My sister Sally and I are so close in age that on Christmas Day in 1945 my parents were a childless middle-class couple still celebrating the end of World War II and by Christmas of 1946 they had two December babies. Ho, ho, ho.
Sal and I are just 11 months apart in age; as a result we enjoyed/endured the same social milieu growing up, though she was a year behind me in school. During the week we would share the same yellow rattletrap country school bus and would sometimes glimpse each other in the cafeteria, though we usually tray-ed with our own friends. At Central Christian Chuch we were in the same Sunday School classes and youth group.
And on Saturday nights, we would go together to the dances at the local firehall for the area’s volunteer fire fighters.
This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in Mt. Jackson, Pennsylvania, an hour northeast of Pittsburgh in the rolling hills just two miles east of the Ohio border. Eisenhower was the popular president; JFK was soon to gain the White House with his fashion-conscious wife Jackie, though his Catholicism was a big voting issue in our area. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Dick Clark were big pre-occupations. That, and of course, the opposite sex.
Four small communities in our farmscape corner of Lawrence County—Mt. Jackson, Bessemer, Hillsville, and Wampum—had just merged their high schools into one–Mohawk High, and there were a lot of uncomfortable adjustments being made in the hallways, classrooms, and on athletic fields. Where we had once been arch-rivals in sports, we had to learn to see each other as teammates—the Warriors!
We Mt. Jackson kids—primarily Protestant and rural—were now going to school with classmates from different backgrounds than ours; town kids, more Catholics, even a few blacks–our first exposure to African-Americans, though that term hadn’t yet morphed from the usual “colored”.
The forced blending with all the new kids was difficult at times, and for the first couple of years, the traditional, socially-important Saturday night dances stayed in each home community. Most of the kids wanted to socialize with their old friends more than their new acquaintances.
For Sally and me each weekend, it was off to the North Beaver Township Fire Hall in Mt. Jackson, which was nothing more than a hilltop crossroad, with one blinking traffic light and a Sinclair gas station on the northwest corner with Andrews Lumber office catty-corner. Down a couple of houses to the northeast stood Art Lusk’s small grocery, where for each Independence Day celebration fireworks could be bought out of the back of Art’s Buick, parked behind the store, high law-defying intrigue in our community, though everyone knew it. We stopped at Art’s for his meat counter, Wonder Bread, canned chop suey, and fireworks.
One more house away from the corner was the firehall, where the Mt. Jackson area kids had been gathering on Saturday nights for several years, ever since rock ‘n roll had taken over the AM radio waves. Central to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, we were able to tune in the great Alan Freed–who coined the term “rock ‘n roll”—out of WJW in the Indians’ hometown, and listen after school to “The Great Race” with Clark Race on the influential 50,000 watt-er from Pittsburgh, KDKA.
Our new classmates continued to gather at their traditional hang-outs in Bessemer and Hillsville—the VFW and the Knights of Columbus hall. In Wampum, they never stopped playing basketball long enought to hold dances.
The gray cement-block firehall had two backed-in firetrucks parked behind large white doors on the left side of the front of the building, ready to siren out on the infrequent occasion when the volunteer firefighters were called to task in this agricultural community. The door’s windows were right at eye-level, where the cool guys could stand and watch the busy parking lot with one eye while watching the hall’s action with the other.
The center and right side of the firehall’s interior was where the community gatherings occured, dozens of cheap folding chairs leaned against the non-insulated cement walls during the week until the kids arrived on Saturday nights, ready to dance and romance like it was 1959.
The record player with its adapter for 45-rpm-speed records sat in an alcove to the right of the entrance, next to the refreshment stand window–a great location for the DJ to get to talk to anyone, for sooner or later everyone wanted an RC and Snyder’s potato chips, or would choose between Clove and JuicyFruit gum. Candy such as Hershey’s or Good & Plenty was avoided—they could be a cosmetic deterrent to romance if the chocolate or licorice was left on teeth when you wanted to dance with someone special. (“My, what black teeth you have, Jimmy!”)
