“The 1940’s and 50’s were part of a big dance hall era,” Joe Ruane recalls, and dancing was the popular pastime: “our crowd would go to St Joe’s (his home parish in Collingdale) on Sunday night; de Sales Tuesday and Friday night. On Wednesday night I would go to the Carousel Hall in Clifton Heights which my father owned which had a big band…and then I would…go to the Arcade Hall on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue where my friends hung out. Saturday would be Holy Cross, Springfield.”
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Saint Francis de Sales offered regular Tuesday night dances in the parish auditorium for all the “young people of the parish and their friends.” A typical 1950 Monthly Bulletin notice advertised: Music for the occasion is played by the well known and very popular orchestra of George Sommer. Admission is seventy-five cents. Good music and a very beautiful auditorium provide the atmosphere for a very enjoyable evening. All the young folks of the parish (no High School students) are cordially invited to attend these Tuesday evening Socials. We would like to see many of our young married couples attending and can assure them of a very enjoyable evening.”
George Sommer, with his “Big Band” sound, was known as “one of the best dance bands in the city and one of the most popular.” Information about the band appeared in Billboard Magazine, and they played at ballrooms across the city.
What about the High School students? They had their own dance night at de Sales auditorium every Friday. John Deady recalls that “I attended the Friday night dances. Admission $.50. On the stair case going up to the stage (rectory side) is a closet. There was a turntable in the closet where 45 rpm records were stacked. Cokes were sold at the kitchen on the other side of the stage. Did not go to the Tuesday night dances. Understand it was a wide age group that attended them.”
The Tuesday and Friday groups likely catered to slightly different musical tastes. A 1959 Parish Bulletin opined: “Older people often express disapproval of rock and roll because it is so noisy and so violent, and the music accompanying it seems so unbearably monotonous. But for oldsters to be unsympathetic toward rock and roll for these reasons does not make it morally wrong.”
Joe Ruane’s father, incidentally, was a disk jockey for the dances in Collingdale, and Joe recalls a big event there: “a pre-publication test run of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1953.” However, Catholic high school students were discouraged from joining the dance floor at American Bandstand, Dick Clark’s famous TV dance program, broadcast from its 4548 Market Street TV Studio (Today’s Enterprise Center for minority entrepreneurs). That was still considered too “fast!”