20 Years Later Stage Door Canteen Still Going Strong

Stage Door Canteen celebrated its 20th anniversary with a trip to Chicago by train earlier this year.
Debra Troyanos - Stage Door Canteen celebrated its 20th anniversary with a trip to Chicago by train earlier this year.

A few years ago, Falmouth's Peter Cook set foot into Liam Maguire’s Irish Pub and Restaurant on Main Street, and saw Stage Door Canteen perform for the first time.

Soon he became hooked, not only by the sounds, but the sight of the imposing 12-piece band performing in the popular Main Street watering hole.

Cook, a videographer by trade, started bringing his video camera and recording the band’s performances.

His friendship quickly expanded to include the entire band so when they were organizing a trip to Chicago this past April to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they invited Cook along for the train ride. Of course, he brought his video camera and documented the entire trip: from Cape Cod to Boston, where they left by Amtrak, switching trains in Albany, before heading west to the Windy City.

The result is a one-hour documentary that provides an intimate portrait of the band and its members.

Stage Door Canteen was formed in 1992 by Mashpee's Roger Gamache when he was still a member of the 215th Army Band of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Several of his fellow Army band mates joined him in what was the fulfillment of a dream for Mr. Gamache.

Gamache first played an instrument in the 3rd grade, when he picked up the clarinet. He would later switch to the saxophone in junior high school, continuing to hone his musical talents as a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. 

As to what it is about music he enjoys, Gamache said, “it is like feeding the soul, basically. It is a real freeing experience where you really get to express yourself. It is very rewarding.”

Always lingering in the back of his mind was his goal of one day forming a big band. “I always dreamed about it and I always wanted to have my own big band ever since I started playing the saxophone,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to do it.”

Still, he planned for what would ultimately be inevitable. As far back as the late 1970s, Gamache began compiling jazz arrangements and charts, all in preparation for what happened in the early 1990s. “That is when I met other people interested in the same thing,” he said. “So we gave it a shot and started playing.”

One of Stage Door Canteen’s first gigs was a road trip to Stamford, Connecticut. “It was a blast so we decided we ought to keep it up,” he said.

During their initial years, Stage Door Canteen benefited from a resurgence in swing music that was popular in the 1930s and ’40s. That resurgence came all the way to Woods Hole, following the band during their early performances at the Landfall.

Among their most ardent followers was then-teenager and now State Representative David T. Vieira. “Yeah, he was a good dancer,” Gamache said, when asked. “He still is. We actually wound up playing at his wedding a year or so ago.”

Develops A Loyal Following

Vieira was not alone in his appreciation for the unique sound Stage Door Canteen brought to Cape audiences. “During those initial shows at the Landfall, we’d play once a week in the summertime and we drew quite a crowd of dancers,” Gamache said. “There was a large group of people who used to love to do swing dancing.”

Soon the band began expanding their repertoire, playing weddings and private functions, where people asked they go beyond the swing music that made them famous. “We started playing more ballroom dance for those who liked that and when we began doing weddings we had to branch out into rock,” Gamache said. “We couldn’t just play swing at a wedding so we learned soul, funk, started doing Earth, Wind and Fire... Now a good deal of our repertoire is funk and soul.”

And as they have evolved their footprint has expanded, with the band traveling to shows in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

To celebrate their 15th anniversary in 2007, Stage Door Canteen crossed the Atlantic, performing two shows in Ireland, one at the Sugar Club in Dublin, and the other at the Ramor Theater in County Cavan. “That was a big turning point for the band and when we really started to step outside of the Cape area,” Gamache said. “We put a lot of Celtic twist on our stuff; we have one girl who plays the Irish flute and I play the bagpipes, so that is why we went over to Ireland. It was kind of a fun thing for us.”

Chicago was chosen for this anniversary, he said, because of its connection to big band music. “And I felt like we should do something different and do it by rail to celebrate our forefathers like Duke Ellington who would travel to shows by train just like in the old days,” he said.

Cook was able to chronicle those adventures in his documentary, sharing a roomette—“It is Amtrak’s version of a prison cell,” he said—with Stage Door Canteen’s singer and trumpeter of the same name, Peter Cook, also of Falmouth.

The cramped quarters may have been a metaphor for how close the band and its members are. “The best part of shooting this documentary for me is the fun they have together,” Cook said. “They have basically been buddies forever. A lot of them have known each other for 15 to 20 years.”

The movie intersperses their individual thoughts on performing in Stage Door Canteen with shots of them playing at three clubs — Fitzgerald’s; Reggie’s Music Joint; and Gallery Caberet — in Chicago.

Music As A Form Of Therapy

Among the more powerful moments that Cook highlighted occurs when saxophonist Dan Sullivan talks about dealing with substance abuse issues. “He is now 10 years sober and he talked about how his experience with Stage Door Canteen and music had saved him,” he said.

The trip also allowed Cook to shoot in some historic settings—Fitzgerald’s has been used as the backdrop for several movies, including “A League of Their Own.” And the documentary concludes with the Stage Door Canteen members at the Chicago Train Station, posing on the staircase made famous in the shoot-out scene of the Brian De Palma gangster film “The Untouchables.”

After shooting more than 45 hours’ worth of footage, Cook had the arduous task of whittling that down into the finished product. By the end of September, he had edited the piece, which premiered the next month during a private screening for the band at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.

While it is available for viewing online, Mr. Cook said he hopes to get it shown on public access channels on the Upper Cape while also submitting it to the Woods Hole Film Festival next year.

As for the band, Mr. Gamache said the goal is to continue expanding and growing their audience off-Cape.

Twenty years after Stage Door Canteen played the first note, he admitted the experience is just as enjoyable now as it was then. “It’s really nice when you get to play with other guys and it is just fun, loose and everybody enjoys what they are doing. It makes it that much better for everyone in the band,” he said. “We want to keep that going.”

And as they do they can be assured Mr. Cook—dubbed an honorary member of Stage Door Canteen—will be in the audience, only this time he may leave his camera at home. “I’ve stopped shooting them the past few months,” he said. “Sometimes I just like going to hear the music and seeing it with friends over a drink because I really enjoy the heck out of it.”


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