I DJ-ed frequently because of my large collection of 45s, acquired thanks to the competition between my city cousin Randy and me to have the latest hits. Many of the other guys wanted to be cool, and spinning records wouldn’t give them the chance to pose disinterestedly against the yellow firetruck, even while they were avidly scoped on the school cuties. A few guys did mingle among the girls, recognizing that some females were more interested in personality and friendliness than the James Dean approach to relationships.
Each Saturday Dad would drive Sally and me the two country miles up to Jackson right after the can’t-miss-it “Dick Clark Show” on TV ended at 7:30. As the danceland DJ, I had to know what Dick’s Top Ten songs for the week were in order to pass on that hot news at the dance. In those days, that was hot news, our own weekly “America-Idol” like gossip.
Carrying my square sturdy record cases, I had to arrive at the hall early in order to get the record player out of the closet, wire the hall’s speakers to the sound system, hook up the mike to announce the songs, and organize my records and notes for the next three hours. All the records and my notes were organized and ready.
I’d play a few fast tunes starting around 7:50, but it was after 8 before the battered beige metal folding chairs around the perimter of the hall were claimed and clustered with a clatter.
As the arriving teenagers paid 50¢ inside the door to have the back of their hands stamped with purple ink, I wanted them to find the music immediately irresistable.
Girls were the key to a successful start to the dance, and as they headed to various groups of chair-circled friends, I wanted them to throw their jackets onto the chair in the cluster that was overflowing with piled-high coats, then hurry out onto the sawdust-strewn, cement floor, gesturing come-on! at a girlfriend to jitterbug to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors—one of my favorites.
“The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez always got things jumping. I knew which songs would pump up the adrenaline volume for the night.
Meanwhile, the guys would head to their friends standing in the corner clumps or leaning against the shiny firetruck closest to the dance area.
Old time religion had nothing on ’50s teen dances regarding the separation of the sexes, at least at the start of the evening. It was my job to preach the gospel of music to the listening, dancing congregation in order to achieve gender-integration, dancing cheek-to-cheek.
I learned early that girls loved music, and liked boys who liked music. Even more, they liked boys who liked to dance.
So, I learned to dance.
On schooldays, Sally and I would ride the bus—driven by crochety math teacher Mr. McKissick–home from school after the 3:30 dismissal bell to our white-with-green-shutters two-story frame house on Paden Road, surrounded by two-and-a-half acres.
Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” after-school show on the ABC network was a must-watch to see what the cool kids in Philadelphia were wearing and how they were dancing.
To prepare for Saturday night, my kid sister and I would put a stack of 45s on our red-and-white portable record player and practice fast-dancing in the living room.
We learned how to really jump and spin. After we loosened up a bit with some unstructured dancing around—which remains curiously still practiced 50 years later, I’d pull my sister close for a couple of whirls, then spin her out like a top, despite the carpeted floor. Just as it looked like she was heading into Dad’s Hammond organ in the corner, I’d reel her back into my arms and we’d rock around the room some more, chasing Bo, our old Boxer, out to the kitchen. I’d twirl Sal around, holding her hand high over her head, and then duck under our joined bower and wind her into my arms to finish out the song. Our obnoxious/loveable eight-year-old brother Bruce would come into the room, drawn by the music and floor-stomping, roll his eyes at our antics, and head upstairs to the room overlooking the woods which he and I shared, to work on his model airplanes.
When Saturday night rolled around, Sal and I were ready to dance! We were good enough together that once in a while someone would ask us to go out and dance to get everyone else revved up.
Into the mike I’d announce the song and artist, frequently with a little platter-chatter—common in those days. I’d set the tone-arm needle down on the record—with a quarter taped to the head if the needle hadn’t been replaced lately—and go to the chair-circle where Sal and her friends were gathered, take her hand, and head out to have a ball, showing off what we’d practiced that week. Spin, twirl, wind, and bop.
