Luzerne County Arts and Entertainment Hall of Fame bios

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The Badlees Though the Badlees have an origin story that spans much of Pennsylvania’s central region, Luzerne County residents have had a special kind of adoration for the iconic roots rock group. After searching the state and nation for creative opportunities that would satisfy them, the members of what would […]

The Badlees

Though the Badlees have an origin story that spans much of Pennsylvania’s central region, Luzerne County residents have had a special kind of adoration for the iconic roots rock group. After searching the state and nation for creative opportunities that would satisfy them, the members of what would become the Badlees found a comfortable musical home performing in the heartland of Pennsylvania.

The story of the Badlees begins with a band called Bad Lee White, featuring multi-instrumentalist Jeff Feltenberger and drummer Ron Simasek. During a recording session, the pair encountered a talented studio engineer named Bret Alexander, who was invited to join the group. Lineup instability left Bad Lee White as a detached three-piece group, but they were given new life when they swiped the immense vocal talents of Pete Palladino, whose stage presence pumped new energy into the band’s performances. Their growing fanbase casually dubbed them the Badlees, a moniker they would embrace and take on as their own.

The Badlees were unusually invested in performing original material, with Alexander serving as their lead songwriter and producer. Their first proper EP, It Ain’t For You, added to the band’s growing visibility, but the Badlees set their sights on recording a full-length album. The first album, released in 1992, would be called Diamonds in the Coal, clearly a regionally significant reference.

Two important collaborations sprouted during this era of the Badlees’ career. Paul Smith became the band’s full-time bassist, solidifying the Badlees’ classic five-piece lineup. In addition, Alexander teamed up with Hazleton disc jockey Mike Naydock, spreading out the songwriting duties and tying the Badlees closer to the Luzerne County art scene. While Alexander and Naydock had collaborated before, their work on Diamonds in the Coal was a major step forward in defining the Badlees’ roots rock sound.

The Badlees grew in popularity when their single “Back Where We Came From (The Na Na Song)” received radio airplay on stations across Pennsylvania. Their follow-up record, The Unfortunate Result of Spare Time, saw the Badlees expand their ambitions, using larger harmonies and unique instrumentation to fill out their sound. After hitting the road again, including for a unique set of shows in China, the Badlees returned to the studio with new perspectives regarding their creative future.

The Badlees were launched into the national spotlight as a result of their third album, River Songs, in which they perfected the roots rock sound they had toyed with on their previous records. Specifically, Palladino’s harmonica became a key piece of the Badlees’ musical puzzle, giving their act a new and exciting element. River Songs included hits like “Angeline Is Coming Home” and “Fear of Falling,” perhaps the band’s two most recognizable tracks.

Now with a successful string of albums to their name, the Badlees took greater control over their output, defying industry standards while releasing two albums in 1999, Up There, Down Here, and Amazing Grace. Despite the absence of traditional promotion, the Badlees retained their faithful audience, especially in Luzerne County. Through their production work, Alexander and Smith became an early industry connection for Breaking Benjamin and other Northeast Pennsylvania artists.

The Badlees’ brand went on an extended hiatus following the releases of the critically acclaimed album Love is Rain in 2008, as well as 2013’s Epiphones and Empty Rooms. The original members’ personal and professional ambitions had gone in different directions, but they were reunited years later and found the itch to play music together again.

From their formation, the Badlees have had a massive impact on the Luzerne County music scene. The early radio airplay they received helped them build a fanbase in Hazleton and the Wyoming Valley. They leveraged their success to prop up other local artists. When they came together again, the Badlees found support from the people of Luzerne County, who rallied behind their music to create a renewed interest in their unique sound.

Bobby Baird

Bobby Baird has touched hearts in Luzerne County and across the country, from the most powerful people in the world to his next-door neighbors. From his early beginnings as a young prodigy at Kingston High School to his time as a celebrated musician in the United States Navy Band, Baird’s journey has been one defined by a commitment to service and remembrance.

Baird’s talent became evident at just five years old when he performed his first horn solo for his grandfather. This pivotal moment ignited a lifelong love of music and set the stage for a remarkable career. At the age of fourteen, Baird was given a special age exemption and became a member of Musicians Local 140. His acceptance by the broader musical community foreshadowed the accolades that would follow.

While attending Kingston High School, Baird was a three-time Pennsylvania state champion musician on the trumpet and cornet, showcasing his versatility with the brass instruments. He earned a music scholarship to Syracuse University, but he eventually left school to audition for the U.S. Navy Band. The audition proved successful, and Baird embarked on a four-year tenure as the soloist for the U.S. Navy Band from 1948 to 1952.

During this time, he was hailed as one of the best trumpet players east of the Mississippi. Baird had the honor of performing for esteemed individuals and audiences, including those who attended Harry S. Truman’s inaugural ball. More solemnly, he was often tabbed to play the soul-stirring “Taps” at Arlington National Cemetery, honoring fallen heroes of past American wars.

He toured extensively across the United States and Canada with the U.S. Navy Band, crossing paths with entertainment icons such as Louis Armstrong and Ed Sullivan, as well as several U.S. presidents. Beyond his achievements as a soloist, Baird also collaborated with and backed up numerous other performers, including Luzerne County’s own Lee Vincent.

Baird’s commitment to service extended beyond his time with the U.S. Navy Band. He has participated annually in “Taps Across America,” a National Moment of Remembrance, and brought a deep sense of solidarity to countless Memorial Day gatherings with his patriotic performances.

Baird has been a valued member of several musical ensembles throughout his life. He lent his talents to the Irem Temple Brass Band and the Stegmaier Gold Medal Band, just to name a few, and led the charitable Dixieland Jazz Band in the 1980s. His ability to entertain and inspire his community was recognized on his 90th birthday when the community of Shavertown honored him with a grand parade.

Baird’s story is marked by incredible longevity. Over eight decades worth of audiences have enjoyed his musical gifts, as he has granted listeners the ability to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice and honor. While his musical career has been marked by somber tones, it is the continued vigor with which Baird works that have made him a beloved presence in the nation he calls home.

Through good humor, an unwavering dedication to service, and the deep roots he has planted in Luzerne County, Bobby Baird has helped reveal the power music has to inspire and unite. Through his extraordinary talent, he has brought pride and recognition to Luzerne County and touched innumerable lives with his performances.

Breaking Benjamin

The earliest incarnation of Breaking Benjamin was a cover band with a pop rock sound. That’s not exactly what you would expect as the origin point for the most prominent hard rock band to ever emerge from Luzerne County. Headed by frontman and namesake Benjamin Burnley, Breaking Benjamin blasted onto the local music scene by earning airplay and gigs across the region.

