Tag Archives: Excelsior

FLASHBACK: “Dance Hall Days”

29 July 2015

Danceland had one of the biggest dance floors in the Midwest.

Danceland had one of the biggest dance floors in the Midwest.

If you were a Twin Cities teenager during the 1960s, you didn’t have to wait for a rare all-ages show to catch your local faves. In those days rock ‘n’ roll was still considered such an adolescent obsession that bars rarely booked it at all. Instead, the bands in town played a revolving circuit of neighborhood dance halls.

Kids from the northern suburbs grooved at Someplace Else in Robbinsdale. Down in the southwest, on the Minnetonka-Hopkins border, was The Barn, which always seemed to attract the cutest girls. Mr. Lucky’s on Nicollet and Lake in Minneapolis, had the most racially mixed crowds and the toughest fighters in town. Over in St. Paul’s Midway, the Prom Ballroom remained a bastion of Continental style in the teen world by continuing to feature jazz bands part-time.

Everybody had a favorite. Mine was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a cavernous wooden hemisphere that sat just across the street from Excelsior Amusement Park, overlooking Lake Minnetonka. The location was ideal. Kids drove out for the day to get sick on the rides and hung around for some foot stompin’ in the evening.

Most of the other dance halls had sprung up in the 1960s along with the Twist, the Mashed Potato and the Frug, but Danceland had been around since the early 1920s. It started life as a Tonka Bay roller rink and had been moved in sections across the ice in 1920 to become the official ballroom for the adjacent amusement park. As one of the largest dance floors in the Upper Midwest, it frequently held 2,000 dancers, especially from 1930 to the late 1950s, when Rudy Shogran was the manager.

Shogran was the master of the promo. He inundated clubs and business organizations with free tickets, sending out 270,000 in 1931 alone. He provided motorcycle escorts for singers who came out from R.K.O. Orpheum shows in Minneapolis to perform at Danceland. When an all-female orchestra called the Rosebuds played the ballroom, each woman at the dance was given a rose. Other giveaways included yo-yos, corncob pipes, paper fans and once even a Ford Roadster.

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 cut crowds in half. “Everybody’s in the honky-tonks along the route to Hopkins,” complained Shogran at the time. He retaliated by selling draft beer in the ballroom and by featuring new types of promos, including an early Battle of the Bands between polka-meister Whoopie John’s boys and the ballroom house band. He even weathered a sit-down strike by patrons in the 1940s that was triggered by the floor man ordering “no cutting in.”

Always on the cutting edge of the latest groovy sounds.

Always on the cutting edge of the latest groovy sounds.

But it took Shogran’s departure to transform the ballroom into the incubator of teen style that it became. Ray “Big Reggie” Colihan, son of one of the amusement park managers, took over the operation in the late 1950s and renamed it Big Reggie’s Danceland. Colihan had grown up around the dance hall. His first job, at age 14, was sweeping the ballroom floor, which he later acknowledged had allowed him to sneak on-stage to play the drums of noted bandleader Gene Krupa when no one was around.

It was Colihan who began to book rock acts. The Hollywood Argyles, one-hit wonders with “Alley Oop,” played at Big Reggie’s Danceland. So did Johnny and the Hurricanes of “Red River Rock” fame. Even Jerry Lee Lewis made an appearance in the days before marriage to his 13 year-old cousin made him persona non grata on the ballroom circuit.

One of Colihan’s biggest coups was booking the Beach Boys in 1962, just before they hit the big time. “Nobody’d ever heard of them in February when I booked them,” he said once. “But by the time they got here, they had the number-one record on WDGY. Kids came by the thousands.”

This sort of success inspired Colihan to take a chance on another up-and-coming group: an unknown British band named the Rolling Stones. In 1964, on their first U.S. tour, the Stones made a stop in Excelsior. A month later “Not Fade Away” would smash its way into the charts, but at Big Reggie’s Danceland Colihan lost money. “Only 283 people showed up,” he said.

Those that did were hostile. The Stones left the stage spitting over their shoulders at the audience, and a dejected Mick Jagger made his way to nearby Bacon Drug. The legend in Excelsior is that it was there that well-known local resident “Mr. Jimmy” Hutmaker told him, “You can’t always get what you want,” a line Jagger eventually made famous.

The Rolling Stones pose on the shores of Lake Minnetonka (could be, right?) prior to taking the stage at Danceland.

The Rolling Stones pose on the shores of Lake Minnetonka (could be, right?) prior to taking the stage at Danceland.

By the mid-1960s Big Reggie’s Danceland had a reputation that set it apart from most neighborhood dance halls, and it drew clientele from all corners of the metro area. Come the weekend and the cars rolled west like buzzards homing in on the last signs of life. Patrons passed the swaggering drunks in the parking lot and entered through the soundproof metal door, where $1.50 bought the right to edge into the echoing confines of the hall itself. The wooden floor rumbled under the syncopated tread of dancing feet (one night it collapsed), and from the stage at the back of the room a wave of sound washed over the bobbing heads.

A concession stand near the entrance sold popcorn and candy bars. A row of wooden booths ran along a side wall, serving as illicit-drinking cubicles and providing a modicum of privacy for overheated couples. One of the strange unwritten rules of Twin Cities teen life was not to applaud the band at a dance, so even the wildest of rave-ups was typically met with an eerie silence.

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.

Incidents of rowdyism led to Danceland’s license being suspended periodically and, eventually, to its demise in 1968. Colihan attributed the closing to “increased competition for the rock ‘n’ roll dollar,” but whatever the reason, Danceland’s fancy ballroom became a boat-storage facility. Five years later it burned to the ground, a victim of arson—or perhaps an angry rocker remembering bygone days.

Originally published in Mpls.St. Paul magazine, December 1994.

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.)