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Success of dances at Charleroi drew interest from state

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
RON PAGLIA I FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW The spacious stage at the municipal auditorium in Charleroi was the setting for disc jockeys, bands and other entertainers for many years. It is part of the possible renovation project being considered by borough council.
SUBMITTED Among the popular disc jockeys who spun the platters at the Cougar Canteen in the 1950s were Francis “Slops” Delmastro.
SUBMITTED Among the popular disc jockeys who spun the platters at the Cougar Canteen in the 1950s were Porky Chedwick.
Among the popular disc jockeys who spun the platters at the Cougar Canteen in the 1950s were Dee Galiffa.

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Young people attending activities at the Teen Age Canteen in Charleroi in the 1940s had the opportunity to demonstrate their dancing skills.

On Thursday, March 16, 1944, the newspaper reported that Rita Brown and Robert Lambert won first-place honors in a jitterbug couples contest the night before at the Charleori canteen dance. Gloria Myers and Porter Lowstuter were second. At stake were two tickets for the St. Patrick's Day Benefit dance at the Charleroi Elks club on Friday evening. Ed Lee, chairman of the Elks affair, “declared the tickets will be waiting for the couple when they appear” at the Elks on Friday evening, The Mail said.

The story also noted that 541 young dancers were at Wednesday night's affair and 131 grown-ups turned out to watch the jitterbug contest. This brought total attendance to date to 10,168.

The popularity and success of the Teen Age Canteen in Charleroi gained recognition in Harrisburg, where the State Council of Defense announced plans to establish similar youth centers in many other districts across the Commonwealth.

A story in The Mail on Aug. 16, 1944, said Ralph Cooper Hutchison, executive director of the Council of Defense, had requested a detailed report from Charleroi Borough officials on their program, which would be used as a blueprint for projects elsewhere. Arrigo's preliminary report showed the Charleroi's canteen had an attendance of 31,400 youths since it opened on Feb. 12.

The Charleroi Borough Building auditorium was the setting for a dance on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 1944, as part of a tribute to servicemen from the community who were in town with an Army show at the high school stadium. The dance was free and open to the public but excluded anyone 18 years of age or younger. The event was arranged by the same group which had charge of the Teen Age Canteen.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, 1945, a large photo on Page One of the Charleroi newspaper called attention to The Gordon Trio being set to play at the auditorium canteen on Monday, Nov. 5. The band comprised organist Max Gordon, accordianist Frank Negleman and guitarist Jimmy Tucci. Children were encouraged to bring their parents to the public event slated to run from 8 to 11:15 p.m. The story noted that close to 94,000 children had enjoyed the canteen since it opened.

Whether the Charleroi project directly influenced the decision is uncertain, but on Monday, Jan. 27, 1947, the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Monongahela opened its social hall for a Teen Age Canteen for junior high and high school youngsters of the community. More than 200 teens were in attendance, with Merle Miller, a member of the Monongahela High faculty, and his wife as chaperones.

The facility at the Eagles was dubbed the Bel-Del-Rob Canteen in honor of three senior boys at the high school who worked and gave time toward the project and were credited for its success — football quarterback Francis Delmastro, Ezra Bell and Patsy Robb Jr.

The Teen Age Canteen in Charleroi underwent a major change on Nov. 12, 1952, when borough council officially approved a new management plan for the program. Council authorized the Girl Scouts to aid street commissioner Ralph Arrigo in the operations, emphasizing that the idea is “to revitalize the Canteen and stimulate new interest.” The proposal was made by Mrs. John Staib and adopted unanimously by council.

The Girl Scouts were to contact other clubs and organizations in town for assistance as it might be needed. Interest in and support for the new program grew and the program became known as the Charleroi Cougar Canteen Club.

“Disc Jockey Bill Betler will spin the platters tomorrow night when the revitalized, spanking new Charleroi Cougar Canteen Club opens its course of Winter season activities at the Charleroi Municipal Auditorium,” The Charleroi Mail announced on Friday, Dec. 26, 1952. “The dance will begin at 8 p.m. and a record turnout under sponsorship of the Cougar Canteen organization is anticipated.”