Early on, Breaking Benjamin’s aggressive sound caught the attention of local listeners, who demanded that their debut single “Polyamorous” receive spins on radio stations like 97.9X in the band’s home base of Wilkes-Barre. Their sound was a part of a broader movement, a modern rock revolution that audiences craved. The band’s formative years were made iconic due to their epic live performances in intimate settings all over Luzerne County. These local shows persisted even as their profile became that of a national act.

Breaking Benjamin’s debut album, Saturate, was released in the summer of 2002, and broke them into the US Billboard album charts for the first (but not last) time. Burnley’s intense vocals and angsty lyrics matched the cultural moment, while guitarist Aaron Fink, bassist Mark Klepaski and drummer Jeremy Hummel found the right mix of technical prowess and punky atmosphere, perfectly complimenting the frontman’s vision. The soundscape they created together fused the grunge sounds that inspired them with the contemporary sensibilities of nu-metal.

The follow-up to Saturate, entitled We Are Not Alone, saw the band experiment with new sounds while preserving their infectious, listenable qualities. Tracks like “Sooner or Later” and “So Cold” pumped the group’s notoriety up to new heights and became staples of their live shows. Meanwhile, the album’s closer, “Rain,” saw Breaking Benjamin strip down their sound and prove that they were capable of producing more than raw intensity.

At the height of their popularity, Breaking Benjamin was recruited to record music for the soundtracks of the video game Halo 2 and the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets.The song that was produced for Halo 2, “Blow Me Away,” proved to have staying power and achieved gold status over a decade after its initial release. At the same time, their live act became bigger and louder as they toured with high-profile contemporaries like Three Days Grace and Evanescence.

Chad Szeliga joined the band on drums for their third record, 2006’s Phobia, an album which brought them even more recognition and praise. Phobia’s lead single, “The Diary of Jane,” became Breaking Benjamin’s signature song in the eyes of many and shot up the Billboard Mainstream Rock song charts to number 2. Supporting singles “Breath” and “Until the End” contributed to make Phobia the band’s most personal, emotionally-charged album to date.

The core of Burnley, Fink, Klepaski and Szeliga produced one more album’s worth of material together, which again proved Breaking Benjamin’s ability to satisfy their diehard listeners while not abandoning a wider audience. This fourth album, Dear Agony, kept the band relevant after many of their peers in the early-2000s modern rock scene had fallen back, thanks largely to the success of songs like the title track and the lead single “I Will Not Bow.”

Breaking Benjamin’s recording career kept up with two album releases in the 2010s, Dark Before Dawn and Ember. Both albums found Burnley working with a unique set of collaborators, including Luzerne County resident Aaron Bruch, who became a permanent member of the band. These new collaborators helped push Breaking Benjamin’s sound forward in the studio and on the road. Dark Before Dawn reached the top spot on Billboard’s album charts, cementing Breaking Benjamin’s hold on the modern rock scene.

Over the years, Breaking Benjamin have made frequent stops in Luzerne County, bringing their music back to the audiences who drove their initial success. The band is well-known for their consistent, loyal fanbase in Northeast Pennsylvania, which keeps up with their consistent flow of material and live appearances. Ultimately, it’s the universality of their lyrics and crunchy musicality that has kept Breaking Benjamin on the radar for decades.

The Buoys

Through infectious harmonies and a timely partnership with an up-and-coming songwriter, the Buoys broke from the local music scene to become national pop artists, one of the first of their kind from the Wyoming Valley. The core behind the band included Fran Brozena, John Buckley, Bob Gryziec, Carl Hanlon, Jerry Hludzik, Bill Kelly and Carl Siracuse, and together they crafted one of the most unique and controversial careers in rock music.

Rising in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Buoys were signed to Scepter Records in New York after they were discovered by Rupert Holmes. Holmes was a young songwriter who would go on to have quite a successful career of his own, but he was unable to secure a sweet deal for the Buoys at Scepter. The band was signed to a one-single contract, and the story of the Buoys is very much tied to the single that would come.

The Buoys agreed to a plan hatched by Holmes, in which they would record a song so offensive that morbid curiosity from the public would make up for the lack of corporate backing from Scepter. The resulting song, “Timothy,” tells the story of a mine disaster with three survivors. The titular character becomes the victim of the other two survivors’ hunger, quite possibly making “Timothy” the most famous song about cannibalism ever recorded.

Naturally, the intended controversy surrounding “Timothy” and its subject matter launched the Buoys into notoriety near and far. The song reached number 17 on the US Billboard charts in 1971, despite largely being banned by the powerful radio industry. In Luzerne County, some drew comparisons between “Timothy” and the close-to-home Sheppton mining disaster, though Holmes was unaware of the connection until after the song had already become a success.

With a hit on their hands, Scepter suddenly began paying attention to the Buoys and attempted to play damage control by saying that Timothy was, in fact, a mule. This soft interpretation has since been widely dismissed as a poorly manufactured urban legend. The Buoys were given an expanded deal with Scepter, allowing them to record a debut album that could support the growing popularity of “Timothy.”

Underneath the massive shroud of their hit single, the Buoys were a highly-skilled band that were more than worthy of the attention they received. Look to their self-titled album, where songs like “Give Up Your Guns” and “Sunny Days” reflect a very specific moment in the history of rock. The Buoys were emblematic of the early-70s music scene, which took the jangly sounds of the 1960s and fused them with the progressive rock boom that was about to emerge.

In the years that followed their initial success, The Buoys’ recording career fizzled, but their live act reached new heights. The Buoys toured throughout the first half of the 1970s, playing legendary rock venues like Whiskey a Go Go in Hollywood and Delaware’s Stone Balloon.

Eventually, after the dissolution of the Buoys, a new band fronted by Hludzik and Kelly was established. Dakota, as they were known, secured a coveted spot opening for Queen in the early 1980s and went on to have a successful recording career of their own. Still, fans of the Buoys clamored for a reunion of the original group. The individual band members either moved on from the Wyoming Valley or into other industries, rendering such a reunion unlikely.

The fans were given their desired reunion in 2022 when Brozena, Buckley, Gryziec, Hanlon and Kelly played together again for the first time in decades. This reunion show, held at the ballroom in Genetti’s, was attended by hundreds of fans, affirming the Buoys’ continued cultural footprint in Luzerne County. Decades after the release of “Timothy,” the Buoys’ meteoric rise to rock and roll stardom remains a turning point in the Luzerne County music scene.

