“At 10:30 o’clock on Saturday mornings, bedlam breaks out in the auditorium of St Louis House, 2345 Lafayette Avenue, Yells, screams, stamping of feet and whistles express the enthusiasm of more than a thousand teenagers for a radio program specially built for them.”
There may never have been a discernible beginning to the association of pop culture with youth. Stories, songs and experiences all seem most vivid during ones teens and twenties, then linger fondly in the mind for decades to come, regardless of generation. One aspect of pop culture is the “teen idol”, someone who seems like age-specific perfection in a mass market context. Whether it’s Vallee, Sinatra, Elvis, Beatles, or Valentino, Grant, Brando, Pitt, it’s pretty much an American tradition to adore whoever everyone adores, and the commonality of these attractions has always defined pop culture – an identification with each other within the universality of someone else’s popularity.
1946 – within a single month, eight of the nations top bands, including those of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Les Brown, and Tommy Dorsey broke up. Glenn Miller had died in a plane crash a little over a year before. This portended the end of the Swing Era, but raised the question of what would fill the musical vacuum for all those hungry younger ears.
Phonographs had long since replaced pianos as the go-to household musical device. Similar to the way each major car maker sought to offer a range of auto styles to attract more of the market, there was a push after the war by record manufacturers to segment the market, by producing 12” high quality classical and adult contemporary vinyl records, and low cost 10” records for younger buyers. In 1948, RCA pushed this split further by introducing the 7” 45 rpm plastic record. RCA also offered phonographs that ranged from $12.95 (playing only 45’s) to $600.00 units. The two-song record format widely expanded the market for recorded music, and brought about the “top 40” and “singles” music era. The one big constant was radio, the medium the single swam in. By 1949, 95% of American homes had at least one radio. As there wasn’t yet album oriented radio programming, disc jockeys became the arbiters of popular music, boosting sales for the newest hit single and advancing the act behind it.
As the radio market became established and profitable, a local station would find itself challenged by the appearance of others. An accomplished, charismatic and commercially oriented disc jockey would find him or herself highly in demand. An audience doesn’t listen to a broadcaster because of sponsors, but rather despite them. It was the job of the disc jockey to project a personality that appealed to whoever the station’s target market was, in a way that would sell more product for the sponsors. DJs also found themselves in the position of being able to make or break artists locally, and often mobilized audiences by appearing as masters of ceremony for dances, live performances and the sponsor.
In 1946, Gil Newsome was a sponsor-oriented, nationally recognized disc jockey at 5000 watt KWK of St Louis. He had been the announcer for Glenn Miller’s radio show, which boosted his own recognition. After the war, he reluctantly took a DJ role in St Louis. His experience was typical of many who relocate here today – he could have made his money in New York, but the same money could do much more in St Louis. He soon became a fixture on the local airwaves, and made connections through his many activities with major charity events and introducing nightclub acts at the Chase Hotel. He worked with the Shriners, and hosted sports events and festivals. He could even command top billing at other entertainers’ events:
Gil understood that the appeal of music was in a listener’s formation of new memories with top selling songs, and the mining of ones nostalgia with top selling records of the past. The message he was sending in the process was that if you liked the older nostalgic songs, you’d assume that he was going to introduce you to songs you’d feel similarly about in the future. Thus, he could influence your acceptance of the new music he played through your appreciation of his past choices.
At the station’s request, he worked particularly hard at becoming a leader in teenage activities, and because of the size of the market, Newsome grew to be nationally influential in music promotion. He became, in the words of the St Louis Media History Hall of Fame, “the teenage heartthrob of St Louis during his stint at KWK in the late 1940’s.”
All of this is prologue to a day in 1946, when Gil Newsome brought his radio show, the “Teen Thirty Club” to St Louis House at 2345 Lafayette Avenue in Lafayette Square.
John Laurenz was a handsome singing actor who, by 1946 had appeared in such films as “The Cisco Kid In Old New Mexico”, “Masquerade in Mexico”, and “The Thrill Of Brazil”. Although he’s much more in the mold of Bing Crosby than Elvis, this is what the kids were going for in the late 1940’s. Even with the harp glissandos and vocal warbles, it all sounds pretty pedestrian today:
Anyway, you might have thought it was Crosby or Elvis by the local reaction of the teenage girls who made up the vanguard of Newsome’s faithful at Teen Thirty Club.
The caption above says attendance was 1,370, mostly girls, with an average age of 16 2/3 years. It points out that there is no segregation, which might make it a little easier to understand how we evolved from Hillbilly and R&B to Rock and Roll in the decade from 1946 to 1956.
So Laurenz got an enthusiastic rock star reception at the St Louis House in 1946, and was able to flirt from the stage, as long as kissing (as the paper noted) was restricted to foreheads. Even so, the photos below claim that Charlene Schroeder of Cleveland High School “got her breath back a few seconds later.”
If dancing was always popular with teenagers, hyperactive jitterbugging was downright infectious, regardless of race. One could make out the beginnings of an integrated pop culture already stirring. The caption to the left states that the dancers here are Isaiah McEroy and Jewelene Anthony of Kinloch High School, shaking it up at St Louis House. It references an associate of Newsome’s who held contests at various teenage clubs during the week. Teen Thirty Club at the St Louis House was held on Saturday mornings, when the performers might have been tired, but the kids were wound up.
Tito Guizar was another crooning movie star of 1946, who appeared at Teen Thirty Club. He was in films like “See See Senorita” and “Blondie Goes Latin”. Guizar was in St Louis promoting “The Thrill of Brazil” with
Laurenz, but might have felt more at home, having had a small role as Raphael San Ramos in the 1939 film “St Louis Blues”.
Here he is, below, with a young student named Marilyn Sebulske, from Belleville High, and Gil Newsome standing to her left. The Post Dispatch noted that the “teen agers flocked to the front of the auditorium after the broadcast” and “keeping them from mobbing performers on stage is a big job.”
Gil Newsome stayed with KWK for 16 years, and, according to the St Louis Journalism Review, “became the voice of St Louis teenagers.” He received honors for improving race relations in the city, and received “dozens of letters of praise from high school principals, civic leaders and parents” in appreciation for his work with kids. He was once voted top DJ in the country by Variety magazine, and remained influential into the 1960’s. Newsome died of cancer in 1965, at the age of 49.
The acoustics of the auditorium at the St Louis House probably didn’t draw much attention at the time, but eventually people would notice, and even marvel at the sound quality there. It’s yet another upcoming vignette from Lafayette Square’s old German House/St Louis House.
Thanks to research sources including
The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rock N Roll In American Popular Music; Philip H. Ennis; Wesleyan University Press; 1992
St Louis Media History Foundation, a terrific project of Lafayette Square’s own Frank Absher; http://www.stlmediahistory.org/index.php/Radio/RadioHOFDetail/newsome-gil
Internet Movie Database; https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0350268/
and another IMDB entry; https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0491311/?ref_=rvi_nm
St Louis Journalism Review; July, 2006