Danceland and Early Rock n’ Roll (Part Two)
Memories of A Vanished Era
It’s a hot July afternoon in 1964. A teenaged hand fiddles with the AM radio dial, clipping between static and pieces of music before settling in at 1130 on the dial:
The strains of Bobby Vinton’s voice rise to a crescendo, with horns and strings ending a song. Sam Babcock comes on: “Tell Me Why there honey, Tell Me Why…Bobby Vinton. Number thirty-seven on the Tall Tiger Top Fifty Survey…” Next an ad blurts out from the radio in a loud, confident tone: “It’s Danceland dancing fun this Tuesday and Thursday nights! Tuesday night it’s the hitmakers in person, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs of ‘Sugar Shack’ fame [‘Sugar Shack’ plays briefly in the background] playing that and all the rest of your favorite hits, along with yours truly, Wee-Gee’s Bill Diehl. And hey–Thursday night a fun-filled Battle of the Bands, with Little Caesar and the Conspirators versus The Chancellors. Dance this Tuesday night and Thursday night at Danceland at Excelsior! Big Reggie says: [another song segment comes in, this time it’s Roger Miller from the song ‘Dang Me’] ‘…they’ll take a rope and hang me.'” DJ Babcock comes back on: “Sounds kind of drastic, don’t you think?” —Segment taken from AM radio archives.
A Cavernous Wooden Hemisphere
Standing just across the road from the entrance to the Excelsior Amusement Park stood another ancient relic, Danceland. Twin Cities writer Daniel Gabriel, who made many treks out to the joint in the sixties, describes Danceland as being “a cavernous wooden hemisphere,” a place of almost monumental stature, its origins as a dance hall dating back to 1920, the year it ceased operation as a roller rink and was carefully transported, section by section, across the frozen ice of Lake Minnetonka, to its new home, adjacent to what would later be a new amusement park. Rebuilt as a ballroom, Danceland sported one of the largest wooden dance floors in the Upper Midwest, able to hold up to 2,000 dancers at a time. The spacious interior was all wood, with huge beams and rafters overhead, lightbulbs dangling down from the rafters like spiders from a web, and a big wide stage just a little above the dance floor way down at the end. Large windows admitted some light in under the peaked roof. Along the sides were more windows, but the appearance was still a dark one, because of arched columns that stood in a row on either side, in front of the windows, partially obscuring them in a sort of cathedral-like effect. Under the windows, back behind the columns, were wooden booths to sit in. When you entered the front door, it was like when you entered a movie theatre. You didn’t see the inside at first. You had to enter a vestibule-like narthex, paying for your ticket at the booth there. Once you had your ticket, you could push back the next door, past the concession tables, where the expansive interior suddenly revealed itself in all its glory.
In the early days, from 1930 until the late 1950s, Rudy Shogran ran the place. As Danceland’s manager, he was, according to Daniel Gabriel, “master of the promo.” He ran a very successful operation, putting Danceland on the map as a premier place for Minneapolis businessmen and organizations to unwind. He used every available ruse — free ticket events, motorcycle escorts out to Excelsior for R.K.O. Orpheum performers coming from downtown — he even offered a Ford Roadster as a special prize one evening. Gabriel also wrote of how Shogran reacted to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Crowds were cut in half, because now “everybody’s in the honkytonks along the route to Hopkins,” Shogran said. So he fought back. Draft beer suddenly became available for a time in the ballroom, along with a new feature, the “Battle of the Bands.” These battles pitted the house orchestra up against outsiders, like a popular polka band in one instance. As a result of his tireless promotion, Danceland thrived right through the Depression and WWII. When he retired, Shogran passed the management torch over to a new generation, represented by a guy who had grown up around Danceland and the amusement park. He was a son of one of the amusement park managers and got his first job, as Gabriel writes, “sweeping Danceland’s ballroom floor at the age of fourteen.” His name was Ray Colihan. But everybody would come to know him by another name, “Big Reggie.”
Danceland became “Big Reggie’s Danceland” in the late fifties. Reggie didn’t waste much time making some changes to the menu, trying to keep to the high standards of promotion set by his predecessor. The bookings changed to reflect broader changes then taking place in American culture.