George Catlin

Luzerne County has been producing great artists for nearly its entire existence. In 1796, just ten years after Luzerne County was established, George Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre. In his youth, he met frontier travelers who would pass over the Susquehanna River on their way to the American West. Catlin took inspiration from these pioneers, but it would be the people who already lived in the west that would help him establish his world-renowned artistic style.

Catlin was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. He was admitted to the Bar in his early 20s and professionally practiced law for a few years, but Catlin’s true passion was in art. Specifically, Catlin was a gifted portraitist with a deep curiosity about the natural world. He studied art in Philadelphia, where his skills were given room to bloom.

During his years in Philadelphia, Catlin deepened his appreciation for the American West by learning more about Native American cultures. Though he was interested in these cultures as a boy and young adult, Catlin’s intrigue was inflamed when he had a semi-random meeting with tribal representatives. From there, Catlin’s path was set as an explorer who would document the lives of Native Americans through his art.

Catlin made his first major venture to the west in 1830, the same year he met Gen. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) in St. Louis. Clark taught Catlin how to navigate the lands along the Missouri River, just as an awful chapter in American history was about to be written. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 added a sense of urgency to Catlin’s work. In order to preserve history with his brush, he needed to work quickly and diplomatically with the native tribes.

Throughout the 1830s, Catlin would take extensive trips along the Missouri River, communicating with Native American chiefs and painting portraits of tribe members. Catlin’s portraits helped to humanize Native Americans to a white and unnecessarily wary audience, but his work did not take the eastern United States by storm in quite the way he had hoped. Still, Catlin continued working and finished the 1830s with hundreds of brilliant portraits to his name.

In addition to his accomplished life as an artist, Catlin proved to be a true Renaissance man. His controversial adventures to areas such as the pipestone quarries, now a national monument, are the stuff of legend. He collected countless artifacts during his travels and attempted to have his work officially recognized by the United States Congress in 1838. This attempt failed, so Catlin looked beyond his country’s borders to make a cultural mark.

Europe ended up being the continent in which Catlin’s North American treasures and art would be most valued. His portrait displays, as well as his enthusiastic showmanship, attracted crowds in major urban centers such as London and Brussels. The high point of Catlin’s career was almost certainly when his live “Wild West” performances were brought to audiences at the Louvre in Paris. Though his 19th century performances were likely offensive by modern standards, Catlin successfully brought his genuine appreciation of Native American culture to a wider audience.

Catlin eventually faded away from the mainstream and reluctantly sold his collection, but he reinvented his style and kept growing his catalog of paintings and writings. After a few adventures in Europe and South America, the ever-ambitious Catlin landed a final but critical artistic residency at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. This residency came at the request of Joseph Henry, the museum’s first secretary, who would become a powerful ally to Catlin’s legacy.

Catlin passed away in 1872, but his notoriety was only just beginning. His original collection of Native American portraits and artifacts was purchased by the Smithsonian after his death, finally realizing the preservation that Catlin so desired for his work. Today, Catlin’s pieces are on display in museums from sea to shining sea. All Luzerne County artists who have followed George Catlin walk through the path he opened.

Hammond Edward “Ham” Fisher

The cartoon boxer Joe Palooka is (debatably) trailing only Mr. Peanut as the most famous fictional character from Luzerne County. But while Joe Palooka was made of pencil lines and color, the man behind the character was very real. His name was Hammond Edward “Ham” Fisher. Like Joe Palooka, he was from Luzerne County, and he changed the cartoon industry forever.

Born in Wilkes-Barre in 1900, Ham Fisher dropped out of school at 16 and worked at the Wilkes-Barre Record and later the New York Daily News. In the early 1920s, Fisher made his first attempt at bringing the cartoon Joe Palooka to life. Inspired by a chance encounter with boxer Pete Latzo, Fisher crafted a character who would soon capture the hearts and imaginations of readers across the nation.

Still, it wasn’t until 1927 that Fisher’s career took a significant turn. He was working as a strip salesman for the McNaught Syndicate and, after facing challenges in securing independent sales for Joe Palooka comic strips, Fisher convinced McNaught to give the character a trial run.

Joe Palooka quickly became one of the most popular comic characters of the first half of the 20th century, winning the adoration of readers everywhere. The character was such a hit that the term “palooka,” now synonymous with a clumsy but lovable character, took on greater relevance in the American lexicon.

The success of Joe Palooka went beyond the confines of the comic strip. The character crossed over into other mediums, including comic books, animated and live-action films, and even a radio series. Fisher’s creation captivated audiences of all ages and backgrounds, cementing Joe Palooka’s place as a cultural mainstay.

Amidst his creative achievements, Fisher crafted a groundbreaking storyline involving a faux-marriage for Joe Palooka. The wedding invitation was accepted by judges, generals and politicians, demonstrating the character’s widespread popularity and influence. By the late 1940s, Joe Palooka was published in over 600 American newspapers and over 100 foreign newspapers.

Fisher’s career was more than just the creation of Joe Palooka. He was one of the founding members of The National Cartoonist Society, an organization dedicated to solidifying the integrity of cartooning.

Fisher later found himself embroiled in a fierce professional and personal rivalry with Al Capp, the cartoonist credited for creating Li’l Abner and a former assistant to Fisher. This rivalry, characterized by brutal, public jabs, served as the basis for the mystery novel Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins, further adding to the lore surrounding Fisher’s career.

Tragically, Fisher’s life was cut short in 1955, shocking the comic strip world. However, even after the creator’s death, the Joe Palooka character continued to entertain newspaper readers for nearly three more decades. Fisher’s work has been referenced and honored in various contexts, and a mountain south of Wilkes-Barre was named after Joe Palooka as a tribute to Fisher’s beloved creation. Ham Fisher’s offerings to the world of comic strips and popular culture began in Luzerne County and spread out to the rest of the world.

Sue Hand

Sue Hand is on the shortlist of artists who have made a significant impact in bringing the images and stories of Luzerne County to a wide audience. While her acclaim extends throughout the country and her artwork is displayed both nationally and internationally, Sue’s ability to connect with the local community has truly set her apart.

Sue’s ambition was evident from a young age. At five, she confidently declared herself an artist and began sharing her knowledge with others while still a teenager. Despite her youth, Sue quickly became a master of her craft, passing on her skills and inspiring others. These early experiences as a teacher would shape her future decisions, including her pursuit of a degree in Art Education from Kutztown University.

Even if Sue had never taught another person, her status as one of the region’s most important artists would still be secure. Her work often revisits particular motifs, such as the Millennium Collection series, which depicts her favorite local places.

