Tag Archives: Excelsior Brewing Company

Tapping History (Again): Dance Hall Days of the ’60s

20 April 2016

Whichever dance hall they're heading to—that's where I'm going.

Whichever dance hall they’re heading to—that’s where I’m going.

Many thanks to the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, for once again hosting an event that allowed me to revisit my misguided youth. Here’s how they billed last week’s affair:

Join us for a night about Minnesota Rock and Roll in the 1960s. Rick Shefchik, author of Everybody’s Heard About the Bird: the True Story of 1960s Rock N Roll in Minnesota, will be joined by Daniel Gabriel, who spent much of his youth in Excelsior, has written extensively on the Dance Hall scene, and completed a yet-unpublished novel inspired by Excelsior. They will recall a time when music was regional, when local dance halls catapulted Twin City bands to a national stage, and when Excelsior was among the region’s most important venues for new music.

Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society's photo.

[Shown above is Excelsior’s Danceland, one of the biggest and most influential dance halls in the Twin Cities. Dig those entrance doors. From the look of them, they were stolen from the Amusement Park’s Fun House right across the street.]

I had never met Rick Shefchik, though thanks to a timely Christmas gift from son Alex, I’d been able to devour his book, which I loved. Rick and I seemed to hit it off quite well. I was told later that our sharing of the mic appeared seamless and well-rehearsed. Probably it was just our joint passion for the subject.

Rick emphasized some of the key bands of the era, offering historic photos

Augie Garcia bouncing through "River Road Boogie."

Augie Garcia bouncing through “River Road Boogie.”

(everything from early St. Paul rocker Augie Garcia cavorting onstage in his trademark Bermuda shorts, to Danceland’s owner, Big Reggie Colihan, leaning in on 3 guys named John, Paul & George). His choices were excellent, though I couldn’t resist upbraiding him about underselling my favorite local band, TC Atlantic. (He did mention their single “Mona,” but I felt the need to bang the gong for “Faces,” an early garage band/psychedelic classic.)

My angle was more about dance hall culture, and the rapid style changes that flitted past during the ’60s. From Continental style (greased-back hair and tight pegged pants) into the Baldie look (high-water pants worn with knee-length sox and spit-shined wingtips or shells) and so on to Mod (or at least the watered-down US version, which often mistook flair and exotic cut for the more subtle over-elaboration used by the early Brit Mods) and eventually the visual riot of Psychedelia. Women in the crowd helped fill in the many gaps in my memory about how girls’ styles vamped and changed. (Culottes, flirt skirts, hiphuggers and minis . . .)

The crowd, once again, was incredibly knowledgeable—and standing room only. When Rick struggled to remember the name of an obscure ballroom in Pipestone (the far SW corner of the state), somebody in the crowd immediately piped up with the name. And when we discussed, inevitably, the legendary Rolling Stones concert at Danceland in 1964, no fewer than four people in the audience had been there. Memories? “All I could think of was how big the singer’s lips were” . . . “the bass player was holding his bass real funny, almost upright” . . . “I didn’t think the songs they played were all that different from local bands” . . . “Is it true what they say about Danceland and Mr. Jimmy?”

Ah, yes, Mr. Jimmy. Excelsior legend and supposed inspiration for the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I won’t take the time to recount the entire story here, but I have come to realize that I am now considered an authority on the matter. Rick even said I had swayed his opinion from doubtful to possible. And, again, members of the audience had their own twigs to throw on the fire: “My friend worked the Bacon Drug soda fountain in those years, and she witnessed the encounter between Jagger and Mr. Jimmy.” . . . “I was one of Jimmy’s best friends. He talked about that time a lot . . .”

And afterwards, the stories kept on coming. One audience member after another had a memory to share. We could argue over which dance hall was the best, but we all agreed on what good times had been had. To quote Bunny Wailer, from a completely different context: “Rule Dance Hall!”

Excelsior in the 60s: Epicenter of Twin Cities Teen Life

18 February 2015

Great beer! Great event!

Great beer (especially the Mr. Jimmy Baltic Porter), great crowd, great event!

That title above is how we described my recent talk for the “Tapping History” series with the Excelsior/Lake Minnetonka Historical Society. Held on a monthly basis in the welcoming confines of the craft-beer Excelsior Brewing Company, Tapping History brings to life forgotten aspects of this key piece of territory on the Twin Cities scene.