Rock ‘n Roll – The “Awful Noise”
By the late fifties, big orchestras or “big bands” as they were called were on the way out. The demographic that spent the most money on popular music and entertainment was no longer the “GIs returned from the war” but their kids. They rejected the big bands for the most part, settling in more and more on a new type of music, which some called “Rhythm and Blues,” some insensitive adults called “Awful Noise,” but more and more people were beginning to call “Rock ‘n Roll.” Whatever it was called, this new music was taking over, and kids were buying it and requesting it on the radio. Never mind that the adults thought it was “garbage,” or in “bad taste.” The adults had mortgages, and families to stay home with. They weren’t spending money at clubs anymore, or buying records in huge numbers every week — the kids were. The smart promoters saw the writing on the wall and started booking rock ‘n rollers.
Artists like Johnny and the Hurricanes, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Hollywood Argyles started to take to the stage at Big Reggie’s Danceland. Big Reggie’s became a hot venue once again and the kids came out in big numbers. In February of 1963, Colihan scored a major coup by booking a little-known West Coast group called the Beach Boys. By the time they were scheduled to appear, later in the year, the group had grown in stature, holding the number one record on the local charts, and “surf music” was a national phenomenon, like the Twist had been the previous year. People came from miles around, and cars were stacked up along all of the roads leading to Excelsior as a result. Mike Love made a comment once when asked when he thought the Beach Boys had made it big. “I remember the exact moment,” Love told the interviewer. “It was when we played at a place called Danceland at Excelsior, in Minnesota. The cars were stacked up for miles, and I turned to the rest of the guys and told them that we were now bigger than Elvis.” It got so bad with the crowds however that Big Reggie almost lost his license. The police and fire department had to come out to take back control of a mob scene, complete with kids who couldn’t get in trying to climb in through the windows. Big Reggie had hit the jackpot.
Local Bands, Local Battles
Big Reggie’s also became the premier spot for a growing roster of local acts that had sprung up in the Twin Cities region in the sixties, particularly after the British Invasion. Few people today realize it, but the market for popular music in the early sixties was still very regional, less organized and corporatized than it would later become, so there was still a greater chance for a small, independent, competitive record label to score it big locally before having to go before the nation and sell to a bigger market. As a result, there was much more creative diversity in popular music, and not as much of the monopolisitic control over what got played on the radio, although marketing trends like the PAMS format were certainly moving AM radio toward greater consolidation during the sixties. In the Minneapolis region, groups like The Chancellors, The Del Counts, Gregory Dee and the Avantis, The Deacons, and others — all became a part of the Danceland scene. And of course a big draw was The Trashmen, who ruled the Twin Cities airwaves from late 1963 until 1964, when the Beatles burst forth upon our shores. “When you went to a place like Danceland, there was electricity in the air before the band went on,” recalled Trashmen guitarist Tony Andreason. He added, “Once things kicked off, bands would feed off the intensity in the room, and [off of] the dancer’s requests.”
A popular local dance tune in the early sixties was by a group called The Underbeats. “Footstompin'” got the kids at Danceland stomping their feet so hard, according to Castaways keyboardist Jim Donna, that “the owner came up and stopped the band; he was afraid of structural damage.”
Sometimes during the late fifties and early-to mid-sixties, just showing up at Danceland could cause structural damage — to a guy’s face! Teenage hoodlums — not known for their tact or appreciation of cultural diversity — liked to make the scene, hanging out at Danceland’s parking lot, drinking and starting fights. Big Reggie didn’t sell alcoholic beverages in his establishment, so kids did their drinking outside or had to sneak it inside in a well-concealed hip flask. The parking lot often seethed with teaming masses of drunken, unregulated toughs — and they came from all over the region, so there could potentially be rival high schools, rival cliques, and sometimes even rival gangs, distinguished by the jacket colors they wore. Often all it took to start trouble was to stare too long or to say the wrong thing. Fights also broke out inside the club as well.
