. “I sold cigarettes, sun lotion, candy, all kinds of things anyone might want while at the beach.  There were (afternoon) tea dances with music by some of the big bands of the era, and men and women in appropriate dress.  It was an elegant venue that a lot of the wealthier people of Virginia Beach enjoyed on a regular basis.”
Her husband, Bob Morton, writes. “I was awfully shy in high school and then I went into the Army in 1944 without ever being on a date. But when I first saw Eloise I fell hard and she has been my only girl friend since.  I must mention that when she manned the gift shop at the Cavalier she often wore a sundress which had no back.  Her back was exposed to the waist and there were no suntan lines which bespoke of how she sunbathed.  It was before the advent of miniskirts and bikinis and I was fascinated by the beautiful skin.  I’ve never gotten over the fascination even though here it is 67 years later.”

Now that the Cavalier is threatened, a popular Facebook page, Save the Old Cavalier Hotel, has sprung up, receiving thousands of “likes” and dozens of reminiscences. Chris Bonney, who grew up watching his parents dance at the hotel, put it together.
According to some of the contributors, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were known to have screaming fights that could be heard up and down their hallway, and she reportedly slung room service dinnerware at him. Another gem: Bandleader Xavier Cugat, “the Rumba King,” and his wife, actress Abbe Lane, were constantly chasing their pet Chihuahuas down the hall in their underwear.

 Several have submitted postcards and brochures, including one that boasted, “You can enjoy the next best thing to a Park Avenue apartment (plus Southern cooking and service) right at the seashore. . . .You dance like a dream and wish the night would never end.”

 Next week….much more about the old Cavalier.