The Racist Origins of Santa Cruz, California's Rock ‘n’ Roll Ban of 1956
On June 2, 1956, approximately 200 teenagers rolled up to the civic auditorium in Santa Cruz, California, to revel in the early rock ‘n’ roll music of saxophonist Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra. Nobody resisted the temptation to hit the dance floor for “Pachuko Hop” and other lively Higgins tunes, and fun was had by all for the first three hours of that Saturday night event.
Then, shortly after midnight, the local police stopped by. Horrified by what he considered “highly suggestive, stimulating, and tantalizing motions” and music that he feared might make the crowd “uncontrollable,” Lieutenant Richard Overton promptly shut down the concert, about 40 minutes before its scheduled end at 1 a.m.
“It is quite obvious,” Overton wrote in his police report, “that this type of affair is detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”
By Monday morning, police chief Al Huntsman had instituted a city-wide ban on “rock ‘n’ roll and other frenzied forms of terpsichore,” according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
In the Lair of the Square
Almost immediately after the news broke, the police department received a barrage of phone calls from out-of-town reporters. A bunch of high school students even organized a protest at the district attorney’s office. The backlash prompted city manager Robert Klein to loosen the restrictions that very same week, clarifying that “there’s no ban on an orchestra coming in and having a rock ‘n’ roll dance,” and only obscene dancing itself would be prohibited.
“We encourage dancing by juvenile groups all summer long,” he said. “We frequently have dances in Civic Auditorium and as long as they’re properly conducted, they’re welcome.”
As Marlo Novo pointed out in a blog post for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Klein may have been motivated more by his worry about the ban’s commercial impact on the city than anything else. At the time, Santa Cruz—located on the Monterey Bay, about 70 miles south of San Francisco—was a sleepy, idyllic summer getaway with an economy built on tourism. If hip teens could no longer host their beloved dance parties, families might choose to vacation in a different coastal town. The tone of the nationwide coverage could be bad for business, too, with various newspapers poking fun at the authorities’ attempts to deny that Santa Cruz was “the lair of the square.”
Teenagers Talk Back
While Overton’s original ironclad embargo on rock ‘n’ roll dances didn’t last more than a few days, the fiasco highlighted the racial tension that existed around rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s account of the Saturday night dance mentioned that Higgins and his “all-Negro band” were behind the “provocative rhythms,” and auditorium manager Ray Judah outright prohibited him from playing at the venue ever again.
“He’s through,” Judah said curtly. Soon after that, Higgins was turned away from an appearance at a nightclub on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip. Judah also canceled a performance by rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer Fats Domino that had been scheduled in the auditorium for July 24, explaining that the musician attracted “a certain type of crowd that would not be compatible to this particular community.”
Some of Santa Cruz’s younger residents took issue with the discrimination. In a letter to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, for example, 16-year-old concertgoer Arlene Freitas criticized how the newspaper had covered Higgins’s performance and the problems it supposedly caused.
“The prejudice[d] statement, which implied that the dance was induced by the all-Negro band, was uncalled for and untrue; dancing of this sort occurred at the Halloween dance last year, where a white band played, but much less was made of that ... I disagree with you about the destruction of health and morals of our youth; if anything, it helps by eliminating prejudice between the two races. One last thing: Did the writer of the article use rubber ink? Because he sure did stretch the truth!”
A Prejudiced Policy
Unfortunately, the opinions of teenagers had little influence over town policy, and the city council reinforced Judah’s racist tendencies later that summer when they granted him the power to refuse “any and all proposals for auditorium use not consistent with the presentation of clean and acceptable stage and floor events, including dances of immoral and suggestive character.”
Though the Santa Cruz Sentinel made a point of mentioning that the ruling could apply to anything “from rock ‘n’ roll to stately waltz,” Judah’s previous decisions imply that he likely only intended to ban Black rock ‘n’ rollers.
Fortunately, the public sentiment toward rock ‘n’ roll changed as it became more mainstream in the following few years, and many people began to realize that the newly-celebrated genre wouldn’t have existed without Black musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. And, of course, the teenagers eventually got old enough to be the policymakers themselves.