Whitewater man helped keep big band music alive

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Kayla Bunge
Thursday, May 15, 2008
— Music was Vernon Castle’s life.

The sultry, swinging sounds of the Big Band Era filled ballrooms, hotels and casinos in the 1930s until war dealt its melody a crippling blow. Musicians were drafted, and solo singing acts filled the gap.

“Suddenly, bands were hired to back vocalists,” Castle told The Week in 2001. “It was all over for big bands after World War II.”

But that rich sound never quite got away from him.

While in high school, Castle played drums in the Bud Wilber Orchestra, an Elkhorn ensemble, and often skipped school for gigs. He even started his own “big band,” The Stardusters, a seven-piece group of high school musicians who played local school dances.

“(Music) was just part of his life,” said Mary Castle, his wife of 25 years. “He never said why, it was just part of him.”

Castle died of prostate cancer April 25. He was 79.

After graduating from Whitewater City High School and UW-Whitewater, Castle served as an Army warrant officer in the Korean War.

When he returned, he formed a trio with siblings Rick and Jan Travis. Castle played drums and trumpet, Rick Travis played guitar and Jan Travis played piano. The group played opening-act gigs in ballrooms, hotels and night clubs across the country.

Castle built a recording studio in his Lake Geneva home, and it became the favorite for Chicago’s best musicians.

“Word got out that he did good work,” said Art Lein, a childhood friend.

Castle recorded hundreds of radio commercials, including those for Wrigley chewing gum, Menards and Boston Store.

Business soon outgrew the home studio, and Shade Tree Studios moved to the former Playboy Club in Lake Geneva.

In 1979, Castle and his Last Dance Band recorded an album—a tribute to the music of the Big Band Era—called “Everything Old is New Again,” which was nominated for a Grammy in the 1980s. The band also played backup for such musicians as Bob Hope and Johnny Desmond.

Castle met his future wife, Mary, in 1982, while she was working in the hotel gift shop. They married in 1983 and a couple years later traveled between Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to manage Castle’s Shops of Distinction, five boutique hotel gift shops.

Castle left the recording industry in 1984.

“I think he had had it at that time,” Mary said. “He was burned out.”

The Castles left the retail industry in 1991 for the same reason.

In 1992, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Vernon served as executive director of the American Small Business Association and Mary served as public affairs director. They lived there until 1997, when Castle’s health began to worsen.

The couple moved back to Whitewater, and Castle taught written communications at Gateway Technical College, served as the personnel manager for the Beloit/Janesville Symphony and joined the American Legion.

“He was the kind of a person that whatever he did, he did well,” said fellow musician and longtime friend Mike Alongi.

But music remained a fixture in Castle’s life, despite his varied work history.

“He always had a love of music,” Mary said.

That didn’t mean it was easy.

“It was work,” Castle told The Week in 2001. “You work four or five hours, sometimes to 4 in the morning. You have to be young to do that.”

In addition to wife, survivors include three stepsons and two grandchildren.

Services were held May 3, and Castle was buried at Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove.

Last updated: 9:09 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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