I knew the songs well enough that a few seconds before the song ended, I would let go of Sal, and dart to the alcove to be ready to announce and start the next record, using my notes to add something about the song or the band, such as how the Four Seasons got their name from the bowling alley where they had met to consider their future
Many of us worried that our nervousness at dancing witth girls or guys we liked would cause sweat to wash away the Clearasil covering our blemishes. We did have that precious little tube with us to reapply as needed. Something called Phisox was also becoming popular. Whatever it took to make us look as good as the kids on the cover of “16” magazine, and the dancing audience on Dick Clark’s show.
And guys like me re-waxed the front of our crew-cuts to stay snazzy.
The path to the rest rooms was always busy, for those two small rooms were where we spiffed ourselves up and exchanged dancehall news. (“Since when have Frank ‘n Janet been so cozy, huh?”)
The DJ had two jobs: to provide an enjoyable aural environment for the teenaged goings on. As much as I liked to focus on the music, I knew that most folks saw it as a social event that might include some dancing. My other job was to make sure that when they wanted to dance, the right music was playing for them.
I did my best to keep the kids on the dance floor, regardless of the gender mix.
The real problem was the boys’ disinclination to dance. They were there to check out the girls, and because many boys wouldn’t dance, the girls danced with each other. Not the way that girls now dance with each other at the Wall Street club in downtown Columbus, but rather dancing for the pure joy of bopping to late 50s/early 60s music–which we can now listen to on Classic Oldies radio stations, poorly-programmed by under-thirties who couldn’t identify “Short Shorts” as being by the Royal Teens, who never had a crush on Shelley Fabares, never mirror-snarled to “Don’t Be Cruel”. I guess that makes us kind of Oldies, too, but back then both the rock ‘n roll music and all of us kids were young and enjoying/suffering/enduring the moment.
The way to get the guys up and going was sneaky, but effective.
After folks got settled in and the girls had danced a few fast songs while the boys established territory, I’d announce, “ladies’ choice” and put on a slow song, maybe “To Know Him is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears, a Frankie Avalon ballad such as “A Boy without a Girl”, or any slow Elvis, like “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t,” or “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
The girls would go ask the guys to dance; while few refused, few showed any enthusiasm. Uncool. But at least they were on their feet and moving around the hall. Some boys danced well; others danced as though they wore the basketball team’s ankle-weights, without grace in their glidings or poetry in their souls.
Slow-dancing needed no lessons. No skill was needed. Arthur Murray Dance Studio classes weren’t necessary. You just stood upright, reached behind your partner’s back with your right hand and placed it in the small of her back, right on the gathering of the shirtwaisted dress, or where the flared, pleated skirt met the non-revealing blouse. The left hand held the girl’s right hand about shoulder-high–no fingers entwined unless you were dating. The two of you could then shuffle along to your own rhythm or could actually stay with the beat of the song and glide around the hall, imagining ourselves to be Fred and Ginger, or even better, Frankie and Annette, whose popularity spang from “The Mickey Mouse Club” and her sweet and innocent hot looks, which Walt Disney worried about. Kind of like Lawrence Welk upset at the Lennon Sisters’ Janet becoming a lusted-after cover-girl.
I’d back that slow “ladies’ choice” with another slow song, maybe Kathy Young’s “A Thousand Stars”, or “All Alone Am I” by Brenda Lee, or The Platters’ grabber, “Only You”, starting it immediately without any talk in order to prod the guys into staying with their dancing partners for another turn across the floor. The heated looks I sometimes received could have turned my Clark bar to an ice cream topping.
Occasionally a guy would be in the arms of the girl they wanted to be dancing with at the end of the night (“Save the Last Dance for Me”). Other times during an early ladies’ choice song a guy might find himself holding a friend of the girl who liked him, who was in his arms as an advance scout to check out his interest first and report back to the waiting potential girlfriend.