While Sue’s studio is located in the Back Mountain, her artistic reach extends far beyond. Through her Light & The Land series, she captures the essence of Northeast Pennsylvania, depicting each of the eleven counties that comprise the region. Through this work, Sue has demonstrated remarkable versatility by expertly employing watercolor, oil, acrylic, and pastel with great precision.

One of Sue Hand’s most celebrated series, The Anthracite Miners and Their Hallowed Ground, beautifully exemplifies her admiration for the people and history of Luzerne County. This expressionist masterclass resonates with both local historians and residents, featuring intricate details that evoke a deep sense of connection to the region.

The good news for Luzerne County residents is that Sue does not work or promote her artistry in isolation. She has actively engaged with her community throughout her career, teaching and mentoring budding artists through workshops and classes. By opening her studio to admirers for exhibitions and events, Sue has fostered a robust creative network that extends beyond the Back Mountain region.

In line with her collaborative nature, Sue Hand’s art exhibitions are not solitary affairs. She actively encourages her past and present students, as well as associates, to showcase their work at Sue Hand’s Imagery. In doing so, she assumes the role of an ambassador for fellow artists, providing a platform for their creative pursuits.

Sue’s impact on the local art scene goes beyond her own artistic achievements. With a teaching career spanning various educational levels, including college courses, she has left an indelible mark on hundreds of students. Sue’s dedication to education has inspired and empowered aspiring artists, leaving an incalculable impact on those she has encountered over the years.

Sue Hand’s vast body of regionally-inspired artwork and her dedicated service to the local art community exemplify her enduring love for Luzerne County and its rich cultural heritage. Sue’s ability to convey the essence of the region through her artwork continues to inspire and shape the region’s art community.

Jimmy Harnen

Jimmy Harnen worked through the ranks of the music industry, from scruffy Plymouth drummer to one of the most popular record label executives in the United States. In between, he collaborated with industry legends from Luzerne County and across the world. And by the way, he was the voice behind one of the biggest hits to ever emerge from the Wyoming Valley. In short, Jimmy Harnen has done a little bit of everything at the highest level.

From an early age, Harnen was fascinated by the music business. He loved the songs, of course, from artists like Hall & Oates, Toto, Chicago and the Beatles. His interest in music was inflamed due to the rise of the Buoys and Dakota, related bands that had hit the big time after starting off in Luzerne County. That being said, Harnen’s real intrigue was within the liner notes. He was enthralled by the producers, engineers and executives that made the records possible.

The first band Harnen was a member of was the Wyoming Valley West marching band, but many will remember the group that launched him into the world of pop music: Synch. Harnen sat behind the drum kit during his time with Synch, while the usual vocal duties were placed with frontman Lou Butwin. However, Harnen was given the lead vocal role on a song he had co-written, a classic ‘80s power ballad called “Where Are You Now.”

The original 1986 recording of “Where Are You Now” caught on, receiving airplay in Luzerne County that eventually led to a record deal with Columbia. When Synch went into the studio to record their first album, …Get the Feelin’, that same year, “Where Are You Now” was re-recorded, this time with an assist from former members of the Buoys.

Though a talented musician, Harnen was still in an executive’s state of mind when Synch hit the studio. He found himself picking the brains of studio employees and learning the behind-the-scenes processes that went into record production. This was an important time for Harnen, who gained valuable insights about what it takes to craft a hit in front of and behind the studio glass.

By 1989, three years after “Where Are You Now” was originally recorded, Synch was disbanded and their most famous song had long been dropped from the standard radio rotation. But by coincidence, “Where Are You Now” had a massive resurgence and Harnen was back in the spotlight. This time, the song reached number 10 on the US Billboard charts, a peak that gave Harnen’s career a huge boost.

Despite the massive wave of public support for “Where Are You Now,” Harnen’s recording career slowed down and his career in the music industry crept behind the scenes. He moved to Nashville, long a hub for some of America’s most musically talented people, and quietly rose through the industry as an executive. He eventually became the senior vice president of promotion for the iconic Capitol Records label.

As an executive, Harnen happily watched as the artists he helped promote rose to incredible heights. In 2009, Harnen left Capitol Records to become the president of Republic Nashville Artists, now BMLG Records. There, he has overseen the careers of Florida Georgia Line, Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, and a number of the 21st century’s most popular country and pop artists.

The artists Harnen has signed over the years have recognized his positive attitude towards the creative process. His down-to-earth persona and background as a musician have helped Harnen stand out in a crowd of suits. Harnen himself has attributed much of his success to a Luzerne County upbringing. Using his musical youth in Plymouth as a springboard, Jimmy Harnen has been a relevant entertainment figure for his entire adult life.

Brunon Kryger/The Kryger Brothers

The story of Brunon Kryger and the Kryger Brothers is a multi-generational tale that includes decades of entertainment and a firm grip on the tradition of Northeast Pennsylvania polka music. Their journey traces back to their Polish roots, where the rich heritage of polka music flourished.

Born in Poland, Brunon Kryger experienced the hardships of World War I and served for three years in the Polish Army. After completing his service, Brunon’s love for music led him to pursue formal training at the Poznan Conservatory of Music. From there, Brunon embarked on a new chapter in his life, immigrating to the United States and founding the Kryger Orchestra while residing in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County.

In the 1930s, the Kryger family relocated again to Wilkes-Barre, a move that would prove pivotal in the family’s musical legacy. It was in Wilkes-Barre that the Kryger Music Company opened its doors on East Market Street. Meanwhile, Brunon’s orchestra gained recognition for their performances of original hits such as “Hula-La Polka” and “Accordion Polka.”

As Brunon’s popularity soared, he became a beloved artist on radio stations across the state. At a show in Pittsburgh, he was rightfully dubbed the “King of Polkas” in recognition of his musical prowess and charisma. Brunon passed away in 1951, leaving behind a budding local music empire.

However, Brunon’s legacy would live on through his talented sons, Lucian, Jerry and Bruce, collectively known as the Kryger Brothers. They continued their father’s musical journey, taking the Kryger Orchestra to new heights of success. Just like Brunon, they too recorded music professionally, solidifying their place in the Northeast Pennsylvania music scene.

The Kryger Brothers’ influence was most strongly felt in areas with vibrant Eastern European populations. Their performances resonated deeply with the community, forging a special connection between the band and its loyal fans. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Krygers further endeared themselves to their audience by hosting monthly live shows from the Pocono Hershey Ballroom, becoming a staple of the local entertainment scene.

