Fort Lewis Teen Center and the Emergence of Northwest Rock

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/03/2015
  • Essay 11083

Fort Lewis authorities attempting to combat juvenile delinquency established a Youth Activity Center in 1951 on the large army base in Pierce County south of Tacoma. The center initially had limited attendance, but became popular in 1959 when some management activities were taken over by its teen participants. A teen board was allowed to select bands. This board chose new young bands that would go on to shape the Northwest rock scene. The Youth Activity Center, called by nearly everyone the Teen Center, was a significant force in the success of many bands and artists, beginning with the Wailers and including the Ventures, the Exotics, Little Bill and the Blue Notes, and Nancy Claire (b. 1943). A large number of musical careers were launched or enhanced with performances at the Fort Lewis Teen Center.

Teen Center Opens

In 1951 a youth center opened at Fort Lewis to provide after-school and evening recreational activities. The Fort Lewis community, concerned about juvenile delinquency on the base, hoped that providing young people with activities at the center would reduce crime.

The youth club opened in a then-unused World War II building. It included a snack bar and game tables. Occasional dances were held at club buildings on nearby American Lake. The center was well publicized but failed to become popular with young people. It had a membership of only 60 teens and the American Lake dances drew only small crowds. The dances had good bands, such as the Chuck Healey College of Puget Sound Band. However these bands were not youth-oriented so the dances lacked excitement for teenagers. Army control was very evident, with uniformed noncommissioned-officer chaperones required to be there as a duty assignment.

Recognizing the attendance shortfall, organizing parents sought a more centrally located building with enough space for a dance hall and snack bar. When the Fort Lewis Employee Association Club closed in 1953 its building became available. The building was centrally located in a family-housing area on the main post and met the needs of the Youth Activity Center. It had a snack bar, rooms that could be arts and crafts centers, and a dance floor. The building, built in 1919, was formerly the Red Cross Convalescence recreation hall. Following the departure of the Red Cross in 1920 the building became a service club for soldiers, serving in that role 26 years. It had experienced significant use with minimal maintenance so before the Youth Activity Center could open there the building needed to be renovated.

A Fresh Start

A grand opening was held in January 1954. Though advertised as a youth center, the facility was adult-managed. The management preserved the less-than-exciting name Youth Activity Center, but most called it the Teen Center. The adult leadership was very active in planning activities and selecting the dance bands, scheduling dances with a band about twice a month. Bands that played at the staid Officer's Club were hired to play at the Youth Activity Center. One such band was the Phyllis Blackstone Orchestra, which played dance music popular with the young people's parents. Some activities were more popular than the dances, including talent shows, sock hops, and jukebox dances.

By the spring of 1959 the adults running the club recognized its shortcomings. They turned over considerable authority in setting policy to a youth board. One of the more important changes was to allow the youth board to select the bands that would play.

Teen Center Hosts Bands Creating the Northwest Sound

The Youth Center board picked fresh new bands rather than the established and more traditional dance bands that had previously played at the center. Over the next four years the youth board hired many of the bands that would create the distinctive Northwest Sound of early rock 'n' roll. These included the Wailers, the Ventures, Little Bill and the Blue Notes, the Kingsmen, Nancy Claire, the Frantics, and the Exotics.

The Teen Center provided an effectively national stage, since many of the youths at Fort Lewis would soon be leaving for different areas of the country as their parents rotated to new assignments. The center was also an opportunity for military personnel, especially those underage, to get performing experience and develop musical skills. A number of bands comprised of service members played at the center.

The Wailers Set the Stage

The first group the youth board hired, in the spring of 1959, was the Wailers. The Wailers, also known as the Fabulous Wailers, were then students at Tacoma's Stadium High School. The band's two founders, John Greek (1940-2006) and Richard Dangel (1942-2002), were sons of career Air Force men stationed at McChord Air Force Base. They were well-known among young people at both McChord Air Force Base and the adjacent Fort Lewis.

In 1958 the Wailers, then known as the Nitecaps, had played at the McChord enlisted club, popularly known as the "Snakepit." After being renamed the Wailers, the band performed at the Teen Center in the spring of 1959. It was the band's first performance at a large teen dance and was an excellent opportunity to promote their music to a high-school audience. The Fort Lewis and McChord teens at the dance talked about the Wailers to their friends at several local high schools, including Stadium High and Clover Park High School in Lakewood.

Soon after the Wailers' performance at the Teen Center, the band was on the nationally known television show American Bandstand. One of the first garage bands, the Wailers had a hit in June 1959 with "Tall Cool One," an original instrumental that they had recorded in Lakewood. The Wailers returned to the Fort Lewis Teen Center on August 3, 1959, for a Parent-Teen dance aimed at getting parents familiar with the club and providing family entertainment. The dance was an opportunity for the youth board to demonstrate its effectiveness in managing the club. The Wailers had repeat performances at the center in 1960 and 1961.

Country Bands Perform

During its prime, the Teen Center hosted several country bands. One band that played in October 1959 was very popular. Chuck Glaser (b. 1936) and the Country Gentlemen pleased the audience and were regulars at the Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base enlisted clubs. The band was comprised of military men and two dependents. Private First Class Chuck Glaser was a draftee from Nebraska who was assigned to Fort Lewis in 1959. After completing his service in early 1961 Glaser, with his two brothers, had a very successful career in the group Tompall and the Glaser Brothers. The group became one of country music's most-awarded groups and was enormously influential in the development of the Nashville Sound. Chuck Glaser also went on to become a writer and music businessman.

