Sometimes you just have to say “Wow!”
Wow was definitely the word for the night of June 10 in Columbia. It was the reopening of the 80–year–old Township Auditorium after its 12– million dollar facelift, and the opening act was the legendary 83–year–old Tony Bennett.
A time tested singer/ performer, Bennett’s voice still has the silky crooning tones that made him a 1950’s superstar and many a woman’s dreamboat. His collaboration with current singers such as KD Lang and Christina Aguilera has brought him into today’s world of music as a once more trendy and stylish artist. His style and ease with the audience makes his music timeless.
“You felt like you were in his living room as you listened to him regale the audience with tales of old Hollywood and how he got his start,” one concertgoer said as she left. “The way he talked about Bob Hope and Rosemary Clooney as if we all knew them personally was just so classy.”
The Bennett concert was the grand reopening of one of Columbia’s oldest venues, and the promoters matched the talent with the glitz and glamour of the venue. Walking up the steps into the atrium lobby, the dress code depicted everything from ladies in sparkly cocktail dresses and heels to men in khakis and the ever–present polo shirts. In the true spirit of the south, there were even several seersucker suits making one wonder what that might bring to his mind if the New York City born Bennett was peeking out at the audience as folks found their seats.
The lobby was indeed elegant, but the food was amazing. While some of the booths touted the usual hotdogs and beers, tables were set with salads and shrimp cocktails and everything from a cola to designer water to a full bar was available pre-show.
The elevator line was the only long one as new restrooms and concession stands have been added.
The concert opened with Bennett’s daughter, a pretty perky redhead who inherited her father’s singing ability as well as his stage presence and charm. She spoke about her dad, sang a few jazz tunes, and then introduced the legend to the Columbia audience’s standing ovation.
Bennett graciously thanked the city, the attendees, and the Township for choosing him for the opening act.
“I was three when this place was built,” he quipped. “As a matter of fact, Rosemary Clooney and I were the first American Idols.”
Amid stories of how he came to be the icon we know today, he told the crowd how he met Bob Hope, and Hope asked him his name and invited him to join a show Hope was doing.
“I was opening for Pearl Bailey and she had invited Mr. Hope to the show,” Bennett told the fans. “Mr. Hope introduced himself to me and asked my name. I told him it was Anthony Dominick Benedetto, and he told me it would never fit on the marquee.”
That’s when they decided on “Tony Bennett” he said as the audience laughed.
He sang all of his old songs, and his daughter came back out for a few numbers and a soft shoe dance with her dad and then he treated the crowd with his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Before the night was over, Bennett got several standing ovations and was brought back twice for encores.
“I can’t believe I’ve actually heard Tony Bennett sing ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco,’” Julie Thomas, a patron, said on the steps of the Township after the show. “That was an unforgettable moment. I can die happy.”
“And if you tell me one more time how good looking he still is that could be tonight,” her husband playfully growled.
The concert hall holds 3,100 people, and the new passenger elevator makes the entire building accessible to all. The Columbia Township Auditorium, constructed in 1930, is significant for its association with the social and recreational history of Columbia. For the past 80 years, the Township Auditorium has been the city’s community auditorium, according to the website.
“Scores of young people have debuted in its concert hall, hundreds have tap danced their way across the stage at dance recitals, thousands have ‘walked’ for graduation from high school and college while thousands more have rallied for political and social causes,” the site said. “Over the years, people of all ages and all walks of life have filled its seats for everything from rock and roll shows and the symphony to roller derby and wrestling.”
During the 1960s and segregation, the policy of the Township was the same as most other public entertainment venues in the south. White and black patrons could attend the same events, but sat in separate areas. While white patrons entered through the front entrance and sat on the first floor, black patrons entered through a side entrance and sat in the balcony. If the performers were black, then black patrons could sit on the first floor, and white patrons sat in the balcony. In addition, there were separate ticket booths, coatrooms, and restrooms.
But on June 10, a hot southern summer night, people of all ages, all races and socio–economic backgrounds came together and turned out to hear the son of an Italian immigrant grocer and his seamstress wife from Queens lull them with memories and soothe them with song. And it happened in a building laden with history that much like the entertainer himself, only gets better with age.