Thousands danced nights away at Teen Age Canteen
Part 1 of 3
The headline over a lead story in the newspaper read this way: “Record Turnout Of 650 Teen Agers For Free Dancing Here Yesterday.”
That item on Page One of The Charleroi Mail appeared on Thursday, Feb. 17, 1944 —that's right, 69 years ago. Interest in that event was renewed recently with an announcement that Charleroi Borough Council might consider refurbishing the auditorium on the third floor of the community's municipal building at Fourth Street and Fallowfield Avenue.
When council disclosed the possibility of reopening the facilities on the top floor of the building, it sparked memories of Cougar Canteen dances there for teenagers of the 1950s. But the site was home to many other social events, almost from the time the then-new municipal building opened on July 30, 1919, until the third floor was closed in the late 1970s. Concerts, plays, community meetings, political rallies, religious revivals and boxing shows, as well as the dances, were among the myriad programs offered for residents of Charleroi.
According to The Charleroi Mail archives, a Teen Age Canteen opened on Saturday, Feb. 12, 1944, on the third floor of the borough building. The newspaper story read, in part, this way: “Tonight, at 7:30 o'clock, the newest contribution of the Boro of Charleroi towards the prevention of juvenile delinquency, the Teen Age Canteen, will celebrate its ‘world's premiere' at the Boro Auditorium, with quite a program of local talent performing. Parents are asked to see the venture in actual operation.
“The auditorium, open for amusement and dancing to teenagers from this district, has been turned over for use by the Council every weekday, except Sunday, from 4 to 6 p.m. There will also be night sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 7:30 to 10 p.m., with an additional hour of amusement on Saturday night.”
Entertainment at the inaugural event on Feb. 12 opened with a performance by Edna Beisel's Second Street School Harmonica Band. This was followed by a roller-skating demonstration by Barbara Wickerham and Leah Collins, and the concluding feature spotlighted Evelyn Irene Bege, a talented young soloist, who will render some specialties that should appeal to the “jivers in attendance,” the newspaper said. Mrs. E.J. Wilson provided piano accompaniment for Miss Bege.
“The one remaining problem, that of naming the project, will be completed and disposed of tonight,” The Mail emphasized. “Many names have been used to refer to it, such as Teen Age Canteen, Youth Center and others, but none are official. Visitors tonight are asked to come ready to suggest a name for this worthy project, since they are the ones to use it.”
To say the kickoff festivities were successful would be an understatement. The Mail reported on Monday, Feb. 14, that 610 young people registered for the “dance frolic at the town auditorium.” The newspaper applauded organizers of the event this way: “That a community with a genuine desire to aid its youngsters find wholesome recreation can do so was demonstrated here when the Teen Age Canteen was opened to a packed throng at the City Hall auditorium. Charleroi council, one week ago, passed a resolution ordering the little-used auditorium opened to boys, girls and youths from 13 to 20 years of age for admission free, chaperoned dancing.
“The turnout surprised even the members of borough council, who launched the program as an experiment to combat juvenile delinquency in Charleroi before it ever begins. Charleroi has for years enjoyed one of the best juvenile police records in the Monongahela Valley and delinquency among youth here has been practically nil. A total of 610 boys and girls, each registered and judged to be of good behavior, enjoyed the dance and home talent show.”
Longtime Charleroi street commissioner Ralph Arrigo, who served as supervisor of the dance, told the newspaper that “probably another hundred kids attended and took part while 200 adults came to the hall to observe.”
A jukebox that played without the customary nickel deposit supplied music for the evening.
A dozen cases of Coca-Cola, two cases of chocolate milk, one case of raw milk and 15 dozen ice cream bars were sold during the evening.
Candy bars also were on the menu. Proceeds from the sale of the refreshments would be used to cover “minor expenses,” the newspaper reported.
Police Chief Pete Bege reported “nary a single case of disorder” at the dance. Borough building custodians did find galoshes, scarves, spectacles and other items left behind by what the newspaper described as “the enthusiastic jitterbugs.”
Councilmen Ralph Peterson and John Schwartz, who served as “managers” for the opening, expressed a need for more coat hangers but proclaimed that “nothing else is required to make this a general and great success.” They were assisted by councilmen Leo B. Schoener, who proposed the venture, and James P. McGuire.
Chief hostesses were Mrs. Ralph Gossard and Mrs. Jack Schwartz. They were assisted by Mrs. Robert Anderson, Mrs. Marrill Dague and Misses Norma Bertaini, Dolly Anderson, Muriel Rodney and Mara Chattaway.
Councilmen John Munch, John Henrion and Charles Kogler, who also joined in sanctioning use of the auditorium for the experiment, were among the spectators and observers. Borough tax collector James Russell presented the vaudeville acts and spoke on behalf of the boys and girls to thank council.
The dance committee lauded the youngsters attending the dance for “aiding us splendidly” in curbing mischief in the community. They also noted that they did not have time to get an official name for the project from the participants and said the “rather crowded conditions” would not be a problem because “we don't expect another big crowd.”
Two sessions on Wednesday, Feb. 16, proved them wrong.
“Yesterday afternoon's ‘jam session' saw 121 boys and girls making use of the juke box and glistening floor between 4 and 6 p.m.,” The Mail reported on Feb. 17. “Last night they really turned out by marking up a new record of 520 dancers for a single evening. By 9:30 o'clock the floor was filled with dancers and the juke box, which constantly, and without charge, grinds out favorite numbers, kept pouring it on. The hep-cats were in the groove and behaving just as well as they have on previous nights.”
Police chief Bege and burgess S.L. Woodward reported that “there are fewer children and young people of high school age on the streets in the evening on nights when the canteen does not operate.”
“Keeping the kids off the street on the ‘off' nights is exactly what we want,” Bege said. “They can get enough dancing in the afternoon or at the canteen on one of the open nights.”
The newspaper also reported that a group of Monongahela High School students visited the auditorium and “went away starry-eyed.” A Monessen High School group was scheduled for a similar visit on Saturday night.
A related story on Page One of The Mail on Feb. 17 called attention to a canteen dance for teenagers the next night in the gymnasium of North Belle Vernon High School. The program would follow the guidelines of the Charleroi canteen plan, although a “small admission fee” would be in effect.
The Belle Vernon Board of Trade was sponsoring the event in that community, with four schools participating —Vernon, North Belle Vernon, Marion and Rostraver. Joseph Vizza was chairman for the dance and Thomas Malpass chairman for the board of trade.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.