While working on our latest Special Collections exhibit, I discovered some interesting stories and facts relating to Reno bands and dance halls in the first half of the twentieth century. But, as usual, some of the research led to more questions, still unanswered. The exhibit is the third and last of a series commemorating 150 years of local history since Nevada became a state on October 31, 1864.This exhibit is entitled “When the Lights Dim: Arts and Entertainment in Nevada.” In the exhibit room on the third floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center hang three framed photographic prints, including these two:
The originals, all in very good condition, were donated by the late Dr. James R. Herz, one of our favorite collector/donors. They captured a bit of Reno’s musical history, when two well-loved and self-taught accordion players who grew up in Reno-area Italian ranching families assembled bands that played for all kinds of events in and around Reno and nearby states, in all kinds of venues. Both accordionists found success that led to eventual ownership of their own dance halls and clubs.
In the top photo is Tony’s Jazz Band, on the road in Lakeview, Oregon in 1920. The band was led by Tony Pecetti (1896-1969), who played for dances, with and without his band, in small towns in the area, in school houses and barns, often arriving by motorcycle with his accordion on his back. Tony’s was also the “house band” for the Majestic Theater in Reno, accompanying silent films, until “the talkies” put 140,000 musicians out of work in 1928.
Tony’s band continued to work, however, in Pecetti’s own “dancing pavilions.” He built the famous Tony’s Spanish Ballroom on Arlington (then Chestnut) at Commercial Row, operating it successfully from 1930-1950.The name was later changed to the El Patio, but many Reno natives will remember it simply as “Tony’s.” For years his was the largest dance hall in Nevada and one of the largest in the west. In addition to the regular Saturday night dances and local special events, with music by Tony’s band, the dance hall offered music by many traveling entertainers, among them the bands of Paul Whiteman, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, Bob Wills, and others. Most musicians in the 1930s belonged to the American Federation of Musicians union and thus were not allowed to spend more than 300 miles on the road in one day. Reno, as an overnight stop between Salt Lake City and San Francisco, benefited from musicians who would play for relatively low fees, in order to be able to play at all. The El Adobe closed in 1950 when the growth of the city had made parking a problem.
The second photo portrays Louis’ Jazz Band, also led by an ambitious and talented Reno accordionist. Louis Anthony Rosasco (1904-1968), commonly known as Louie, also got his start as a very young man, playing and singing around town and later traveling to California, where he was a featured accordion player on the West Coast Theater Circuit in 1927 while he was also an orchestra leader at the Senator Hotel in Sacramento (at the age of 23). Back in Reno, he opened his own ballroom in 1932, the Cocoanut Grove on North Virginia, where he “packed them in.” In 1941 he managed the Club Fortune (which became the Cal-Neva) before opening The Cedars on Moana Lane and Louie and Cam’s Cocktail Lounge on Lake Street. His partner Cam Mattino was earlier a drummer in Tony’s Jazz Band (see the top photo). Louie Rosasco’s last enterprise was his part-ownership of the Palace Club in downtown Reno from 1953-1964.
A Battle of the Bands?
Was Reno big enough for two accordionists/impressarios? Both Rosasco and Pecetti found success in the bustling social milieu of Reno in the 1930s through the 1950s. But it may have been a more competitive environment in 1922, when Tony Pecetti was 26 and Louie Rosasco was 18. For several days an advertisement appeared in the Reno Evening Gazette:
The third photograph contains fewer clues as to the time, place, and the identity of the musicians. The only information in the guide to the Herz collection is speculative: “[Unidentified band; Tony’s Jazz Band?]” It appears to be a later photo than the other two, perhaps from the 1930s. Some of the musicians resemble those in the photo of Tony’s Jazz Band. The venue seems to be a dancing pavilion, but the decor doesn’t match the names of the pavilions we know about: The Fairyland, the Cairo, the Spanish Ballroom, the Cocoanut Grove, the Silver Slipper … perhaps the “F” on the pillars can provide a clue.
A Musical Legacy
Tony Pecetti remained single his entire life, whereas Louie Rosasco had a family. He married Mary Louise Siri and they had two daughters, Pamela (Dunn) and Janice (Savage-Braman). Louie’s daughter Jan (1933-2011) played the piano at the age of five, and performed with her father’s band and her own band while in college at the University of Nevada. A well-known Reno musician, she performed in clubs and casinos and for private events as a member of a duo and as the leader of her own group, the “Jan Savage Trio and Quartet.” She had her own television program and was active in music and entertainment in Reno throughout her life. Her two sons are both musicians: Tony Savage, a drummer and bandleader and co-founder of the Reno Jazz Orchestra. and Ron Savage, a professional keyboardist and vocalist. Tony remembers playing with his grandfather Louie’s band as a child.