The pinnacle of the Kryger Brothers’ career arrived in 1988 when they received a coveted Grammy nomination for their album “Polka Mania.” This nomination solidified their status as innovators in polka music. Beyond the accolades and recognition they received, the true measure of the Krygers’ success was the lasting impact they made on the hearts of their fans. Their music became a soundtrack for countless cherished memories, evoking feelings of joy, nostalgia and a sense of community.

In honor of their contributions to the polka community, both Brunon and the Kryger Brothers were deservedly inducted into the Polka Music Hall of Fame. Their induction recognized their immeasurable impact on the genre and their dedication to preserving and promoting polka music.

The captivating narrative of Brunon Kryger and his talented sons, the Kryger Brothers, is a profound reflection of their love for their cultural heritage. Their remarkable contributions to the vibrant world of polka music in Luzerne County have firmly solidified their place in history. The enduring legacy of the First Family of Northeast Pennsylvania polka music will undoubtedly endure.

Santo Loquasto

Wilkes-Barre native Santo Loquasto began creating impressive environments before the stage and screen became his canvases. During his formative years, he would create sets and costumes out of items he would find in his backyard. This became an informal education and an introduction to set and costume design. He backed up his young creative streak with an intellectual approach to design, which he gained as a scholar of politics, economics, literature and art at King’s College and Yale Drama School.

All the while, Loquasto proved to be a true workhorse, a meticulous designer and a reliable collaborator. One of his breakthrough gigs came locally as a designer at the Showcase Theater in Wilkes-Barre, but his interests went beyond one or two niche roles behind the scenes. Loquasto was broadly interested in the totality of a theater production. While at Yale, he worked tirelessly to gather up as much knowledge as possible.

Loquasto was already one of the brightest minds in the theater community when he arrived on Broadway in 1972. His wide-ranging knowledge allowed him to move up through the industry, providing valuable insight and leadership along the way. By the time he turned 30 in 1974, he was already a Tony nominee for best scenic design. That nomination was for That Championship Season, a story by another giant in the Northeast Pennsylvania art scene, Jason Miller.

When it comes to accolades, Loquasto is truly one of the most decorated theatrical artists of his generation. He won his first Tony Award in 1977 for his costume design of The Cherry Orchard. He kept up his awards dominance as the years went by, winning a Tony in back-to-back years for Cafe Crown in 1989 and Grand Hotel: The Musical in 1990. Worth mentioning is that these consecutive victories came in different categories: best scenic design and best costume design, respectively.

While he was racking up wins and nominations in the theater scene, Loquasto found the time to transition into a different medium: film. In addition to his work on hits like 1988’s Big, he is well-known by cinephiles as a frequent collaborator of legendary filmmaker Woody Allen. He scored a costume design nomination at the Oscars for Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, and was nominated twice more for his production design achievements on Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway.

Beyond his work in film and theater, Loquasto has also carved out a reputation for his work in dance and ballet productions in the United States and abroad. In this field, Loquasto has collaborated with legendary choreographers like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharpe, and lent his talents to national productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, just to name a few.

Loquasto remained an important figure in the national theater scene in the new millenium. His work in the 2000s alone would be worthy of exceptional praise. Just run down the list: The Elephant Man in 2002, Glengarry Glen Ross in 2005, Inherit the Wind in 2007, A Man for All Seasons in 2008, and colossal achievements scattered in between. His 2004 induction into the Theater Hall of Fame is a testament to his craftsmanship and towering reputation in the theater community.

Loquasto’s career trajectory is proof that a Hall of Fame induction does not signal the stagnation of praise. In fact, Loquasto was nominated for more Tony Awards in the 2010s than in any other decade of his career. He won his fourth Tony for his costume design of the 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!, 40 years after his first win. With a nod in 2022 for his costume design for The Music Man, Loquasto received a Tony nomination in a sixth consecutive decade.

If you’ve seen a Broadway show since the 1970s, you have probably seen the work of Santo Loquasto. His career is marked by consistency and longevity, and he often finds himself recognized and praised by his peers. A titan in two connected but ultimately distinct forms of design, few figures in American theater have left as big of a mark as Santo Loquasto.

Joe Nardone & The All Stars

Joe Nardone & The All Stars have carved a prominent place in Luzerne County’s rich musical history. With a career spanning over six decades, Nardone has had an immense impact on the region’s music scene as a performer, concert promoter and founder of the legendary Gallery of Sound music stores.

Joe Nardone teamed up with the All Stars in the late 1950s, and the group would eventually take center stage as the house band at Sans Souci during the summer and the Stardust Ballroom in Wilkes-Barre during the winter. The band recorded several songs in their signature rock and roll style during this era, such as “Caravan Rock” and “Shake a Hand.”

Nardone’s career in music promotion dates back to 1960 with the opening of his first record shop in the Wyoming Valley. The store quickly became a hub for music enthusiasts, offering a wide range of records and fostering a vibrant music community.

Joe Nardone’s enthusiastic approach to life and music has led him to maintain an active role as a dedicated performer alongside his other responsibilities. The All Stars continue to captivate audiences, despite the passage of decades since their initial formation.

Throughout their illustrious career, the All Stars have had the privilege of sharing stages with some of the most influential rock and roll and doo-wop artists in history. By helping to plan these memorable performances, Nardone has ensured that the enchanting harmonies and captivating melodies that defined the late-1950s and early-1960s continue to thrive and find new admirers.

While Nardone’s magnetism as a performer is unquestionable, it is his exceptional career as a concert promoter that truly sets him apart. With a keen appreciation for music history, Nardone has brought fans together through his carefully curated shows. His ability to spot talent and introduce emerging artists to the region long before they achieve stardom is well-established. Acts like Neil Diamond, Billy Joel and KISS graced the stages of Northeast Pennsylvania thanks to Nardone’s foresight and dedication to providing audiences with unforgettable live experiences.

Further on the business side of the industry, Nardone’s efforts have helped sustain the vitality of local record stores, including his own Gallery of Sound, which opened its first location at the Wyoming Valley Mall after Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Other locations have sprouted up since, and these stores have become cherished locales for music lovers.

In an era dominated by digital music downloads and streaming platforms, Nardone has remained a steadfast champion for physical media and record stores. Recognizing the value of holding a vinyl record or flipping through album artwork, he has tirelessly advocated for the importance of preserving the tangible experience of music consumption.

Joe Nardone’s influence on Northeast Pennsylvania’s music landscape cannot be overstated. From his early days as a performer with the All Stars to his groundbreaking work as a concert promoter and advocate for physical media, Nardone has had an outsized role in developing the region’s musical taste. Nardone’s dedication to preserving music history and supporting emerging talent have made him and his bandmates towering music figures in Luzerne County.

