BY HUGH TURLEY — The Hyattsville Armory, a castle-style building across Route 1 from the new Busboys & Poets, was once the hippest and swingingest place in town – if not the country.
Some of the greatest legends of rock ’n’ roll performed there. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, teenagers from Hyattsville, Bladensburg and Washington, D.C. danced to the music of Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Shirelles, The Platters and the Temptations.
Hosting the dances was Milt Grant, whose renowned teen dance program ran on Washington television from 1956 to 1961. Produced live in front of a studio audience, the show was similar to Dick Clark’s nationally syndicated “American Bandstand.”
In fact, according to Grant’s obituary in the Washington Post (May 3, 2007), his show “was a runaway success and soundly beat the Philadelphia-based ‘American Bandstand,’ when the two shows went head-to-head.”
Legendary guitarist Link Wray and his band the Ray Men were the house band for the “Milt Grant Show.” Wray is number 67 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of all-time greatest guitarists. Wray and his band often came to Hyattsville with Grant.
JoAnne Sales, a Hyattsville teenager at the time, remembers meeting and dancing with Bobby Darin at the Armory. It was 1958 and Link Wray’s band was there. They had just recorded their instrumental hit “Rumble,” with a beat suitable to dance The Stroll, a dance made popular by the Canadian quartet The Diamonds.
JoAnne remembers Milt Grant came over and said, “JoAnne would you do me a favor? The Stroll is a good dance to get everybody up and dancing. Would you dance with this young man? He’s older than you, but I know him.”
JoAnne believed Grant was trying to put her at ease because she was only 15, younger than her prospective dance partner – whose name, she soon learned, was Bobby Darin.
After the pair had led The Stroll and danced a few jitterbugs, JoAnne recalls, Grant introduced Darin to the crowd.
“We have a special guest with us tonight,” said Grant. “He has just written a song. I think it is great, and I want everybody to hear it.”
Then Darin sang “Splish Splash,” and three weeks later it was a smash hit launching him to stardom.
Darin would go on to become a famous recording artist, host his own TV show and become a movie star. In 1968, Darin was a supporter of Robert F. Kennedy and he was at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was assassinated. A few years later Darin died at the age of 37, from a chronic heart condition he suffered from childhood.
“Darin was a terrific dancer,” JoAnne said. “He could dance like James Brown.” The night Bobby Darin sang in Hyattsville, it was a later show than normal. JoAnne’s walk to her home on Nicholson Street was about a mile and her curfew was 11 p.m., so Grant offered to drive her home in his 1958 Chevy Impala.
She rode in the back seat, admiring the red-and-white leather interior, while Grant and Darin were in the front. The trip was short, but she’s never forgotten it. Now, Busboys & Poets offers a new opportunity for performers to take the stage. Could great talents be in Hyattsville ’s future again?