The most uncommon entertainment in Eastern Pennsylvania. That is what is said of the boom-ba players of the Leather Corner Post Hotel. Some people think the statement could easily be expanded to include most of the United States. Any way you look at it, most people have never seen the likes of a boom-ba.
According to legend, or at least to the regulars at the bar, the boom-ba is based on a German instrument called a bladda pole, which loosely translates to "Devil's Fiddle". This instrument was basically comprised of a stick, a string, and some bells. It was played in small German villages, during funerals and at times of hardship, to ward off evil spirits.
Roughly 40 years ago, someone saw one of these "Devil's Fiddles" on a trip to Germany and, upon returning to California, started a company to manufacture and sell them. According to one boom-ba player we interviewed, it was "too weird, even for California," and the company shortly went broke.
A handfull of intruments made it to a few night spots in the Pocono Resort area of Pennsylvania. They were re-discovered and brought to Orefield, PA, where they've remained for over 25 years. Today, a basic boom-ba consists of a stick with a spring action foot on the bottom (much like a pogo stick), and has cow bells, wood blocks, tamborines, cymbals and sleigh bells attached to it. A boom-ba also is often topped off with a favorite ornament. Don Gilliard, co-owner of the Leather Post Corner Hotel, attaches a beer tap to most of the ones he makes. Boom-bas are usually played with a drumstick to the beat of jukebox music.
Every Friday and Saturday night in the bar of the Leather Corner Post Hotel, the boom-bas are in full swing. While mostly played to polka music, boom-bas can be played to anything with enough rhythm. We heard a polka version of Disney's "It's a Small World", Rossini's "William Tell Overture", "Shout", "Locomotion", and "Shake It Up", among others.
The number of boom-ba players at the Leather Corner Post Hotel is ruled by the luck of the draw. The hotel neither contracts nor compensates players. However, boom-ba playing is a tradition that has survived through the years. The Happy Boom-ba-Dears, a club with 105 members from all over the East Coast, convenes at the hotel to play its own boom-bas or any that Don makes available for those who care to play. Saturdays are usually more crowded than Fridays, and though no one really knows how many boom-ba players are coming, there is never a chance that there won't be any; Don, and his wife Nancy, both play the boom-bas.
We were told that, at times, there can be fifteen boom-ba players at the bar, making the music coming out of the jukebox almost inaudible. Hayride season, October, and November are traditionally the busiest months. The Leather Corner Post Hotel is located in the midst of rural Pennsylvania. "The neighbors have been good to us," said Nancy, "so we try to keep it just to Fridays and Saturdays." On occasion, when a tourist group comes in unexpectedly during the week, Don and Nancy will play for them.
Learning to play the boom-ba is pretty easy, as our editor discovered, and the friendly atmosphere at the bar is compelling. You're watching everything happen, and then, all of a sudden, someone hands you a boom-ba and pushes you with all the other players.
"There's no wrong way to play them," said Kropp, a member of the Happy Boom-ba-Dears who, with his wife, has been playing since 1975. Kropp and his wife told us that the club plays over 100 shows a year for various charity organizations and casinos, and that the club also has made a few TV appearances.
The Leather Corner Post Hotel is owned and operated by Don and Nacy Gilliard. Don makes boom-bas and ships them all over the world. They cost about $110 each, and he sells on average five per month. According to Nancy, he sells the instruments not to make money, but to get more people involved and, of course, to draw the crowds to the bar.
The Leather Corner Post Hotel is at 6855 Horseshoe Road in Orefield, PA; their phone number is (610) 395-1782. If you are in Eastern PA on a Friday or Saturday, it's something you won't want to miss.