The student party scene in Lawrence was some type of crazy in the 1950s.
You don't believe me? They burned the pinball machines.
No, not the students. The adults.
You see, the pinball machines had to go because dancing was going to be allowed again. That's right, it appears that from about 1946 to 1957, dancing was illegal in Douglas County. Well, more accurately, dancing was illegal in any establishment that served alcohol.
But by 1957, it appears political leaders had agreed to relax the dancing ban, but as a compromise to those who fervently supported it, they decided something must be done about this pinball problem.
I've learned this and additional facts by getting a sneak peak at a new exhibit that will open later this month at the Watkins Community Museum of History titled "From Classroom to Cafe: A century of student hangouts."
Yes, I'm confused too. Apparently you can dance without the aid of alcohol?
From Classroom to Cafe: A century of student hangouts will open at 5:30 p.m. on April 25 as part of downtown's Final Fridays event. The exhibit will remain open into July and will be on the second floor of the Watkins Museum, 11th and Massachusetts streets.
There it was on the front page of the Aug. 30, 1957, Journal-World: a pile of pinball machines in the city dump, soaked in gasoline and about to have the match set to them.
The article said there were 22 and they had been seized by the state's attorney general in a raid earlier that summer. Apparently there was evidence that the owners of the pinball machines were paying players a cash prize if they won a free game on the machine.
An unnamed, intrepid reporter at the Journal-World was all over this one.
"But apparently the loss isn't going to be felt too heavily in the county," the article stated. "A spot check at many local business places today showed a number of machines still in operation and most of them were getting good play."
The article said many business owners offered a "no comment" when asked "how many nickels usually go through a machine during a day." They also weren't commenting on whether paying winners was a common practice. But there was plenty of reason to be suspicious.
"One operator probably sounded the keynote when he said, 'It pays to know your customers, doesn't it?'" the article stated.
The article listed the businesses where pinball machines were confiscated. Maybe some of you old wizards recognize a few of these places, although I'm not sure it is safe to admit it: Purple Pig, 810 New Hampshire; The Downbeat, 1031 Mass.; Boyd's Grill, 109 W. Sixth; Jayhawk Billiards Parlor, 719 Mass.; Snavely's Billiards, 729 Mass.; A&B; Root Beer, Route 3; Dine-A-Mite, Route 5; Ray's Truck Stop, Route 3; Golden Gate Chocolate Shop, 713 Mass.; and The Pink Elephant, 706 Mass.
I've learned much from all this: 1. As a reporter for this newspaper, I don't do nearly enough spot checks of pinball establishments; 2. The key to having a successful business in Lawrence is to name it after an oddly colored animal; 3. My wife and I would have been destitute in 1950s Lawrence. How could we not be? A chocolate store with a gambling pinball machine.
Let's be honest. In 1957 law enforcement officials probably had one business on that list of establishments circled in red: the Dine-A-Mite Inn. It was at 23rd and Louisiana streets where the Louisiana Purchase shopping center is today.
And let's just say it had a history even back then. It was a known fraternity hangout in the 1940s. Rival fraternity members often would show up at the diner and drinking establishment after having serenaded local sororities, according to stories dug up by Brittany Keegan, curator at Watkins. No, serenade isn't a euphemism for anything. We mean actual singing.
To prove it, Keegan tells a story about how rival fraternities often would settle disputes at the Dine-A-Mite: They would have a sing-off. You see, there wasn't enough seating to accommodate multiple fraternities, so they would sing for the space. Winners stay, losers leave.
"The owner would determine the winner," Keegan says. "Or at least, he would throw out one of the groups."
Maybe I was born in the wrong time. No, I can't sing, but I'm confident the Dine-A-Mite could have saved me thousands of dollars. If I ever went to a bar and "West Side Story" broke out, I'm sure I would have given up drinking on the spot.
It is not entirely clear what sparked the ban on dancing, nor is it clear whether Kevin Bacon and the cast of "Footloose" were involved. But it is clear that it wasn't some token law.
"Persons were warned through the press publicly against dancing in these places," a May 1946 Journal-World article states. "County officers have forcibly restrained persons as a result of this resolution."
It leaves me with a question: Where were these county officers at several wedding receptions I've attended over the years?
By 1957, the question was whether the ban should continue. It had supporters.
"I feel if we don't stand by some of these good laws, we're going to the dogs pretty fast," E.C. Day, president of the Douglas County Christian Temperance Council, said in 1957.
Dick Stephenson, a KU senior from Augusta, had an elegant counter-argument: "I like to dance and I like to drink beer."
The ban went away, but the tensions between students and a town didn't. Let's face it, they never have. The exhibit highlights several other establishments. There are pictures from the Rock Chalk Cafe at 12th and Oread, where The Oread hotel now stands. The exhibit details the evolution of that site, including how subsequent bars at the location — such as New Haven and Flagship International — became important gathering places for the significant counter-culture movement that existed in the 1970s
The exhibit even goes back to the very early days of the town. There's information about one of the original student hangouts, Wiedemann's, which was in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street. It opened in 1868 and ran until 1943. It started, Keegan says, as an ice cream shop and evolved into a grill that knew how to stir things up in its own way. (It created a bit of stir, Keegan says, when it added a new-fangled cereal called Grape Nuts to its homemade ice cream.) From its beginning, Wiedemann's was a hotspot for students.
Think about that for a moment. Think of how different the world is today than it was in the 1860s. But despite it all, students then and now still scour this city for a little place that they can call their own. Maybe Facebook and Twitter haven't changed how we are social so much after all. Maybe that town that banned dancing and the one that exists today are more similar than we would suspect.
"There are student hangouts that go back to 1868," says Steve Nowak, executive director of Watkins. "The university was founded in 1865. It didn't take very long for the community to figure out that the students were a pretty good piece of business."
Some things in this town never change — which means I have some pinball machines to investigate.