The newspaper said the new club “replaces the old Teen Age Canteen organization” and was led by Raymond J. Hostetler Jr. as president “with the able assistance of Mrs. Uly Souply and Mrs. Elizabeth Staib.

“The dance tomorrow evening will be the first of a series of prime Saturday night affairs, destined to give the young folk the best of entertainment among themselves under proper supervision,” the story said. “Bill Betler, who is popular with the young set, was obtained for the record-spinning assignment and gladly complied.”

A story in The Monessen Daily Independent on the same day announced that the Charleroi Cougar Canteen Club organizing committee had extended an invitation to Monessen High School students to attend. That brief account also listed Ralph Arrigo and Betler as members of the committee with Hostetler.

Betler also was the DJ for a Teen Age Canteen dance on Nov. 15, 1952 at the Roscoe Volunteer Fire Department. A newspaper story touted the Saturday night event as “The Fire House Canteen” running from 9 to 11:45 p.m. with a 10-cent increase in the regular quarter admission. It noted that Betler “is very popular in the disc jockey sphere.”

The Charleroi Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) eventually assumed operations of the Cougar Canteen but apparently faced some concerns about the dances.

Representatives of the Jaycees reported to borough council at its Tuesday, Sept. 13, 1955 meeting that they were apprehensive of a protest petition about operations the previous Saturday night after a high school football game at the stadium. The dance was closed at 11 p.m.

Council president Alex Luckasevic assured the delegation there were no petitions filed and said the dances were “nicely conducted but the matter of late hours was of concern.” The Jaycees were lauded for “doing a great job in conducting orderly supervised dances.” They said their objective is “to continue such affairs instead of risking any change for delinquency or forcing young people into the streets.”

Councilman Pete Celaschi praised the Jaycees for their efforts.

“I'm the father of four children and when they are at the Canteen, I am certain they and others are safe,” Celaschi said.

The Jaycees and the Cougar Canteen committee drew public praise on Aug. 22, 1956, when the Trustees of the Charleroi Community Park announced that the Canteen had made a “generous donation” to help further development of the new recreation facilities at what is now known as Chamber Plaza.

The Charleroi Mail acknowledged the Jaycees for their sponsorship of the Cougar Canteen but emphasized that the organization “is chiefly guided, planned and operated by the very youth it seeks to serve.”

“The group is made up mainly of local persons ranging from 16 to 18 year of age,” the newspaper said. “Approximately 300 to 350 of these youths are currently participating in the group's programs. Chaperoned dances are one of the main features of the Canteen program and its major sources of revenue. The civic-minded group selects community projects to which is make donations. Its latest donation to the community park is testimony to both the self sufficiency and community interest of this Charleroi youth group.”

Transition continued and on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1958, The Charleroi Mail announced that a “better canteen welcomes parents ... new spirit and top behavior under efficient management.

“Time was, not so very long ago, that Charleroi's Cougar Canteen, because of mischief by older teen-agers, came into decadent ways,” the story said. “Parents, for a time, refused to allow their children to attend the Canteen. Of late, under the very best supervision of Mr. and Mrs. Matt Cowell, the Cougar Canteen emerges now as an exemplary center for wholesome recreation and top form dances. Every Wednesday night, upwards of 200 teen-agers turn out for the well-chaperoned programs.”

The story emphasized that a “lot of effort went into the job of filtering out a few undesirables – the smart alecs who came there to indulge in unacceptable whimsies. But they have had their day.”

“The Cougar Canteen is so well supervised and has such a fine roster of teen-age members that Borough Council recently saw fit to commend Mr. and Mrs. Cowell on a job well done,” The Mail said. “Now, because there are a few parents who still harken back to the old days, the Canteen is making a request that parents come and see what a nice thing has been made of this youth center. The rowdies are out. They're all nice kids and you can bet on it.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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