Jack Palance

Jack Palance was born Volodymyr Pahlaniuk in 1919 in Lattimer Mines, a small village in southern Luzerne County just outside of Hazleton. Like his father before him, Palance worked in the mines during his youth, but his ambitions were sky high. He earned a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and even fought briefly as a professional boxer.

These athletic dreams were put aside for one reason or another by the time Palance left to fight in World War II. Still, there’s no doubt that his rough-and-tumble youth and his military service impacted the performer he would become. Disillusioned with a path that would require taking constant physical hits, Palance set his sights on becoming a thespian.

In pursuit of this new profession, Palance dropped out of college and headed to New York. His Broadway debut came in 1947 as a Russian soldier, an ironic coincidence considering Palance was of proud Ukrainian descent. His big break on Broadway, however, was not in a starring role. Palance worked as an understudy to Marlon Brando in the initial run of A Streetcar Named Desire. Echoing Brando’s path, Palance made his transition to film in 1950.

After making his screen debut in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets, Palance bounced back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. But in 1952, Palance scored what would be the role of a lifetime for most other actors, a pivotal part opposite Joan Crawford in the cutting-edge thriller film Sudden Fear. For this role, in which he played a former coal miner who becomes an actor, Palance nabbed his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

It didn’t take long for Palance to return to the Oscars’ red carpet, as he was nominated again in 1953 for playing the villainous Jack Wilson in Shane, considered by many to be the finest western picture ever made. The role was perfect for Palance; steely-eyed and vicious, Jack Wilson became the part for which he was most known for decades.

As the 1950s waned and the film industry changed, Palance began to work in the growing television scene. In 1957, Palance again drew from his past experiences and won an Emmy for playing a boxer, Mountain McClintock, in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight.

In subsequent decades, Palance worked stateside and internationally with some of the greatest actors and directors of all-time, from Anthony Perkins and Jean-Luc Goddard to Paul Newman and Omar Sharif. Palance gained a reputation for being a sought-after character actor across the globe. Along the way, he padded his resume by landing another signature role as the title character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the acclaimed made-for-television film from 1973.

Palance enjoyed a full career renaissance and introduced himself to a brand new generation of audiences in the 1980s and 1990s, first as the host of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and later in Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of the Batman comics. However, his most important role during this period was as the cowboy Curly Washburn in the 1991 film City Slickers. Palance won an Oscar for his semi-comedic performance in City Slickers, an unconventional choice for the Academy. Upon winning, the 73-year-old Palance delivered one of the most iconic Oscar speeches ever, which he topped with a surprise round of one-armed push-ups.

Palance continued to work into the 21st century, cementing his status as one of the most lasting stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. All the while, he retained his connection to Luzerne County and could often be spotted at local establishments near his farm in Butler Township, such as the Stagecoach Inn. His knack for playing tough but amusing characters was reflected in his off-screen persona, and his ability to find the intensity, physicality and heart in his characters has entertained movie fans young and old for generations.

Eddie Day Pashinski

Edwin A. Pashinski, commonly known as “Eddie Day,” was born in 1945, the perfect year for a budding rock and roll enthusiast and performer. He began his musical journey as something of a local teenage icon in the early 1960s, and his career path and public service has helped expand music education to thousands of Pennsylvania children. This selfless spirit has made Eddie Day one of the most important figures in Luzerne County’s long history of musical excellence.

The first band Eddie Day joined was the Starfires, who used the juice of Eddie Day’s powerful vocals to become one of the first great music groups from Luzerne County. Despite their notability in the area, the Starfires had a humble approach to performing, hauling their own equipment from show to show in a Packard hearse. Teenagers from across the county flocked to see the Starfires, and they’d often play for hundreds of local fans at a time.

Eddie Day used the money he earned from his time with the Starfires to pay off his college tuition. He stuck close to home by earning a degree in Music Education from Wilkes University, and followed that up with a Master’s from Penn State. This background in educating young people on the value of music would be the first step in Eddie Day’s pursuit of service through the arts.

Eddie Day continued to perform with the Starfires throughout his college-aged years, and the group even brushed with rock icon Chubby Checker in 1965. He switched groups in the mid-1960s, this one bearing his name at the front. Eddie Day and the Nightimers became a sensation in similar fashion to the Starfires, and picked up a particularly strong fanbase in the Back Mountain region of Luzerne County.

Gigs with the Nightimers and, later, the Eddie Day Groop became staples of musical entertainment at important Back Mountain meeting places Sandy Beach and Hanson’s Amusement Park. Eddie Day grew his influence in the area while continuing his performing and recording career with another group, T.N.T., throughout the latter half of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

While most of his bands were more well-known for their magnetic live shows, the prime voice of Eddie Day was thankfully preserved on wax. The Pashinski-penned single “Summers Gone” was recorded alongside the Nightimers, bringing their stage show and Eddie Day’s croon to living rooms. Later on, with T.N.T., Eddie Day was back in the studio to record “Smiling Phases,” a psychedelic departure from the doo wop roots of his earlier work.

In addition to his incredible run in the Back Mountain, Eddie Day was an important figure in the Nanticoke area as well. He used his vast knowledge of music and business to become a teacher, choral director and union leader in the Greater Nanticoke Area School District. Hundreds of students were inspired by Eddie Day’s passion for performance, allowing him to pass on the lessons he learned onto multiple generations of young people.

When his teaching career came to a close, Eddie Day ramped up his devotion to public service and was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. As a true representative for Luzerne County residents, Eddie Day has been a strong advocate for the expansion and conservation of music programs in public schools. A real rock star in Harrisburg, Eddie Day has often been asked to kick off formal Capitol business by belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

It has certainly been a long, musical journey for Eddie Day Pashinski, the vocalist, teacher and advocate. Many artists are committed to their craft for only a short time before moving on to other endeavors. By contrast, Eddie Day has devoted nearly his entire life to improving the arts and entertainment of Luzerne County.

C. Edgar Patience

For Luzerne County residents and historians, it is a point of pride that one of the great anthracite coal sculptors is a native son to this area, where coal was king. C. Edgar Patience was devoted to a unique art form in the face of prejudice and brutal working conditions. The struggles and triumphs of Edgar, the grandson of a former slave, are as true to Luzerne County as they are to the Black experience.

C. Edgar Patience’s first job was as a breaker boy, where he learned how to create interesting designs by whittling Luzerne County’s most famous export: mined anthracite coal. He was assigned to this breaker boy status due to the backward protocols of turn of the century America, in which Black men were almost exclusively placed in the most menial, and often hazardous, positions. The young Edgar was guided through this time by his father, a talented carver in his own right.

