- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) - If the walls of the Klamath County Museum could talk, they might sing, too; maybe songs performed by Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington or Fats Domino.

What do those acts have in common with the storied museum?

They all performed at one point on stage at the Klamath County Museum, which used to be the home of the Klamath Armory, also known as the Klamath Auditorium. The Armory was built in 1935. It became the home of the museum in 1970 after moving from the Klamath County Library.

Klamath County Museum Manager Todd Kepple this week pointed out four photographs mounted on the wall near the stage of big bands that once came through Klamath Falls. In the photos, a full house of fans filled the hardwood floor, no open seat in sight.

“Band after band came here,” Kepple said of the 1930s through the 1950s. “A lot of them were traveling by rail at that time.”

Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey played at the Armory, receiving a long-distance present from comedian and actor Jackie Gleason: a donkey. The “gift,” sent as a joke, was completed with a sign ribbing the duo to use the donkey for travel in the rural area.

It’s not just a page out of the building’s scrapbook but a vivid memory for some like Barbara and Ron McVay. Although not married at the time, the McVays were there among the crowds for many of the events.

Barbara McVay, 78, remembers she was “havin’ a ball” when Fats Domino visited. As she looked at old newspaper clippings at the museum, she said, “Fats Domino was considered pretty racy.”

“He played everything,” she added of the songs, remembering she attended the show with friends.

The couple chatted about the former armory and how it once was a gathering place for the town. As a young man at the time, Ron McVay, now 79, was living in nearby Malin. When musical acts came through, he would drive into town for entertainment, which included various sporting events such as basketball, wrestling and boxing.

“We grew up in the best of times,” he said. “There was always something going on here.”

The former armory hosted roller skating events, dances and banquets. The armory hall even played host to a bear named Gorgeous Gus, who apparently sparred in the ring. Circuses even made an appearance in the building.

“They had elephants in here,” Kepple said. “It’s amazing to us now (that) they played basketball on the floor. It’s supported by posts and beams.”

Markings from the basketball games can still be found on several portions of the hardwood floor. The markings used to be covered by museum displays, Kepple said. But when the displays were moved, it was decided to leave the markings to preserve another side of the history of the building.

“We are not getting rid of any of these markings,” Kepple said. “It’s part of the history of the artifact.”

Ron McVay remembers the wrestling and boxing matches most, and remembers the ring in the center of the floor.

“They were within throwing range of Coke bottles,” he said of the boxers and wrestlers. He recalls the change from vendors selling bottled soda to soda in paper cups so boxers or wrestlers wouldn’t be hurt when audience members threw them in the ring.

Klamath Falls resident Bob Farmer was among those who boxed at the armory.

Farmer, a Henley High student at the time, said he weighed in that night at 153 pounds at 5 feet 6 inches tall. On the other side of the ring was 24-year-old, 6-foot-3 inches tall Crist Wells from Vancouver, Wash. It was 1965.

“It was overwhelming,” Farmer said of the fight. “I fought under the lights. You had the ring in the center and the lights are ungodly hot. Everybody smoked - the haze was in the air.”

“The first round he clocked me with everything he had,” Farmer said. “It was a left jab.”

Farmer said he lost the fight, but officials crowned him as the victor anyway. Something to do with promoters of the fight wanting a local boy to win, according to Farmer.

Now when he comes back to visit the museum’s great hall, Farmer said the experience is surreal.

“I go back in time when I go in there,” he said.

Kepple likes to watch as residents like Farmer walk in the door of the museum and through the entryway to the great hall.

“They look up,” Kepple said. “You can just tell they’re enjoying some wonderful memories of times had in this building.”


Information from: Herald and News, https://www.heraldandnews.com

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