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Charleroi canteen lineup included footwork of another kind

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Specialty recording star Larry Williams (left) provided an impromptu performance at the Cougar Canteen in 1958. 
Specialty recording star Larry Williams (left) provided an impromptu performance at the Cougar Canteen in 1958. SUBMITTED
Other live entertainment at the popular dances included talented saxophonist Marty Bonitati with The Flameouts.
Other live entertainment at the popular dances included talented saxophonist Marty Bonitati with The Flameouts. SUBMITTED

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Attendance at the Cougar Canteen dances at the municipal auditorium on the third floor of the Charleroi Borough Building wasn't limited to teenagers who packed the venue in the 1950s.

Mr. and Mrs. Matt Cowell, who assumed management of the events in 1958, emphasized that parents “are welcome all the time.”

“But we would like to have them stop by tomorrow evening just to see how nice our teen-agers behave and what a delightful time they have for these three hours,” Mrs. Cowell told The Charleroi Mail in reference to one of the weekly dances. “We have eliminated the previous troubles. Now our children average between 14 and 17 years of age. They have a personal interest in keeping the Canteen nice.”

Matt Cowell reminded the teens and their parents that the admission had been reduced from 50 cents to 25 cents.

“We have eliminated soliciting among our merchants for prizes and are paying our way,” Mrs. Cowell added. “Council members have been most kind and we appreciate the nice things that are being said.”

Those popular prizes to which she alluded were highlighted in a classified ad on Page One of the newspaper on July 19, 1956, that read as follows: “Teen dance at the Cougar Canteen tonight, 8 to 11, P & M spinning records. A shirt from Gene's for a boy and a blouse from The Thrift Shop for a girl. Auspices of the Jaycees.”

Some of the top disc jockeys of that era provided the music at the Cougar Canteen dances in the 1950s. They included but were not limited to Pittsburgh radio personalities Porky Chedwick, Jay Michael and Dave Scott and area favorites Francis “Slops” Delmastro, Bill Betler, P & M, Bill Quay and Dee Galiffa. Delmastro is generally recognized as the first DJ in the Mon Valley, having started at the aforementioned dances in Monongahela in 1947 and enjoying a popular run well into the 1960s.

Jay Michael enjoyed his engagements at the Cougar Canteen so much that he invited 78 of its young dancers to appear on his popular Bandstand show on WTAE-TV on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1958.

“I like the Charleroi Canteen,” Michael told Mr. and Mrs. Matt Cowell. “They are the best dancers I have seen in in the Valley. They are well-behaved. This is a dancing Canteen you have here, and your town can be proud of them.”

Two buses were chartered by the Canteen management to take the teenagers to Pittsburgh, and the Charleroi High School cheerleaders also were invited to the television festivities. The experience was enhanced by the appearance of MGM recording star Connie Francis, who was Michael's featured guest that day.

Live entertainment also was featured at the Cougar Canteen. Among those who performed there in the 1950s were The Delites, a jazz band composed of high school students, Marlene's Dancers, The Jaguars, Kenny Ambrose, Don Stefan and Marty Bonitati and The Flameouts.

An impromptu performance by Larry Williams, the Specialty Records star who had such hits as “Bony Moronie,” “Short Fat Fannie” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” occurred sometime in 1958.

As the story goes, Williams and his band were on their way to a dance at the Jumpin' Jive Bee Hive, which was located nine blocks away at the northern entrance to Charleroi. When he stopped at the borough building to ask for directions, Williams said only that he was “looking for the record hop.” He was sent upstairs to the Canteen, talked with the disc jockey and learned that he was at the wrong venue.

Checking his watch, the personable singer smiled and told the DJ, “Well, we don't go on down there until 10 o'clock. Why don't I just do a couple of numbers here to get warmed up?”

Williams did just that, lip-synching three or four of his recordings and delighting the crowd of several hundred teenagers. He signed autographs for a few minutes and then resumed his journey to the Jumpin' Jive Bee Hive.

The Cougar Canteen dances continued into 1959, and the last documented reference to one of those events was a Page One ad in The Charleroi Mail on Sept. 16 of that year. It said only that the dance would be held “... Tonight, 8 to 11, Live Entertainment.”

Other events were held in the municipal auditorium at the Charleroi Borough Building in the years following the Cougar Canteen dances.

One of the last events held there before borough officials closed the third floor for economic and accessibility reasons was an amateur boxing show on Friday, May 27, 1977. Presented by the Charleroi Athletic Club with matchmaker George Humphries in charge, the nine-bout card drew some 300 people up the long stairway to the auditorium. Frank Pucci and Bruno Pucci were the timekeepers, Dr. William Rongaus was the attending physician and Frank Buscanics served as the ring announcer.

Four Charleroi AC boxers, led by popular heavyweight Ed Miller, won their matches that night.

Miller scored a technical knockout against Frank Patsva of the New Kensington AC at 1:54 of the third round. With the crowd chanting “Mil-ler, Mil-ler,” the big slugger used economical footwork and his brute strength to gore in on Patsva and send him retreating continually.

By the third round Miller had worn down Patsva and was scoring inside without difficulty when referee Bucky Palermo stopped the fight.

Other CAC fighters posting wins were brothers Ron Martin and John Martin and Ken Cox.

Cox scored a TKO at the end of the first round against Robby Williams of the James AC in Clairton in the 130-pound class, John Martin notched a decision over Eric Kennedy of the Kay Boys Club, Pittsburgh, in a 119-pound feature, and Ron Martin, another crowd favorite, got the decision over Clayton Young of the Allegheny County Police AC in the 123-pound division.

Ron Martin played to the cheering audience at times and when the decision was announced, he danced happily around the ring.

Martin's fancy footwork was a fitting move at a venue where dancing (albeit of a different style) symbolized enjoyment by thousands of other young people who preceded him there.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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