While his father and brothers created trinkets and souvenirs out of coal, Edgar had grander goals in mind. He dreamed of becoming a sculptor and a full-fledged artist, using anthracite coal as his primary source of creation. Edgar studied the art of sculpture and looked to past masters of the craft for hints on how to join the pantheon of high art. While his ambitions grew, Edgar worked in the family souvenir business to keep his finances afloat.

Edgar’s wife, Alice, was the one who actively pushed him to pursue his dreams of becoming a great artist. To support their growing family, Alice began working so that Edgar could put his full attention into perfecting the coal sculpture process. He got started by building a workshop in the family home and scouring the county for the most worthy coal.

Edgar used coal from all around the region for his work, but the Hazleton area was a particularly good spot for anthracite treasures. Using the blocks he hand-picked, Edgar began sculpting busts of historical figures like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, with each project taking a significant amount of time to complete. Though sturdy, the coal would occasionally crumble midway through the sculpting process, forcing Edgar to start all over again.

Despite the difficulties of sculpting anthracite coal, Edgar was exceptionally detailed in his work. He built a substantial following due to his impressive skill and the relative uniqueness of coal sculpture. He caught the attention of congressman Daniel Flood, who gifted Edgar’s sculptures to several American presidents. Edgar rose from local fairs to national expositions, gaining international praise in the process.

Though his work was appreciated by royals and heads of state the world over, Edgar considered the multi-ton altar he sculpted for King’s College’s chapel to be his masterpiece. The beautiful, rocky texture of the altar, as well as the fine details at its center, are perfect examples of Edgar’s hyper-specific style. His elite technical ability was tested and proven during the making of Coal Town USA, a sprawling sculpture depicting a bustling town in all of its intricacies, right down to the people who lived there.

Edgar was a supporter of the local arts scene beyond his own work, serving as president of the Showcase Theater in Wilkes-Barre. Additionally, he was an active leader in his community during the era of civil rights, and the respect he earned blazed a path for a new generation of Black artists and thinkers in the area. Edgar’s daughter, the accomplished Dr. Juanita Patience Moss, has carried her father’s story forward through lectures and written works.

Edgar passed away at age 65 due to complications stemming from a life surrounded by coal dust. Until the very end, Edgar shared his gifts with the world, exhibiting his work and taking a TV interview in Pittsburgh just days before his death. C. Edgar Patience’s sparkling reputation was earned through resilience and dedication, as well as the deep familial bonds that made it all possible.

Adrian Pearsall

Adrian Pearsall is synonymous with the innovative furniture designs he helped develop and the exceptional products his companies created. Born in Trumansburg, New York, the impact Pearsall would have on Luzerne County went beyond the artistic. Pearsall’s presence in Northeast Pennsylvania helped hundreds of people achieve financial stability, while his designs brought high artistic visions to the masses.

Pearsall’s creative journey began after he joined the Navy and subsequently graduated from the University of Illinois in 1950. Just two years after completing his education, Pearsall founded Craft Associates. Initially, he built furniture in his basement and sold his pieces from the back of a truck. At Craft Associates, Pearsall focused on developing and manufacturing his own cutting-edge designs, which gradually gained recognition.

One of Pearsall’s notable contributions to furniture design was his innovative use of American black walnut in his work. This distinctive choice greatly improved his luck with sales, and by the end of the 1950s, Pearsall’s creations could be found in some of the largest retail stores in the country.

To meet the escalating demand, Pearsall, together with his brother Richard, embarked on a bold entrepreneurial venture. The brothers established a factory in Wilkes-Barre, a city known for its hard working residents. This decision had a profound impact on the local community, as the company employed hundreds of people at its peak.

Pearsall was an integral part of the larger modern movement that influenced various forms of design in the mid-20th century. His geometric tastes were noted for seamlessly blending style with functionality. At the height of his career, Pearsall even designed his family home, further establishing himself as a modern Renaissance man.

Later in his career, Pearsall expanded his horizons by founding Comfort Designs alongside John Graham. This new venture occurred around the time Pearsall shifted his attention from chair design to sofas and upholstery, showcasing his impressive versatility. Throughout his career, Pearsall remained committed to creating artful pieces that could be appreciated and purchased by working-class individuals.

Pearsall’s outstanding achievements in the field of furniture design were recognized when he was inducted into the American Furniture Hall of Fame in 2008. Pearsall passed away in 2011, leaving behind a remarkable body of work that continues to be celebrated and preserved to this day.

Due to the uniqueness of his custom-made designs, many have attempted to replicate and profit from Pearsall’s innovative style. In response, his descendants have taken on the responsibility of verifying the authenticity of works claimed to bear Pearsall’s name and artistic touch, adding to the mystique and prestige surrounding his designs.

Adrian Pearsall pushed the boundaries of furniture design and his commitment to making his creations accessible to all have cemented his status as a true pioneer of his craft. As his work continues to add class to many homes across the world, the ripples of his legacy in Luzerne County, specifically, underscore the region’s blend of creativity and industrial prowess.

Lee Vincent

Lee Vincent was born in Shickshinny in 1916 and went on to become a legendary figure in Luzerne County media and music. His lifelong commitment to music was ignited at a young age when he learned to play the violin and stand-up bass. Even as a boy, Vincent displayed a remarkable excitement in regards to his craft.

Vincent was obsessive about music, forming his first band at 11. After graduating from high school, he began performing at local establishments during the nighttime, all while working during the day. When World War II arrived, Vincent answered the call and served his country. However, his musical horizons were given a massive boost during his time in the service. During the war, he had the opportunity to play alongside the great big band leader Glenn Miller.

Upon returning home, Vincent channeled his passion into leading several bands that bore his name, most notably the Lee Vincent Orchestra. In addition to leading the orchestra, he also founded the Lee Vincent Band and the Lee Vincent Trio. While many musicians have sought the thrill of touring, Vincent opted to focus more directly on local performances in and around Luzerne County, a consistent theme of his career.

In February 1951, he made history by participating in a groundbreaking event in downtown Wilkes-Barre. Vincent, along with several other jazz artists, performed from 6pm until the early hours of the next day in a showcase that would later become known as the Newport Jazz Festival.

Throughout his career, Vincent wore many hats. He not only performed as a musician but also took on a role in sales at WILK. He became a prominent figure in the media, and crossed paths with some of Luzerne County’s most influential musicians and artists. Over the course of his more than 50-year-long career in media, Vincent became one of the most recognizable personalities in the region.

