Bell instrumental in fair "dance-offs"|
Saturday, July 28, 2012
By Dianne Byers Staff Writer
INDIANA - During the 1950s and early 1960s, square dancing was tops on the list of forms of entertainment in Clearfield County. Because the sequenced steps set to music were so popular among teenagers and young adults, Clearfield County Fair sponsored a square dancing competition for teams from local granges.
One of those instrumental in organizing the dance-offs was Hobart "Hoby" Bell. Bell and his band, The Hoby Bell Band, encouraged the local square dancing craze by performing for dances held throughout Clearfield County and miles around.
Bell said the contests were an annual event on Thursdays during fair week and the "grandstand would fill up" with family and friends who came to cheer on teams of dancers who would compete on the fair stage. "At the end all the dancers would come together and there would be a grand march," he said.
Many Clearfield County granges had a square dancing team and the teams who won at the Clearfield County Fair would go on to compete at the state matches held during the Pennsylvania State Farm Show.
Bell said he enjoys the Clearfield County Fair. "I always go to the Clearfield County Fair. I wouldn't miss it." He noted he has attended many of the shows naming the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show and its predecessor, the Jack Cochran Thrill Show, among his favorites. "When I was a boy, the fair was a big thing. It was our major form of entertainment in the 1940s and 50s."
Bell said he was privileged to meet James E. Strates of the James E. Strates Show, who provided the fair's midway rides for a number of years. He said while visiting Anderson, S.C., he contacted Strates, who was not home at the time he telephoned, but after telling the woman who answered he was from Clearfield County, the two got together for an evening of reminiscing.
Bell, who resides in Indiana, was born in Bells Landing and after graduation from high school said his band, made up of friends and distant relations, got its break at a gathering located close to home. "Our first job was the Cherry Corner Picnic. That was a big event back then and that same night we played at a square dance in Bells Landing."
Bell said his four-member and sometimes five-member ensemble, played country music, which he refers to as "standard dance music." He said when the band began, in addition to stringed instruments, they also had an accordion player. He named Gene Tubbs, Bobby Spicher, Gus Chelgren, Henry "Hal" Walls, Julia Bauman, Henry Stricek, Jack Johnson and Noel Walls as musicians who played with the band through the years. He said there were also others who performed with the group. All were talented musicians and Bell said he never asked anyone to leave the band for any reason, but those who did had to leave because their circumstances changed. "I never had problems with any of them," he said.
Bell said the band enjoyed a large following and was booked sometimes up to five nights a week during the mid-1950s while he was a student at the State Teachers College of Indiana (now the Indiana University of Pennsylvania).
After he graduated from college with a teaching degree in biology with a minor in guidance counseling - degrees he said he never used, Bell said. After graduation, he traveled "full time" with the band and also worked as a salesman for the Cory Corp of Chicago. "I'd come home from work and go out with the band. We sometimes played in places as far away as Emporium."
When he first started playing his bright bass with the band, there was another singer who did the instruction known as calling for the dancers. "One night he didn't show and I did the calling and I've been doing it ever since." Bell said he does a singing call and has 20 different versions he performs. Every dance the band plays for has five square dances with three changes. In between, the band performs music for a round dance, polkas and jitterbugs. "That's the way we do our dances," he said.
Bell said the band liked it best when it could play for a hometown crowd and when it played at the Grampian Grange hall, the dance floor was packed. "We'd get 35 to 40 sets. In those days people would bring their whole family to the dance. It cost 50 cents to get in and for 50 cents those people would have an entire evening's worth of entertainment," he said.
Helen Bloom of Grampian was one of the band's fans. "We went every place they were," she said. Bloom also noted she was a member of the Lawrence Township Grange square dance team who won at the Clearfield County Fair, and said Hoby Bell and his band were the best. "I loved to square dance, as did a number of others. We'd go wherever the dances were that they were playing."
He also recalled playing for the Teenage Center at Curwensville that is now the Curwensville Community Center. "We would play there from 7:30-9 p.m. and then hurry and go somewhere else so that we could get a second job in," he said.
Bell said even though the band was busy, members weren't getting rich. "A lot of nights we played for almost nothing. We'd get maybe $3 for a dance and have to split it five ways, but none of the musicians ever complained. They knew it was part of building the band's reputation.
He said "You enjoy what you're doing. The people enjoy it and they are being entertained and sometimes that's payment enough."
The Hoby Bell Band recently gave its final performance at the 2012 Grampian-Penn-Bloom Festival and Homecoming's Saturday evening square dance that closes out the festivities.
Bell said the band had been performing for the festival since it was founded in 1976, missing only one year. He said the musicians would use the show as a reason for a reunion. "We'd come in early and sit around and talk." When asked by The Progress if they used that time for practicing, Bell said no. "My wife asked me one time about practicing and said how do you remember? I said to her, ‘It's automatic.'"
Bell said on June 30 there were five people on the stage with 400 years of combined musical experience. "That night was our finale. It was a sad evening for us. We've been together years and years."
He said he appreciates the support local square dancing enthusiasts gave the band through the years. "They always made us feel welcome and we always felt respected for what we were doing."