A column I wrote earlier this month about one of our Region's entertainment mainstay, the Hammond Civic Center at 5825 Sohl Ave., brought back a landslide of reader memories about the 4,500-seat arena opened in 1938.
I ran an archive image of a colorful vintage poster promoting a concert featuring Chuck Berry playing the Northwest Indiana stage in the 1960s and it attracted the attention of die-hard Hammond Times readers who took the time to write and call me with stories.
I was particularly fascinated by a telephone call from Hammond reader Brian Cusick who spotted the familiar design of the Chuck Berry poster, recalling it was created by his brother-in-law Jay Twomey.
By the end of the week, I received a call from Twomey, 67, a Hammond High School graduate, who went to Indiana University and now lives in Waynesville, N.C.
"After your column published, I received so many calls from people in Northwest Indiana who read the piece and recognized that Chuck Berry poster, that I just had to call you and share a story with you," Twomey said.
"That Chuck Berry concert was on Jan. 1, 1965, and I was a 17-year-old high school kid working as a concert promoter. I had those posters printed up at a little printer not too far from the Maid Rite Burger Shop, where we'd eat and listen to music on the jukebox for a nickle a tune. And in 1964, the biggest group of the day was The Beach Boys. I called William Morris Talent Agency in Hollywood, which booked them, and they agreed to do our date in Hammond. The contracts had been sent and a price was agreed upon. But then, they received a better offer to play a string of dates in Japan. At the time, they were getting $4,500 for their one-night concerts. Only The Four Seasons were as popular at the time, and they were getting $4,000."
Twomey explained the William Morris agents offered a few of the other headlining names of the day that they represented as substitutes.
"I could pick from singing duos like Chad and Jeremy or Peter and Gordon or I could have Chuck Berry, with Bobby Freeman as a double-bill. Well, we settled on Chuck Berry and sold 3,000 tickets. But the weather was horrible that day, with snow and sleet. I scheduled a 4 p.m. rehearsal, which is something that doesn't happen in today's world, where you're lucky if you can even get a performer to do a sound-check prior to a concert. Chuck missed the rehearsal and I started to get worried. He finally pulled up in a rented car, wearing sunglasses at about 5:30 p.m. I told him that because of the weather, we didn't sell-out like we needed, to make a profit and that the concert was going to leave me about $1,000 in the hole. So I asked if he'd negotiate and I could get him the rest of his money in about six months. He told me to mail the William Morris reps a check for $1,500 and to give him a $1,000 in cash in a paper-bag and he'd be happy, despite the fact I still owed him another $1,000."
Twomey still thinks highly of Berry, who is now 86 and lives in St. Louis. He said he did three encores for the appreciative Hammond audience. Decades later, Twomey said he was in Las Vegas and noticed Berry was headlining at The Rio Hotel and Casino.
"I asked the management if I could stop backstage to see Chuck, explaining I owed him some money," Twomey said.
"I was told they were nervous about what state Berry was already in, prior to performing, because of the amount of liquor that had been sent up to his hotel suite all day. I went to see him and explained I had a $1,000 check to give him for the money I still owed him from his Hammond concert. But Berry said he refused to touch the check because he was in trouble with the IRS for back taxes, and so instead, he had me hand the money to his pretty, young blonde assistant."