18 February 2015
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Mpls/St. Paul magazine; “Land of 10,000 Dances” for Goldmine and Sweet Potato, plus other secondary articles) and my unpublished novel of the era, Paradiso.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.
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.”
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.)