Vincent recognized the power of radio as a medium to reach a wide audience and share his love for big band music. He used his platform to introduce listeners to the sounds that defined the genre. Through his extensive, first-hand knowledge, Vincent brought the beauty of big band music to airwaves across Luzerne County and Northeast Pennsylvania.

Vincent performed alongside an impressive array of artists throughout his life, often transcending the boundaries of big band music. Through sharing the stage with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers such as Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson, Vincent was able to showcase his appreciation for quality music of multiple genres and eras.

Throughout his life, Vincent always found time for the stages of Luzerne County. He frequently performed at the Fine Arts Fiesta on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre and participated in other cultural events in the Wyoming Valley, enriching the local arts scene with his vast experience and talent.

Lee Vincent’s consistent participation in Luzerne County music events, as well as his iconic media career, clearly make him an important figure in shaping the region’s cultural footprint. Even after his passing in 2007, the impact of Vincent’s community involvement is felt. While other artists have come and gone from Luzerne County in pursuit of their artistic dreams, Lee Vincent stuck around and left the local arts scene better than he found it.

Barbara Weisberger

Barbara Weisberger rose to prominence in the mid-20th century as a visionary in the development of regional ballets. Born in New York but raised in Wilkes-Barre, Weisberger’s artistic journey began early when she received ballet training in some of the most cultured metropolitan areas in the world, honing her skills and nurturing her love of the art form.

In 1934, at the age of eight, Weisberger became the first child to be accepted as a student to George Balanchine. Balanchine, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, recognized Weisberger’s talent and took her under his wing, becoming her main mentor and guiding force.

Despite her ability, Weisberger initially grappled with uncertainty about how to forge a career in dance. At the onset of World War II, she made the difficult decision to temporarily set aside her aspirations and pursued her education, eventually graduating from Penn State. However, Weisberger’s desire to carve out a life in ballet never waned and, in 1953, she established a dance school in Wilkes-Barre.

Encouraged by Balanchine, she went on to start a school in Philadelphia as well, laying the foundation for the Pennsylvania Ballet, which she founded in 1963. Weisberger’s relentless pursuit of artistic excellence propelled the Pennsylvania Ballet to become a world-renowned troupe. Balancing her roles as a mother and an artistic director, she divided her time between Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre.

Under Weisberger’s visionary leadership, the Pennsylvania Ballet captivated audiences with their artistry. As the troupe grew in prominence, Weisberger sought to attract exceptional talent, and she played an instrumental role in recruiting some of America’s greatest dancers and ballet artists.

Throughout her illustrious career, Weisberger collaborated with esteemed choreographers and maintained a close connection with Balanchine. Her courage and artistic integrity were evident when she made the bold decision to depart from the Pennsylvania Ballet, an institution she had helped shape. Despite this departure, her contributions were celebrated over the years through numerous accolades, including an honorary degree from King’s College.

After moving on from the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Philadelphia dance scene, Weisberger continued to push herself and explore new avenues. She founded the Carlisle Project in Pennsylvania, an initiative aimed at developing choreographers. Additionally, she served as an advisor at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, further solidifying her reputation as a mentor and supporter of emerging artists.

Weisberger’s impact extended beyond her own achievements and those of her students. In her later years, she became a historian of sorts, eagerly sharing stories of her collaborations and experiences. Through her words, she provided invaluable insights into the artistry and genius of her colleagues, offering a glimpse into the rich tapestry of the ballet world.

Weisberger passed away in Kingston at the age of 94, leaving behind a profound legacy. The passion she brought to regional ballet continues to inspire, ensuring that her influence on the art form will endure. Barbara Weisberger’s name will forever be synonymous with leadership and grace, qualities that she brought to all of her artistic affairs in Luzerne County and beyond.

Mel Wynn & the Rhythm Aces

Mel Wynn & the Rhythm Aces were possibly the most influential band on the local music scene in the 1960s. Sure, their musicianship and explosive performances are legendary, but it was their trailblazing contributions outside of the music that broke down barriers and made Luzerne County a more culturally diverse and open place to be.

The group’s origins can be traced back to the 1950s when they initially formed as the Shalomars, specializing in the doo-wop sound that was popular at the time. However, it was in 1958 when the band underwent a significant transformation and became the Rhythm Aces, propelled by the addition of the dynamic musician, Mel Wynn.

Jerry Sechleer, recognizing Wynn’s talent, extended an invitation to him, marking the beginning of a musical collaboration that would shape the band’s future. The classic lineup of the Rhythm Aces included Wynn, Sechleer, Ronald Ashton, Rich Garinger, Frank Loch, Bob O’Connell, Dave Pearn and Angelo Stella. With Wynn on board, the Rhythm Aces introduced a distinct rhythm and blues sound to an area primarily dominated by the sounds of rock and country.

Their emergence from relative obscurity, starting as a literal house band performing in people’s homes, to becoming a sought-after regional act showcased their exceptional musical abilities and captivating stage presence. Mel Wynn, in particular, was noted for his electric personality, bringing to audiences an energetic frontman that truly set the band apart from their peers.

Importantly, the Rhythm Aces played a major role in breaking down racial barriers during a time when school dances in the region were segregated. As an integrated band themselves, the Rhythm Aces’ presence at these events brought people together, bridging gaps and fostering unity through music.

The band performed at some of the most iconic music establishments in Luzerne County, including The Flame and The Spinning Wheel, as well as at large-scale venues like Pocono Downs. Despite their often wild and high-energy live shows, the Rhythm Aces maintained a sense of professionalism, delivering tight performances that showcased their exceptional musicianship. Their reputation as gentlemen of the music scene garnered the respect and admiration of their contemporaries.

Notably, Mel Wynn & the Rhythm Aces were among the first local groups to achieve any sort of national recognition through their recorded music. Songs like “Stop Sign” and “Don’t Want To Lose You” were preserved on wax, solidifying their place in music history. Their appearance on the national level helped put Luzerne County’s music scene on the map, showcasing the region’s rich talent and diverse musical offerings.

The individual members of the Rhythm Aces would go on to have their own distinct careers and interests in the music community. Later in his life, Mel Wynn demonstrated his forward-thinking approach by promoting the increasing relevance of rap music, even while many others of his era dismissed the genre entirely. This willingness to embrace emerging styles of music further solidified the Rhythm Aces’ reputation as trailblazing and innovative artists.

Through their integrated performances, electrifying stage presence and commitment to professionalism, Mel Wynn & the Rhythm Aces set a new standard for musicians in the region. Like all great groups, the band has had an impact beyond the music. Mel Wynn & the Rhythm Aces, through their inspiring story, have made it easier for other local artists to pursue their dreams.

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