On June 2, 1956, about 200 teenagers came to the auditorium in Santa Cruz, California to enjoy the early rock and roll music of saxophonist Chuck Higgins and his orchestra. No one resisted the temptation to go on the dance floor for “Pachuko Hop” and other lively Higgins pieces, and everyone enjoyed the first three hours of this Saturday night event.
Shortly after midnight, the local police came by. Lieutenant Richard Overton was appalled by what he saw as “highly suggestive, stimulating, and tempting movements”
“It is fairly obvious,” Overton wrote in his police report, “that this kind of affair is harmful to both the health and morale of our youth and our community.”
By Monday morning, chief of police Al Huntsman had introduced a city-wide ban on “rock’n’roll and other frenzied forms of terpsichore” Santa Cruz Sentinel.
In the cave of the square
Almost immediately after the news broadcast, the police received a flood of phone calls from reporters outside the city. A group of students even organized a public prosecutor’s protest. The backlash prompted city councilor Robert Klein to relax the restrictions that same week, making it clear that “there is no ban on an orchestra coming in and rock’n’roll dancing” and that only obscene dancing itself would be prohibited.
“We encourage youth groups to dance all summer,” he said. “We often have dances in the Civic Auditorium and they are welcome as long as they are performed properly.”
As Marlo Novo pointed out in a blog post for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Klein may have been more motivated by his concern about the commercial effects of the ban on the city than by anything else. At that time, Santa Cruz – located on Monterey Bay, about 70 miles south of San Francisco – was a sleepy, idyllic summer vacation with a tourism-based economy. If hip teens could no longer host their beloved dance parties, families could choose to vacation in another coastal city. The tone of the nationwide coverage could also be bad for business as various newspapers make fun of attempts by the authorities to deny that Santa Cruz is “the hiding place”.
Young people speak back
While Overton’s original iron embargo on rock’n’roll dances did not last longer than a few days, the fiasco highlighted the racist tension surrounding rock’n’roll music in the 1950s.
The Santa Cruz SentinelIn his report on the dance on Saturday night, it was mentioned that Higgins and his “all negro band” were behind the “provocative rhythms”, and auditorium manager Ray Judah completely prohibited him from ever playing at the venue again.
“He’s through,” said Judah shortly. Soon after, Higgins was turned away from appearing in a nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Judah also canceled a performance by rock’n’roll pioneer Fats Domino scheduled for July 24th in the auditorium, stating that the musician “attracted a certain type of audience that was incompatible with this particular community “.
Some of the younger residents of Santa Cruz had problems with discrimination. In a letter to the Santa Cruz SentinelFor example, 16-year-old concertgoer Arlene Freitas criticized how the newspaper reported about Higgins’ appearance and the alleged problems.
“The prejudice[d] Statement that implied that the dance was induced by the all-negro band was inappropriate and untrue; This kind of dancing took place last year at the Halloween dance where a white band played, but much less was made of it … I disagree with you about the destruction of the health and morals of our youth; If anything, it helps by eliminating prejudices between the two races. One last thing: did the author of the article use rubber ink? Because he really told the truth! “
An unprejudiced policy
Unfortunately, teenagers ‘opinions had little impact on city politics, and the city council reinforced Judas’ racist tendencies later in the summer when they granted him the power to “reject any suggestions for using the auditorium that did not involve presenting a clean and acceptable stage are compatible and ground events, including dances with immoral and suggestive character. “
Although the Santa Cruz Sentinel Judah’s earlier decisions imply that he was probably only intending to ban black rock and rollers.
Fortunately, public feeling for rock and roll changed as it became more mainstream in the following years, and many people began to realize that the newly celebrated genre would not have existed without black musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. and Little Richard. And of course, the teenagers eventually grew old enough to be the policy makers themselves.