Film looks at Quonset Auditorium

Daily News; Bowling Green, Ky., Oct 3, 2010 | by SWITZER, LIZ

Bowling Green’s old Quonset Auditorium – aka “The Most Happening Place in Town” in the mid-1940s to late ’50s – might be gone, but it is far from forgotten.

The Quonset has earned a place in history and is now the subject of a new documentary film, “Rovers, Wrestlers & Stars,” which will debut Oct. 16 on Kentucky Educational Television.

“People outside of Kentucky probably aren’t that familiar with the Quonset Auditorium, but for the generations who experienced it, it will always be a memory of their youth,” said Craig Cornwell, KET director of programming. “Through this documentary, those experiences and memories will be preserved forever.”

What some residents might not know either is that major R&B and country artists played there, such as B.B. King, Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Ernest Tubbs and Bill Monroe, said Amber Ridington, the film’s producer and director.

Located at Old Louisville Road and the U.S. 31-W By-Pass, a main north-south corridor once known as Dixie Highway, the Quonset was a halfway stop for touring entertainers traveling between Nashville and Louisville.

“It’s a big list, and that was what really started getting my attention because it served all of the music genres,” said Ridington, a Vancouver, British Columbia, native who is completing her Ph.D. in folklore at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “Everyone I talked to had stories about it. It was the first club in Bowling Green that was open to both African-Americans and European-Americans.”

The documentary evolved out of Ridington’s research while she was pursing her master’s degree in folklore at Western Kentucky University. Ridington’s curiosity was piqued to the point that the Quonset became the topic for her 2002 thesis.

“Ike and Tina Turner used to perform ‘Rollin’ Down the River’ there,” she said. “I went looking for the building and didn’t even know what a Quonset was at that point. Since then, I’ve learned what a Quonset hut was.”

Built in the fall of 1946 by a local band – Joe Marshall and his Rovin’ Ramblers – the half-moon shaped metal Quonset Auditorium takes its name from the naval base at Quonset Point, R.I., where 160,000 of the huts were manufactured for temporary military use during World War II then sold as surplus after the war.

It started as a country music venue and was originally segregated until a local black music promoter, Upton Roundtree, began booking bands there. After that, the Quonset became known as the “Most Happening Place in Town,” hosting many other different types of events such as roller skating, community meetings and professional wrestling.

By the mid-1950s, it was accepted for black and white musicians to share the Quonset stage and Marshall’s band joined forces with the black House Rockers to form the first racially integrated band in the region.

From 1946 until 1959, the Quonset was perhaps the most popular entertainment venue in Warren County. The building later housed Bale Tire and Auto Center until 1972, then was purchased by Bowling Green Municipal Utilities for use as a water-treatment plant expansion and demolished in October 2003.

“As our past is disappearing faster than ever, it’s important that we document these places, people and events for future generations so that we know more about our roots and have that link to our past,” Cornwell said.

The documentary focuses on the Quonset’s legacy as an entertainment hub in the American music scene and its significance to social culture and the civil rights movement. Featured in the film are interviews with Mary Ann Fisher, lead female vocalist for Ray Charles, jazz great David “Fathead” Newman and local music legends Joe Marshall, Robert Phillips and John Edmonds.

The 35-minute documentary airs at 9:20 p.m. Oct. 16 on KET; 1 p.m. Oct. 17 on KETKY; 8:50 p.m. Oct. 18 on KETKY; 7:30 a.m. Oct. 19 on KETKY; and 9:23 p.m. Oct. 22 on KET2.

Funding for the project was provided by The Kentucky Educational Television Fund for Independent Production; The Kentucky Humanities Council Inc. and the National Endowment for the Humanities; The Kern Family Trust; The Kentucky Oral History Commission; and Bowling Green Municipal Utilities.

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