The crowd was already buzzing when I arrived, and grew so large that not only were all available seats taken, but the standing room got so crowded that late arrivals were housed somewhere near St. Alban’s Bay. These folks were pumped up to revisit local life in the 60s—and they knew their stuff!

The crowd was ripe for any anecdotes I might care to share—and quite interested in both the Excelsior-based articles I’d written (“Still Spinning in a Summer Wind” and “Dance Hall Days” for Mpls/St. Paul magazine; “Land of 10,000 Dances” for Goldmine and Sweet Potato, plus other secondary articles) and my unpublished novel of the era, Paradiso. The enthusiastic response to passages I read from Paradiso has given me new hope that a publisher will soon recognize the value of the tales within.

When I moved to Excelsior as a 10 year-old, the Amusement Park was a vast, everchanging playground.

When I moved to Excelsior as a 10 year-old, the Amusement Park was a vast, ever changing playground.

Excelsior in the 60s had Big Reggie’s Danceland (the premier metro dance hall of the day), the Excelsior Amusement Park (renowned across Minneapolis-St. Paul and beyond), the Commons (still going strong, and still a fine piece of sprawling greenery bending along Lake Minnetonka’s shoreline) and a picnic area featuring two swimming beaches and a basketball court. Each and every one of these places gave rise to local legends that are still in circulation. I was able to toss out just about any question and find an audience member with personal insight.

Did anybody see The Stones the time they played Danceland back in mid-1964, when only 283 people showed up, because they hadn’t yet hit the US charts? Yes, 2-3 people present had been there and had definite memories to share. “I told my buddy, that singer’s got to be the ugliest guy I’ve ever seen.”

How about when The Beach Boys played in 1962, touring behind their first nationwide single, “Surfin’ Safari”? There was a guy in the crowd who’d been called up and told “Mr. Wilson requires a white Fender for his concert tonight. Would you be willing to rent him yours?” And he did.

Which Amusement Park rides did people remember best? For many, of course, it was the infamous roller coaster (DO NOT STAND UP), but I was stunned to be reminded about a ride I didn’t even recall myself!—motor boats that set off from the shore and took Park visitors on a brief spin around a couple of adjacent bays. A man piped up: “Hey, I used to work as driver of those boats. If we had girls on board we’d take the long route, behind Big Island. Otherwise, we’d just circle Gale’s Island and come back.”

Folks always said that several people had died by standing up and falling out and that the roller coaster had been condemned. I loved it.

Folks always said that several people had died by standing up and falling out and that the roller coaster had been condemned. I loved it.

Anybody remember the wonderful run to the State Basketball Championship by Minnetonka High in 1965? (I brought this up because of all the pick-up games we used to play with a couple of the starters on that team.) Lo and behold, one of the former players I mentioned was there—”Thanks for a great flashback!” he told me afterwards.

Then we fell to talking about Twin Cities gangs of the era, including Excelsior’s local toughs, the X-Boys. The wife of one of their former leaders was present, and nearly destroyed my (second-hand) memories of the great 1966 rumble between the X-Boys and the toughest gang in Minneapolis, the Suprees. The battle was over colors (both gangs wore the same bottle green-and-black Prima jackets) and it has always been a point of pride that Excelsior’s boys had at least held their own. Now somebody with a more direct connection was saying that the X-Boys “hid,” rather than fight. I felt my world beginning to shatter—then another attendee recounted some specifics from the fight that, at least in my mind, salvaged our local honor.

Finally, we swung full bore into talking about Mr. Jimmy Hutmaker, who features in Paradiso under another name. Mr. Jimmy, as everyone in town knows, was sitting in his regular spot in the local drugstore when the pasty-faced lead singer of that Rolling Stones band wandered in. Jimmy, who talked to everybody, mentioned his frustration that his usual order of cherry coke couldn’t be filled. “You can’t always get what you want,” he told Mick Jagger. But that is only one of many, many stories about the late, lamented Mr. Jimmy. A unique individual, to be sure.

Afterwards, the conversations kept on coming. Seemed like everybody had their own take on each of the topics we’d covered. Best encounter for me was with an old baseball-playing buddy. We had way too much ground to cover, but what a delight to talk the details of a Babe Ruth League tournament game from nearly fifty years ago, or remember the various games we invented.

As they say in the official motto of New York state: Excelsior! (Onwards and upwards.)