November 27, 2001
My generation grew up in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the Andy Hardy movies when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were pubescent teen-agers suffering the normal pangs of that dreadful age. We dated the opposite sex and sometimes a relationship developed into what we called “going steady.” That was almost like a marriage vow in its single-track solemnity but in practice it really meant basically that we were locked in to the one and only girl friend/boy friend du jour and therefore not free to date anyone else. It was a pledge of exclusivity and our chums understood that. Consequently, we were “spoken for” and not free to accept invitations from anyone else, at least until the inevitable breakup occurred.
For my young comrades and me, the outstanding social highlights of that era were the school dances held occasionally in the old Perry High School gymnasium, a cracker-box room in the school basement. Those affairs were sanctioned by the school but they ended abruptly when some parents expressed concern at possible consequences. At other times, our two local movie houses offered a dimly lighted environment where some of the more aggressive boys could reach across with a sweaty palm and grasp the hand of their shy dates for a moment or two. The evening climaxed with a stroll to the young lady’s front door – almost no Perry teen of that time drove a car, except perhaps Newman Wolleson, whose father was a Plymouth dealer. Couples who had advanced to the stage of going steady sometimes exchanged a hasty good night kiss to wind things up. That was about it.
But those school dances were exciting. The shiny maple wood floor where Maroon basketball players and wrestlers normally displayed their skills was coated with a veneer of corn starch to provide a slick surface for dancing couples. A nickelodeon (juke box) often furnished the music but on occasion a “live” band, composed of high school musicians, played the swing tunes and ballads that were on the Hit Parade of that age. Once in a while a “ladies’ choice” dance would be announced and from the selections made by the girls you could pretty well tell who was getting serious about whom. You could also tell who the good dancers were because the clumsy ones weren’t chosen. Usually I was content to watch from the sidelines, just enjoying the music. If worst came to worst, boys danced with boys and girls with girls. We were just learning, remember.
I had the great misfortune to reach teen-agehood at the precise time when the new dance craze, jitterbugging, came into vogue. That was in the mid-1930s, soon after the Lindy Hop and the Charleston began losing popularity. Big bands, saddle oxfords and zoot suits were all the rage. But that fast musical beat intimidated me. Benny Goodman had been crowned “king of swing” by adoring teen-agers, succeeding the previous idol, Paul Whiteman, the “king of jazz.” In some ways, jazz in various forms is still heard, but it reigned supreme in the 1920s when new freedoms were being explored by America’s younger set. I missed that period because I was too young, but I was (and still am) a big fan of swing. Dancing, however, was a serious stumbling block.
Jitterbugging was done with a kind of wild musical accompaniment, having a definite beat and a rapid meter. The music was rendered with abandon by gifted young musicians. Many uneasy parents felt the tunes and lyrics were profane or obscene and their sons and daughters were forbidden to listen to it. Many teens were solemnly told not to make a spectacle of themselves on the dance floor by attempting the new “jitterbug” steps when that craze came along. Today, looking back on all that, it seems obvious that the world was more innocent than we knew. More reflections on that period are coming in a future column.