Sound View's former dance hall demolished
Old Lyme — The former O’Connor’s Dance Hall, known for more than 20 years as Kiddieland and a landmark to the Sound View neighborhood, was torn down Monday after years of abandonment, spurring an outpouring of nostalgia and positivity from neighbors.
Sitting in lawn chairs and passing around old photographs of the property, Sound View residents who grew up spending summers in the neighborhood during its heyday throughout the 20th century reminisced over their neighborhood’s iconic history, while others watched in astonishment as excavators aggressively ripped and tore into the building.
“There’s a lot of history that was inside this building,” said Joel Silvestro, a former owner of the building while it was Kiddieland from 1959 to 1981. “All the families used to come from all the beaches to bring their kids on the rides here, and the street was just booming. You couldn’t even walk on the street because there would be so many people.”
“It was a real family place,” he continued. “We bought it from Arthur O’Connor in 1959 when it was an empty building and we knew we wanted to make into a playland for children. So we ran it as a family, and it was a family operation, which you don’t see too much anymore.”
Describing the merry-go-round, boat and whip rides that used to sit inside, Silvestro also said there was a '50s-style snack bar which he used to run, as well as pinball machines, and a juke box area for teenagers to dance.
“It was all painted white and red,” he said, showing photographs of the interior. “And when we would close at night, we would have family parties in there. My favorite part was all the people. I don’t miss all the hard work, but I miss the people.”
Silvestro said he and his brothers decided to sell the property after their father died and after it had become too much to keep the business going.
Silvestro’s nephew Pat Silvestro, who also used to help run the business with his uncle, also made his way to watch Monday’s demolition. Chief among his memories of the neighborhood and Kiddieland were both the swaths of families that used to fill the streets, as well as the building being packed in the evenings with kids waiting in line for rides.
“We would start coming down in late April, getting stuff ready. But things would really kick off at the end of June, when the schools got out," Pat Silvestro said. "I remember being here and honest to God, you couldn’t walk the streets. It was just families, families.”
The building, Pat Silvestro said, would be open seven days a week from breakfast to about 10 p.m.
Among those also watching Monday was Shirley Annunziata, 82, a year-round resident who also spent her summers at Sound View while growing up. For her, the building was the place where busloads of Navy sailors would go to dance throughout World War II.
“(My parents) used to come over and dance every Saturday night (at O’Connor’s Dance Hall),” Annunziata said. “My mother used to tell us that my father perspired so much because they never stopped. She’d said he’d go home and change his shirt at one point and come back with another shirt on. It was a really fun place and really a family place.”
Owned by Frank Noe since he purchased the building for $110,000 while it was under foreclosure in 2013, Noe reconfirmed Monday that he plans to build town homes on the site, but he will wait at least another three years until sewers are put into the neighborhood.
“That’s the highest and best use for the building right now,” Noe said. He previously told The Day that because of the building’s dilapidated condition, and because of the town’s zoning laws, it would be difficult to renovate and use the building for commercial use.
“After hoping and praying that this would one day happen. It’s finally here,” Noe said. “It’s more sad for a lot of other people than it is for me.”
For Heidi Dinino-Fields, who also owns several commercial properties along Hartford Avenue, the demolition was a positive step for the neighborhood, as well as a sign of the times, predictive of where the neighborhood may be headed.
“I think this whole neighborhood will become a beautiful residential area at some point. I don’t think any businesses will stay down here. That’s the direction we are moving in,” she said. “It’s an eyesore. You can’t do nothing with it, so why let it sit?”
The 10,000-square-foot building, while still standing, was considered by the state’s Historic Preservation Office part of the Sound View Historic District, which is “eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because of its significance as an early twentieth century seasonal beach resort,” according to SHPO.
According to an application the Preservation Office filed to register Sound View as a historic district with the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, O'Connor's Dance Hall had become a popular venue in Sound View by the 1920s, hosting dances every summer weekend, while also featuring "an outside concert every Thursday night and one amateur night every summer."
In a book published by the Old Lyme Historical Society titled, “Rum Runners, Governors, Beachcombers & Socialists,” Sound View was “the hottest of all hotspots by the sea.”
“The Sound View dance Hall, renamed the Victory Dance Hall during World War I, and finally O’Connor’s Dance Hall by 1920, was the center of the action,” the authors wrote. “It hosted lived orchestras, one-step, two-step and fox trot contests, vaudeville and minstrel shows, as well as amateur shows, all of which drew huge crowds.”
The building was also the center of the neighborhood’s big band era, attracting “homegrown talent” such as Tiny Quinn and Al Gentile, “big band leaders who never failed to pack the house,” and sold “near beer” throughout the Prohibition era. After prohibition repeal in 1933, the site became the largest beer dispensary in Connecticut.
“There’s so much history here,” Annunziata said. “It’s really kind of sad, because so much history has passed in those walls and people will never realize what it was like in those days, because it was a fun place.”
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