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Some called it a riot, but the teens of that small prairie town were just ‘pushing the envelope’ back then.
The teens of today are terrific and like to challenge conventional thinking, but they weren’t the first while pulling the rest of society along. Their parents and even grandparents did a bit of that, too. Here’s how one tiny group helped foster the birth of rock and roll.
They were the few babies born between the start and the end of the Second World War. Their numbers were small compared with the massive baby boom that followed. Yes, the baby boomers caused rock and roll to explode, but that micro-generation provided the ignition.
They got help from an unlikely source: high school teachers. In the mid-1950, many were returned combat veterans. While in uniform, they had “discipline” drilled into them during basic training and later while fighting in Europe and the Pacific. That culture of discipline followed them into civilian life and thus into the classroom. In fairness, they didn’t know any better.
The result was teens of the day were forced to tolerate behavior from teachers that in the 21st Century would be labeled ‘abuse’. That strict control teachers exercised even extended to school-sponsored Friday night high school dances.
In a prairie town called Taber, the dress code for those dances was the same as elsewhere. Girls were required to wear modest dresses. That meant arms and chests covered, and hem lines below the knees… absolutely no pants (‘slacks’ back then). Boys were ordered to wear long sleeve shirts with ties and dress pants. Dress jackets were recommended. Shoes should be black, oxfords preferred. Few exceptions were allowed. Jeans were outlawed.
Poised at the doors to the school gym were squads of frowning teachers standing guard, ensuring proper dress and preventing the entry of anyone smelling of liquor. Other teachers patrolled within to ensure ‘proper decorum’ on the floor. Dancers too close to one another were separated. The music was largely waltzes. A bit of rock and roll was tolerated… mostly crooners. Dull.
The teens fumed.
A group decided to take action. A dozen or so young men and women formed a teen club. Its sole purpose was to arrange for dances featuring popular rock and roll, without all of the repressive dress restrictions. They called it Taber Teen Town. Parents were bemused. Other adults were skeptical. The teachers scoffed.
The newly minted club rented the town’s civic auditorium. A couple of the teen’s parents guaranteed the rental fee. Music was provided by a 45 rpm record player perched on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, turned up loud. It was a modest success. Word spread. A second dance was organized a month or so later. This time a sound system was used. The dance was a huge success.
But trouble showed up. Some kids and young adults arrived smelling of alcohol. A few were visibly drunk. The event also attracted some high school dropouts and local ner-do-wells intent on ‘having some fun’, i.e., causing trouble. One of the Teen Town organizers was Arnie Valgardson, who even at 17 was over six feet tall. So were a few of his friends, Blair Williams, Robert Miller and a younger teen named Harold Fleming, among others. No one messed with them, including the troublemakers. Arnie and his friends became the first bouncers.
A few dances later, successful Taber Teen Town dances were putting increasing pressure on the high school dances. Fewer and fewer kids were showing up at the school gym. The Teen Town began scheduling its dances on Fridays, to compete with the high school. Some high school dances were so poorly attended they closed down early.
Then came the Teen Town’s big chance. An aspiring rock and roll recording star named Shaun Romero was making it big on radio stations throughout the west. A disk jockey at a popular teen station was Romero’s tour manager for the region. Taber Teen Town talked him into headlining Romero at a dance they would organize especially to accommodate Romero’s schedule. The radio station agreed to promote the event. The DJ and Romero, a California native, demanded half the admission money, with a guaranteed minimum. It was a gamble but the club had money in a bank account and voted to go ahead.
The event was an enormous success. Kids were drawn from cities and towns up to a hundred miles away. The auditorium was filled long before the dance was to start. Arnie Valgardson and his bouncers had their hands full when hundreds, waiting in the parking lot to get in, were told the hall was packed and the doors had to be closed. There were howls of disappointment. And then scuffles broke out. Arnie called his two older brothers in from their farm near town. They showed up with friends. All were big, strong non-nonsense farm boys.
The scuffles turned ugly when a few drunks started fights. Soon there was bedlam. The town police showed up with their three cars, red lights flashing. They were ignored.
Arnie climbed on the back of a pickup. Illuminated by spotlights from another truck, he shouted and waved for attention. He ducked a few empty beer bottles thrown at him. His hulking friends spotted the source and pounced. Those close to Arnie could hear him try to calm the crowd:
“Folks, the hall can handle only so many. It’s not our choice. We’re sorry but the place is full,” he said. There were cries of protest. “We need you to be patient. If there’s more fighting, these dances will be shut down. Forever!
“What I can promise is that as some leave, we’ll be able to let more of you in. That’s the best we can promise. And there’ll be more dances in the future, right here, if we don’t screw up. So c’mon, give us all a break! Okay?”
Arnie’s comments calmed the crowd. The kids began drifting away, allowing the police and Arnie’s group to isolate the troublemakers. The police arrested a few of the more belligerent kids and other rabble-rousers. It was all over in 30 minutes.
The next day, the daily newspaper in a nearby city carried a story about a riot and widespread damage at Taber’s civic center. It was clear the reporter hadn’t visited the scene, nor evidently had the reporter’s sources. The only ‘damages’ were broken beer bottles and trash the Teen Town’s weary organizers had cleaned up before leaving for the night.
The high school principal was quoted in the local weekly newspaper as predicting the ‘riot’, would put an end to Taber Teen Town. In his considered opinion, there would be a return ‘to the safety of properly supervised’ teen dances at the high school.
That didn’t happen. Taber Teen Town dances remained hugely popular. By the end of the first year, the Teen Town’s bank account had grown to thousands of dollars. The club executive met. Still smarting from the news coverage, and especially from the principal’s remarks, the club set aside money to fund two continuing university scholarships for graduates from the high school, one for a boy and one for a girl.
Taber Teen Town wrote to the principal inviting the high school to administer the scholarships. A copy of the letter went to the school board and another to the weekly newspaper. It was a ‘gotcha’ and the Teen Town membership relished it. The principal had to choose between accepting the scholarships or losing credibility.
The scholarships lasted almost 10 years. Taber Teen Town eventually folded, too, its work done re-setting the social agenda – the chastening of high school authorities, and banishing forever their repressive, nonsensical rules.
A Postscript: One of the Teen Town organizers was especially incensed over the story about the so-called ‘riot’ that had appeared in the nearby daily newspaper. He wrote a scathing Letter to the Editor and sent it to the editorial page editor, Fraser Perry. Before being hired by the daily, Perry had worked for the Taber weekly. The teen’s letter was printed. And four years later, that teen, by then 21, wrote to the daily applying for a job as a cub reporter. Perry was asked by the city editor, who was hiring reporters, if he knew the teen. He did. To his credit, Perry recommended the young man be hired. And that’s how I got my first job as a journalist.
“Hurray for Teens!” is Copyright © 2016 By James Osborne All Rights Reserved