The Racist Origins of Santa Cruz, California's Rock ‘n’ Roll Ban of 1956

The Santa Cruz town elders probably would've been alarmed by the audience's enthusiasm for Big Jay McNeely in 1953.
The Santa Cruz town elders probably would've been alarmed by the audience's enthusiasm for Big Jay McNeely in 1953.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

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.

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12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)