SHARON, PA. Vocal group hall's founder keeps the faith amid financial troubles
Inductees plan local concerts to benefit the hall of fame and museum.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU
SHARON, Pa. -- It took nearly 40 years for Tony Butala to realize his dream of creating the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and he's not about to let it disappear now.
The hall, which opened in December 1997 at 98 E. State St., has some financial difficulties, but it is moving forward and growing, said Butala, a Sharon native.
He is also founder and a member of the popular singing group The Lettermen, which got its start in the late 1950s.
The Lettermen were inducted into the hall in 2001 and will be back in the Shenango Valley on Feb. 5 for a fund-raising concert for the hall that will be different from any show they've done here in the past.
It will include many of the group's hits but will also feature a wide variety of Broadway show tunes.
The group is working on its 74th album, "The Lettermen on Broadway."
Butala said other groups inducted into the Hall of Fame will present concerts locally to help fund the organization's operations as well as the renovation of the Columbia Theatre on West State Street, which will become the hall's signature showplace.
Local people don't realize how big the hall of fame is, he said, but they will once it begins drawing national attention.
In the meantime, it needs some help from the state, county and city, as well as private contributors, to meet its day-to-day obligations, said Butala, chairman and founder of the hall. Right now, it is carrying a debt of about $240,000.
Bob Crosby, president and chief executive officer of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame & amp; Museum, said there are products such as CDs and DVDs, some already on the market and some in development, that feature performances by groups inducted into the hall. Sales of these eventually will provide adequate financing to meet all of the hall's goals, he said.
Inspiration for hall
Butala said he first came up with the idea for the hall while having dinner at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas one night in 1963.
The busboy greeted him by name, and Butala said he realized the young man had been the lead singer on the No. 1 record in the country three years earlier but was forced to take a job clearing tables.
Butala said he helped the singer get a job with another group, and the idea of a vocal group hall of fame came into his head.
"It was a hard sell in the early 1960s," he said, noting he pitched his idea to the Marriott Hotel people in the mid-1960s, but it went nowhere.
Nostalgia hadn't hit yet, he said -- it was the time of the British music invasion spearheaded by The Beatles, and a lot of American 1950s groups were no longer working. Those that were working were playing small lounges, not main showrooms, he said.
There just wasn't a market for a hall of fame at that point.
Nostalgia took off about 15 years later, Butala said, recalling that oldies radio stations began popping up all over the country and interest in the old groups was restored.
The Lettermen were doing a lot of work for the Disney people in the mid-1970s, and Butala said he developed a business plan for a hall of fame, got it copyrighted and trademarked, and presented it to them.
By that time, he already had his own fairly extensive collection of memorabilia from a large number of vocal groups.
The Disney connection didn't work out either, and Butala said he pitched his idea to Donald Trump's people while The Lettermen were performing in Atlantic City in the 1980s.
It was during one of his return visits to Sharon in 1995 that Butala met businessman James E. Winner Jr., who agreed to put up the money to get the Vocal Group Hall of Fame & amp; Museum started.
Winner developed the POP Music Building at 98 E. State Street and the Barbershop Building directly across the street, but is no longer involved in the organization or putting money into its operations, Crosby said.
The business plan still calls for the hall to expand into two or three additional downtown buildings.
Butala said he isn't going to let the hall fail.
"No way, no way. Of course not. It's not going to die," he vowed. "It's been a lifelong dream."
Developing the hall has been slow and it's difficult to get the attention of current musical hit leaders, he said, but he estimated that more than 50 percent of the older groups have bought into the concept.
"There hasn't been one day of a diminishing return," he said, adding, "I'm very optimistic."
He said he only is disappointed when he sees the lack of response from people who live in the area.
"I get disappointed, but I think Sharon is a great place for it," he said. "I can still see rows and rows of buses coming into Sharon. I haven't given up on Sharon."
Butala said his only regret is that he couldn't get the hall into operation sooner. Many of the members of the groups being inducted are deceased, he said.