Gabriel has written extensively on the subject of violence at Danceland: “Most nights there were fights. Sometimes they’d start with a lone bull whose inability to get a girl made him take out his frustrations on those who did. Other times it was the gangs, though these stuck mainly to their own turf. Excelsior’s local hoodlums, the X-Boys, ran Big Reggie’s Danceland with an admirable efficiency, though one notable exception occurred in 1966 when the south-Minneapolis-based Suprees (widely acknowledged as the baddest gang in town) came out in force to settle the issue of colors. (Both gangs wore bottle-green-and-black Prima jackets.) When two dozen city-bred toughs came crashing through the door, the place emptied and a battle erupted in the quiet midnight streets of Excelsior. The police intervened, and the issue was never decided.”
Big Reggie’s Piece of the Action
Big Reggie, always scheming to find the newest, latest artists to book, thought he saw a new opportunity in early 1964 to repeat the success of the previous year’s Beach Boys discovery. He had noticed that the kids were going ape over English groups, following the success of the Beatles, who literally came over here and rearranged the charts, putting themselves for a time in the number one, two, and three positions in many markets — something never seen before. Other acts were coming over and following the Beatles’ lead, groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, and the Animals. This British Invasion was not only making pop music history, but was making the executives of the music industry and entertainment people sit up and take notice. There was serious money in this phenomenon!
Colihan wasted little time in getting his piece of the action. He decided to take a chance on a British group that was just starting to make a bit of headway over in Britain, but was still almost completely unknown over on our shores. The group he found was a scruffy, long-haired group calling themselves the Rolling Stones. The Stones were assembling their first ever American tour early in 1964, and were available for booking in the Summer. Big Reggie saw his chance, and ran with it. This was going to be another huge success for his club, perhaps even bigger than anything he had ever booked so far!
The Caveman Quintet
The Rolling Stones had formed in 1962, and by 1964 were incorporating American blues, r & b, and hard fifties rock ‘n roll into their shows. Their rough-around-the-edges public persona, coupled with a reputation for thumbing their noses at adult respectability and convention, plus an adeptness at playing raw, hard-core blues and rock music, set them apart from other acts, including the Beatles, who had been tamed-down from their earlier Hamburg days as leather-jacketed rockers. If anything, the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, helped to promote the untamed image of the group. “Would you let your sister go out with a Rolling Stone?” became a printed item in English tabloids at the time. The “cavemanlike quintet” as some Brits called them, consisted of: Mick Jagger (vocals); Keith Richards (back-up vocals, lead guitar); Brian Jones (rhythm guitar); Bill Wyman (bass), and Charlie Watts on drums. They had released one album so far, a copy would begin to hit the shelves in America in May, retitled: “England’s Newest Hit-makers.” Their first and only single at that time to be released in the States came out in March. It was a cover of the Buddy Holly tune, “Not Fade Away,” backed with a cover of one of the Beatles’ album compositions, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” The single barely made a dent in the top 100 U.S. charts; the album was almost unknown early in the year.
Americans: Brace Yourselves
As the calendar rolled over into June, the five “cavemen” departed for our shores, their first destination New York City. The British press preceded their plane with an AP wire, which warned Americans to “brace yourselves.” It set a tone for the future that the band would play like a violin, helping to build a reputation as a unique new act. “In the tracks of the Beatles,” it stated, “a second wave of sheepdoglooking, angry acting, guitar-playing Britons is on the way. They call themselves the Rolling Stones and they’re due in New York on Tuesday.”
After passing through customs and weathering several press conferences in New York, the group flew to the other coast for a scheduled appearance on Dean Martin’s “Hollywood Palace Show” in Los Angeles. There they performed two songs, Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and the Holly (Norman Petty) cover, “Not Fade Away.” Both songs were edited and broadcast at later dates, the first broadcast of the latter tune, which aired in mid-June while the Stones were still touring. Host Dean Martin made rude and disparaging comments about the group, at one point comparing them to orangutans.
But on June 5th, when they played their first-ever live concert in San Bernardino, CA, they were a huge hit with the teenage crowd. A large mob of screaming girls rushed the stage, at one point getting up onto the stage and having to be physically put back by the police. The next day the Stones had to be over in San Antonio, Texas, so they headed into the American heartland.
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