Once upon a time there was a wonderful stage surrounded by lush green fields and adorned with simple wooden benches where people could come from far and near to lunch with their friends and listen to country music. That place, Sunset Park, is gone now, replaced by an ever-growing shopping center in the middle of Jennersville in Penn Township.
Still, the man behind the legendary breeding ground for most of the biggest names in country music is still on the scene, living in a home on a small corner of that property. And amid his relics from the past are a dressing room door signed by the stars, autographed photos of guest performers and plaques attesting to his accomplishments.
Lawrence Waltman is 91 now, and the Sunday afternoons are a bit lazier for him and his wife. But he has not lost his enthusiasm for the music, nor for the people he hosted during those 56 years of weekly concerts.
By way of historical background, Waltman said that in the 1920s and 1930s there was a migration of southern people to work on farms in the Southern Chester County and northern Maryland area. They longed for chances to hear their music and jumped at any opportunity to visit concerts where their favorite singers were appearing. They often attended the C-Bar-C park in Elverson to hear polkas and cowboy music.
"My Dad said, 'That's going pretty good. I'll start my own,'" Waltman said.
So in 1939, Waltman's father, G. Roy Waltman, aware that he had a potential clientele, built the park, which included a stage, a dance floor, a concession stand, outhouses and a baseball field on his farm property. They invited traveling bluegrass bands to come and play and hosted baseball games with other local teams. Their schedule spanned Sunday afternoons during the 20 weeks of warm weather from May through September.
On one particular weekend 66 years ago, the New River Boys came to play, and their singer/mandolin-player, Hazel, caught Lawrence's eye. Waltman said, "She came, but she didn't leave." They married and have been together ever since, running the show and the farms, booking acts and spreading the word of approaching performances.
In 1957 Roy died and the young Lawrence took over the complete park operation along with his duties on the family farm.
"We started out kinda cowboy and changed to country and bluegrass," he said.
At that time, he said, people enjoyed hearing singer-cowboys, who often brought their horses. He recalled that, among others, cowboy Tex Ritter came, sang and showed off the talents of his counting horse on stage. Other cowboy singers who performed were Jimmy Wakely, Big Slim and Tex Carson. "I met Gene Autry, but he never came here," Waltman said.
Even though the cowboy music business was doing well, Waltman and Hazel still had a strong hankering for country and bluegrass and started seeking out singers who were starting out and happy to have bookings to perform anywhere. They would travel to Nashville, Tenn., in the off-season and attend booking shows, where the potential performers would show their stuff. "We paid 'em a lot, but nothing compared with today," he said, adding that Loretta Lynn came for $75 a day.
As the concert seasons evolved, families came and stayed around all day on Sunday, sitting in portable lounge chairs and enjoying the food they had brought. Admission ranged from 10 cents in the very early days to $10 in the closing year of 1995.
In order to spread the word of their venue, Waltman and Hazel had radio advertisements on WCOJ radio and sent out fliers to loyal customers early in the spring announcing the whole season of acts. Hazel recalls stuffing 20,000 envelopes and mailing them out annually. She said it was worth the money and time, though, because people kept those schedules around their houses all summer to reference who was coming to Sunset Park.
The Waltmans also had a sign posted in front of the property that had the names of the main performers who were coming each week. Those signs that remain are valuable relics for collectors now.
Waltman said there was a year that they booked an unknown Randy Travis in the early spring. Between that booking and his scheduled performance at Sunset Park he became famous. An estimated 17,000 people showed up, and Waltman said the traffic was so heavy people could not even get off Route 1.
Waltman recalled another time that Charlie Pride came to perform and they lost electricity due to a storm. "We held a flashlight, and he signed autographs," Waltman said.
Who else came? Conway Twitty, Hank Snow, Hank Williams Junior and Senior, Dolly Parton, Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff, Marty Robbins, Reba McIntyre, Tanya Tucker, Barbara Mandrell and Johnny Cash, to name a few. They all performed early in their careers at Sunset Park across from the Red Rose Inn. And before they left, they always signed the dressing room door, a relic that the Waltmans treasure and keep under lock and key.
Lawrence and Hazel both admitted to not being star-struck by their performers. "They're just folks. They were shaking hands with people and signing autographs 'til late. I don't think we had more than two or three [performers] who wouldn't sign autographs and also take pictures," Waltman said.
Hazel also admits to packing lunches for departing celebrities and even putting them up in Waltman home if they needed a place to bed down.
But time marches on.
As the century was nearing its end in 1995, it was becoming more and more expensive to pay for good performers, and the Waltmans were concerned about having to raise admission costs to compete with larger venues. Then the winter of 1995 came and the roof collapsed over the seating section. With that, the two agreed that the signals were there to bring Sunset Park to an end.
"It was really a good life. We had fun and met a lot of the greatest people in this country," Waltman said.