Those back-to-back ballads would be enough slow dancing for the first session. Some fast songs were needed to rev up the ruckus, like Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park”, “Revile Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, Bobby Rydell’s “Wild One, ” or the anthem of teenage romantic angst, “Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts.
What had to be avoided—if the intent was to get guys dancing to anything but ladies’ choices—were songs that were neither fast nor slow. Earl Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” was one such song. “Born Too Late” by The Ponytails was a song that was quite popular, but only the girls danced to it, singing along as they eyed the dangerous older boys slouching by the shadowed emergency vehicles, chewing gum and wise-cracking to one another.
Cha-cha-cha songs were popular, but once again it was the girls and only a few brave guys who shuffled to “Venus” by Franklie Avalon, “When” by the Kalin Twins, and “Come Softly to Me” by the Fleetwoods. Two singers whose popularity was partially driven by their appearance on weekly television programs also had cha-cha-cha hits: “Johnny Angel” by gorgeous Shelley Fabares from “The Donna Reed Show”, and “Travelin’ Man” by the very popular Ricky Nelson from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” My own personal favorite cha-cha, thanks to the theme, was “My Heart is an Open Book.” “Venus” is #2.
Difficult-to-dance songs like these indicated that it was time for some guys to head outside for a cigarette pulled from the pack rolled up in the short sleeves of their shirts, or to the bathroom to comb their hair—slick with Brillcream or Vitalis—with a black comb from the backpocket of their jeans. Others came by the refreshment stand for an RC in a paper cup, and occasionally made a quiet comment (warning?) to me about staying away from “ladies’ choices.”
However, if I put on a novelty dance song, lots of girls and boys would hit the floor together. In 1959, it was the wildly popular “Turn Me Loose” by Fabian, to which everyone did The Stroll. In 1960 I had to spin Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” several times a night, and in ’61, he came back with “Let’s Twist Again (Like We Did Last Summer),” which won a Grammy. Chubby was so named after Fats Domino’s moniker by Dick Clark’s wife.
Sally and I danced a little during the first hour of the hop, but then I became more interested in dancing with girls I liked. Sharon—whose perfume I can still smell. Peggy—who imprinted on me the desirability of intelligent, redheaded left-handers. Jeanne—the girl that Sally always said was the one I should have stayed with after graduation, and the one who comes to mind each time I hear The Lettermen sing “The Way You Look Tonight.” It was a very popular song during our sophomore year when I escorted her to the Harvest Ball. She looked great in a beautiful soft yellow dress.
So it went through the evening, as dances were danced, and romances were started, explored, deepened, and/or ended, all to their customized Saturday night soundtrack. It was obvious when a new romance was blossoming right in front of us all: a twosome that hadn’t been a couple on Friday in school were now nearly inseparable on Saturday night.
In those days, when a boy and girl danced with their arms completely around each other, no hands being held, hot bodies tight against each other, barely moving across the dancefloor, they were announcing to the school that they were a couple, going steady—this week, taking Elvis’ advice about wearing a ring around her neck. Sometimes the guy’s ring would be worn on the girl’s finger, with lots of pink yarn, sizing it to fit. Occasionally the lovers would dance that close even during fast songs, oblivious to any beat but the beat of their hearts. The windows of the firehall steamed over quickly. With many of us yet unable to drive, this was as close to making out that we were likely to get that night.
It wasn’t unusual to see a boy and girl arguing in the hallway by the restrooms, or heading outside—together or individually—to sulk, fight, and/or make up with teenage kissing that is as raw as it gets in its inexperienced, consuming power. The same kids would sometimes come back in, holding hands, with hair needing attention.
I saw it all from my DJ corner. I controlled the dance, if not the raging hormones. I could get people worked up or calm them down with the right choice of tunes.
I admit to manipulating more than one romance, including my own. Sometimes the girl I wanted to be dancing with would be dancing with another guy, and so I’d segue from a slow dance to a fast dance to chase him to gasoline alley.