Jimmy Payne (b. 1936), a drafted soldier at Fort Lewis during this time period, worried that his time in the army would seriously disrupt his goal of a music career. Instead he met Chuck Glaser and played the lead guitar in Glaser's Country Gentlemen. Glaser told him to come to Nashville when he completed his military service and he would help him with his music career. With Glaser's guidance Jimmy Payne had success as a country artist and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1967. He turned to song writing and was co-writer of the big hit "Woman, Woman." A number of other soldiers who played in Glaser's bands went on to be successful performers.

Exciting New Bands

For the 1959 Halloween Dance and Party the center hosted Little Bill Engelhart (b. 1939) and the Blue Notes. The event was a huge success with 2,000 attending, the largest audience of any event at the Teen Center. The Blue Notes returned for the Christmas party on December 23 and performed their recorded numbers "I Love an Angel" and "Bye Bye Baby."

The Ventures, an instrumental group formed in Tacoma in 1958, had their first Teen Center performance on November 21, 1959. Appearing at the center was an opportunity to test their reception and refine their sound. The Ventures found that a Teen Center show also brought new jobs. The band would go on to greatness and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. The Ventures returned to the center for the New Year's Eve Party on December 31, 1959, playing from 8 p.m. to midnight. A free buffet followed with the club closing at 1 a.m.

Selecting new and exciting groups continued into 1960. An early-January 1960 dance showcased the Demons, a band made up of students from Shadle Park High School in Spokane. Later that month it was a Portland group, the Kingsmen, entertaining the teens. In February the Blue Notes played for the Valentine's Day Dance, and they performed several more times in 1960. The next month the Frantics of Seattle appeared and performed their Dolton Records release "Werewolf." Nancy Claire Penninger of Kent, who performed under the name Nancy Claire, joined the Frantics. She would become Northwest rock 'n' roll's first lady.

A number of bands desiring the opportunity to play at the Teen Center made performance-audition appearances. A six-piece band from Olympia, the Triumphs, auditioned by playing a Superstition Dance on May 13, 1960. The teens wore black. The next week the Torments auditioned. The Galaxies, with members from Bothell High School, were the dance band on August 6, 1960. Three weeks later Nancy Claire sang with the Exotics. The Country Gentlemen, renamed the Wranglers, returned in August 1960. The Back to School Dance on September 4, 1960, featured Little Bill with the Seattle band the Adventurers.

The Teen Center made use of various service members with entertainment talent. In 1960 and 1961, on evenings when there was no band, former Los Angeles radio disc jockey Private First Class Edward Paul Wonder (b. 1939) played records. He also hosted "bring your records" nights where he played records brought in by the crowd. Paul Wonder met his future wife, Beverly Lantz (b. 1942), at the center. They married on August 6, 1960, in the Fort Lewis Main Chapel.

In January 1961 another Tacoma group, the Roamers, appeared. For the 1961 Valentine's Day Dance the Frantics performed. The St. Patrick's Dance featured the Statesmen. Nancy Claire returned at the end of May with the Exotics and Little Bill. A Vancouver, B.C., band, the Casuals, played the June 11, 1961, dance. The Princetons played for an August 1961 dance.

From 1962 to the end of 1969 more teen bands performed, but none of them would have the impact of the Teen Center bands of 1959 through 1961. Among the groups playing in these later years were the Vibrations, a band from Sumner. The Impalas, a Tacoma band, played in 1965. Also in 1965 Alan Pederson and the Aryans (they intended no racial implications with the name), students at Lakes High School in Lakewood, made an appearance.

Moves and a New Focus

In January 1969 the Teen Center moved into a former enlisted-soldier recreation building. With this move the center's operations and control transferred to the Army Special Services organization. The larger service-club building had more room for arts and crafts, pool tables, a reading room, study rooms, and an auditorium for bingo and social events. Army Special Services was less innovative in selecting bands, resulting in a return to more conservative dance bands and fewer dances.

This was also a time of musical change. The army brought rock bands to the post to play at enlisted venues in an effort to entertain the troops. Teens wanting to hear rock bands could attend these events.

The Teen Center had bingo nights, pool tournaments, and a busy arts-and-crafts schedule, but was no longer a center of musical innovation. The center did move back into the former Red Cross building until permanent specially designed facilities could be built. The importance of youth centers was recognized, especially for after-school and vacation times, which led to the construction of impressive permanent facilities. The centers went from hosting special events to maintaining regular hours with a variety of activities.

Sources: Peter Blecha, Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from "Louie Louie" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (New York: Backbeat Books, 2009); Del Halterman, Walk Don't Run: The Story of the Ventures (Tacoma: Del Halterman, 2009); "Teen Club Providing Valuable Recreation Activity," The Ranger, August 29, 1952, p. 4; "Youth Activities," Ibid., February 10, 1956, p. 8; "Blue Notes to Play the Beat for YAA Gala Christmas Party," Ibid., December 18, 1959, p. 8; "YAA Plans Gay New Year Party; Parents Invited to Join in Fun," Ibid., December 18, 1959, p. 8; "Blue Notes Play Beat," Ibid., January 1, 1960, p. 11; "Frantics to Play at Youth Center," Ibid., March 4, 1960, p. 13; "Fort Lewis Teen Club Spring Dance Features Little Bill & Blue Notes," Ibid., May 13, 1960, p. 5; "Youth Activities," Ibid., May 13, 1960, p. 5; "Exotics to Play Here Tomorrow," Ibid., August 26, 1960, p. 7; "Chuck Glaser's Wranglers Play at Teen Club Tonite," Ibid., August 26, 1960, p. 7; "Open House to Herald New Teen Club Debut," Ibid., January 24, 1969, p. 1; "Youth Center Offers Variety of Fun," Ibid., February 13, 1970, p. 20; "Richard Dangel: Wailers 'Louie Louie' Guitarist Dies," The Seattle Times, December 5, 2002, p. A-1.

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