Documentary marks 50 years of Johnny Knorr OrchestraWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Johnny Knorr Orchestra will bring its milestone 50th anniversary year to a close with a sneak-peek preview of a new documentary, “Satin Dolls: The Johnny Knorr Story,” at its 26th annual New Year’s Eve gala.
The gala is set for 6:30 p.m. Dec. 31 at the Stranahan Great Hall, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. A dinner buffet by Michael’s Gourmet Catering will begin at 7 p.m. followed by live big-band music, dancing, door prizes, cash bar and a midnight champagne toast to ring in the New Year. Breakfast pastries will follow at 12:15 a.m.
Musical selections will include Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, The Ink Spots — and of course “Auld Lang Syne,” said Music Director Jerry Knorr, son of the group’s founder. Joel Zmuda will join longtime vocalist Gay Hobbs as a second singer.
Ragtime Rick and Dennis Williams from 1230 AM WCWA radio will serve as masters of ceremonies and Milo and Deborah Felger, professional dancers from Fort Wayne, Ind., will perform an Argentine tango as an exhibition, Knorr said.
Tickets are $55 and must be reserved by Dec. 28.
“This is a festive gala,” Knorr said. “It’s a big party and how people used to celebrate New Year’s for a long time. There will be a wide variety of music and a lot of people will be dancing. Many there will just enjoy listening.”
Knorr said he has watched “Satin Dolls,” made by American Retrospects of Toledo, and “it’s a wonderful work.”
The documentary will make its television debut next spring on PBS, stations and times to be announced, but advanced copies will be available for sale at the gala.
The film takes a nostalgic look at the big-band era and the female vocalists, called “satin dolls,” who were often as popular as the bands themselves, said Michael Drew Shaw, co-founder of American Retrospects. Shaw said the documentary idea came to him during lunch with Johnny Knorr.
At one time, just about every town in America had a ballroom, which were the center of American social life from the 1930s to the early 1950s, Shaw said. Both he and Jerry Knorr grew up with their parents’ stories of “magical” nights at the Trianon in Toledo, which appears in the film.
“It was the place to be,” Knorr said. “They’d pay a nickel to dance and they would literally bring a rope across the floor at the end of the dance and if you wanted to participate in the next dance, you’d have to pay another nickel. That’s a totally foreign concept today.”
However, both men said big-band music and ballroom dancing are experiencing a resurgence thanks to shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and singers like Michael Buble, Norah Jones and Harry Connick Jr. rerecording hit songs of the past.
While the gala has attracted an older crowd for years, Shaw said lately he has noticed more couples in their 30s and 40s.
“I would say probably 15 to 20 percent of the total crowd was this younger audience and that was a first,” Shaw said. “They always had a few younger people, but this past year it really seemed to grow quite a bit. So obviously we‘re hoping that trend continues.
“It’s really quite a sight to see. People in their late 70s, early 80s, dancing alongside 30-year-olds and having such a great time,” Shaw said. “It sort of bridges an age gap. There’s a common love there for the music and dancing and that’s just a lot of fun to watch.”
Knorr said it’s hard to believe the Johnny Knorr Orchestra, based out of Sylvania’s Centennial Terrace, has been around 50 years.
“You never have that in mind; you just had the next event you were looking forward to and just kept on going,” Knorr said. “All of a sudden, you realize, ‘Jeez, 50 years’ and start looking around … at how many have been operating for 50 years and there’s not that many really.”
Although many members have been with the band more than 20 years, Knorr is the last original member. Now 69, he was just finishing high school when his father formed the group in 1960. Johnny, who’s 89 and plans to attend the gala if he’s feeling well enough, played with the orchestra until last year, when health issues forced him to retire.
Knorr said it was a “privilege and honor” to play for the likes of Bob Hope — “at Stranahan Theatre, a 45-piece orchestra for a private party, just a memorable evening” — Bobby Vinton, the Four Aces and Bob Crosby. But, he said, smaller funny moments are among his favorite memories — like the time, long before wireless microphones, when singer Helen O’Connell started walking into the crowd.
“She was getting to the end of the cord and I saw what was happening,” Knorr said, laughing. “The cord happened to go right by me where the sound system was, so I put my foot on the cord so she wouldn’t pull it out. Well, all she could see was my foot on the cord. So she kept saying ‘You, young guy there, get your foot off the cord.’”
But mostly Knorr is just happy to make other people happy.
“We’ve had a lot of fun through all the years,” Knorr said. “But I guess maybe the thing we enjoyed most is when you see that special smile on somebody’s face, that you’ve brought back a fond memory of something to them. That means something.”
For gala tickets or more information, visit www.johnnyknorr.com or contact Jerry at (419) 697-7612. Toledo Free Press is a media sponsor partner for this event.