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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 15, 2024


March 7, 2002 – What folks still refer to as "the ballroom" in the place they still call "The Grand Hotel" will be the scene Friday evening of something it hasn't seen for decades — dancing, to the sounds of a big band, live.
It's the "Big Band Jump," a fundraiser for the local USO, and it's taking place in The Art Gallery in the Grand Hotel, which is the full and formal name of Michael Paiewonsky's enterprise that occupies the old ballroom as well as ground-floor space in what today is known as Grand Galleria.
Planners say they're expecting a big turnout for the big band bash.
Frank Farmer is president of the local organization that provides hospitality for military personnel away from home and one of the volunteers putting the event together. Last year, he says, the USO had to hold an emergency fundraiser in order to keep its doors open, but proper planning and a heightened sense of patriotism are going to change all that.
USO members welcomed an invitation from Paiewonsky to utilize his erstwhile ballroom space for the dance and talked it up at Rotary meetings on St. Thomas. They collected donations of food and merchandise from shops and restaurants. Foster said they're hoping more than 500 people will attend. "We're counting on it being the only fundraiser for the entire year," he said.
For the $10 price of admission, partygoers get to enjoy music by the University of the Virgin Islands Jazz Ensemble, a complimentary drink, a spread of hors d'oeuvres and a chance at an assortment of door prizes. Organizers suggest it will be a wonderful way to wind down after working all week.
With U.S. service personnel now going to war, support for the USO has risen at a time when more military ships are expected to travel through the region. "For the enlisted personnel, the USO is a real necessity, partuclarly for these teen-agers who are new to the Navy," Jim Lovell, president of the Navy League, said. The Navy League provides similar hospitality services for commissioned officers when they arrive on shore leave.
In short, Lovell said, the USO gives the sailors somewhere to go instead of wandering the streets of Charlotte Amalie, getting bored after spending all their money. (Or, as he didn't say, occasionally getting themselves into trouble).
Farmer said he noticed a change in the usual visiting pattern shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy "was here in October, then they were deployed to New York," he said. "We were setting the building up and had just bought the sodas, and they just upped and took off."
These days, word of the comings and goings of U.S. warships is kept quiet. But Lovell said the deploying of America's ships abroad means foreign navies and coast guards are dropping in more often — and the doors of the USO are also opened for them.
The money raised by Friday's event will go toward the cost of operating the USO recreation center on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront east of the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel. The center was badly damaged by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 but has since been repaired with a new roof, ceiling fans and a small snack bar. There are sofas and a pool table inside, and pay phones outside near the open-air buffet, where sailors can pick up a chicken wing or two when their big ships are in port.
Farmer said if the fundraiser goes well and there's enough money's left after meeting the expenses of running the center, he would like to add a cybercafe. Today's men and women in uniform like to write home using e-mail, he notes, and to download the latest pictures of their kids.

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