For those under the age of 40 or so, it’s hard to imagine what most teenagers did with all their time before computers and cell phones. On the other hand, if you were to ask anyone over the age of 40, they’d probably tell you that there were endless options to occupy free time when they were teens. There were roller rinks, drive-in theaters, swimming pools and sporting events. For those who grew up in the city of Lebanon, there was one unique activity many participated in: the nightly playground dances.
Throughout the summers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s at playgrounds scattered throughout Lebanon, nightly dances hosted by the radio station, WLBR, were attended by thousands of teens.
In an article written for the Daily News in 1992, Pat Seaman recalled fond memories of these dances from her teen years. She wrote that on most any night of the week, one could attend one of these dances. “On Tuesday nights were at the Progressive Playground, at Fourth and Weidman Streets, Wednesday nights were held at Meadowbank, on Willow Street, off Twelfth; Thursday nights were at Southeast, off Walnut Street.” Monday nights were held at the South Sixth Street Playground and an article from 1959 notes that Friday night dances were held at the Hilltop Playground.
While these dances were first and foremost a fun and wholesome outing, there were many different types of dance competitions that took place throughout the evenings. These competitions included the jitter-bug, spot dances, the jive, and an elimination dance. Oftentimes, the lucky winners of those competitions appeared in the newspaper the next day.
The winners weren’t the only thing to make news from these dances. Various articles of the time tell us that it wasn’t uncommon for a fight to break out among the boys. One fight was recorded in the Lebanon Daily News in July of 1962 and resulted in the closing of the dance for the night; undoubtedly, a huge disappointment to the attendees.
Throughout the summers of 1960-1964, Mickey Santora spent his Monday nights hosting the dances at the South 6th Street playground for WLBR. He spoke with LebTown about these nights saying they were “always a fun time” and that throughout his four years of hosting, not once had a problem arisen.
Santora hosted a radio program in WLBR’s studio Tuesday-Saturday nights and on Mondays he’d “lug his box of 45s down to the playground” and play music all night to the dancing kids between the ages of 14 and 17.
While most of the music played were hits from the Billboard Top 100 charts, WLBR had a connection with a music distributor out of Philadelphia. Hoping to sell records for up and coming artists, the distributor would send new music to the station to be played on the radio and during the dances. The same goes for the artists themselves, who would sometimes travel to Lebanon to make an appearance and lip-sync along to their latest recordings.
Attendance at these dances was recorded for the newspaper articles the next day and ranged from around 200 to upwards of 1,000 kids when these special live acts were brought in to perform.
Some of these live acts included some well-known artists of the time such as Tommy DeNoble, Tommy Maris, the Plurals, The Jordan Brothers and Mark Dinning, whose hit “Teen Angel” is still played regularly on “Oldies” radio stations. While most of those listed names are foreign to a younger generation, there was one special act that most everyone has heard of: Chubby Checker.
Chubby Checker performed his famous cover of the hit song, “The Twist,” in the summer of 1961 to an estimated audience of 2,500 at the Meadowbank playground, located off Willow Street just east of 12th Street.
Henry Homan along with Al Bruce were the well-loved hosts at the Wednesday night playground dances. Later in life, Homan had a reoccurring column, “Up the Snitz Creek” in the Lebanon Daily News. He wrote of this particular evening, “Chubby did the twist so energetically on the city-owned platform at Meadowbank that I thought he might crash through the flooring or else catapult himself into the crowd (the boards were like a trampoline).” Homan referred to the evening more than once in his column and always said, “it was amazing.”
Homan also wrote that at the end of each Wednesday evening dance, they’d put on the Bobby Vee recording of “Rubber Ball” as two dozen rubber balls were tossed out into the crowd. These balls had been purchased from the now-defunct Lebanon Ball Factory.
When live acts or disc jockeys weren’t available, a jukebox provided the hits of the day for the dancers, amplified over a public address system. Fortunately, there was a repairman close by for when one of these jukeboxes wasn’t cooperating one late summer evening in 1955.
Lebanon native, Laurie Daub, recalled her memories of the dances to LebTown saying, “of course I remember playground dances! There were 3 playgrounds that were within biking distance. We grew up going to the playgrounds if we were really bored and couldn’t find enough to amuse ourselves. I’d say, maybe a once-a-week visit. As we grew older and a little more daring, we would go to the dances, at those locations as well. We didn’t venture across town, though. Being the oldest in my family, I didn’t have older siblings to ‘show me the ropes.’ Luckily for me, I had friends who did! I learned how to dance at those playground dances. It was a whole new concept for me!”
While the exact date is unknown, playground dances began to fade away sometime in the late 1970s, and with such a strong turn out in the previous two decades, it’s hard to understand why.
Though the dances themselves ended, the memories of the dances hold strong for the over 40 population of Lebanon. Just a few years ago, the Hilltop Playground of Lebanon Facebook group organized a reunion dance at the playground for those who spent many nights of their teen years at the dances. Judging by the photos and the video made, they had a great time reminiscing and dancing to the oldies.