Kids were constantly coming over and making music requests and dedications. They pretty much knew what records I had, and I’d drop them onto the spindle and announce the request and dedication. “Just a Dream” by Jimmy Clanton was a favorite, as was “Donna” by Richie Valens and The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy.” I could see the guys almost cringe when I announced anything from a “ladies’ choice” to a dedication which might cause them to have to dance and then be exposed to ridicule from their buddies when they returned to polish the firetruck with the seat of their jeans.
I could see who was eying whom, and who was avoiding being eyed. I watched flirtations and heartbreak; the joys and agonies of teenagers were on display for all to see.
By 10:30, I was prepared for the last half-hour, which —as any high school hop veteran will tell you—is the most important time of the dance. Those who had gotten lucky (by the standard of the day) would be there until 11, clinging to their dancemates. A few of the guys left early to do whatever troublemakers like to do. Most of the girls stayed, ever hopeful that some, any shy guy would finally come over and ask them to dance, or just not wanting a night with friends to end.
They all knew that for that last 20 minutes or so, I’d turn the lights down a little, and nothing but slow songs would be heard. Dreamy, romantic ballads bring lovers together. The Lettermen, Johnny Mathis, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” by Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.” I did no between-disk chat. The music and the words of the songs were what everyone wanted to hear, not the DJ’s voice. So I’d play “My Special Angel” by Bobby Helms, backed with the Penguins’ “Earth Angel.”
It was fun to watch everyone checking the clock above the refreshment stand—which closed a half-hour before the dance was over. If you were dancing at that hour, you wanted time to move very slowly, to have your Saturday night romance last as long as possible before going home to the reality of parents and brothers and sisters who would not respect the dreamy mood you’d arrive in, probably watching “Chiller Thriller,” later titled “The Late Night Horror Movie”, hosted by Chilly Billy Cardilly (Cardille) on Channel 11 out of Pittsburgh.
Some kids had either left already or were fussing with coats, saying goodbye to friends in the dim light of the Exit sign.
The last two songs were always the same. Songs to overflow young hearts with yearning. With love. With lust.
When the distinctive first notes of “Image of a Girl” by the Safaris played, you could almost see the kids cling even tighter to one another. Tick, tock, tick, tock, began the song, literally. Tick, tock, tick, tock, went the firehall clock. Most were clinch-dancing by the. Little casual dancing was in evidence. The music was for lovers.
Out in the center of the darkened firehall, danceland had become dreamland; perhaps a dozen pairs of dreamers swayed slightly, barely moving, though their blood was racing. “Goodnight My Love” by the Fleetwoods was the final song of the night. We sang it into our dance-partners’s ears and hearts. We were in love.
As it should be.
When the music ended, the lights came on, and a collective sigh was audible. Parents were waiting in the parking lot, motors running and sucking down that cheap 25-cents-a-gallon gas as Mom or Dad sucked down a Winston which “tastes good, as a (bam! bam!) cigarette should!”
Inside, while I was putting away the record player and packing up my records and notes, kids were putting on their coats, and making arrangements to meet in school on Monday. The lovers were obvious in their desire not to part. Sally would come by and help me carry my record cases out to the car.
Brother and sister had a pact that nothing that the other did at the dance would be fodder for family fun. Whatever happened at the firehall stayed at the firehall. As we climbed inside his spacious ’59 Buick Invicta, Dad would ask how the dance went, and we’d reply, “OK,” which would satisfy him. He may not have wanted to know. He’d drop the gearshift into D, and pull from the graveled parking lot out onto the unlit country road, looking forward to getting home and going to bed so he and Mom could listen to KDKA’s “Party Line” call-in show with Ed and Wendy King while they read Reader’s Digest condensed novels, “National Geographic” magazine, or “Better Homes and Gardens.”
Home from the hop we all went, with enough social fuel for a week’s worth of fantasies and gossip until we all got together again at the firehall for the high school hop on another Saturday night in Mt. Jackson, Pennsylvania.