It was 20 minutes past midnight when police officer Richard Overton decided he’d had enough of the teens and their rock and roll music.
In the police report from the night of June 2, 1956, Overton wrote that the music playing at the Santa Cruz civic auditorium “excited the crowd to passion at times and it was feared the crowd might become uncontrollable.”
One couple, in particular, drew his eye. They were furiously dancing, making “highly suggestive, stimulating and tantalizing motions.” A crowd of other dancers had gathered around them, admiring their moves.
Apparently terrified of this would-be revolt of hormonal young people, Overton mustered police resources to clear out the venue. No one protested; all 200 revelers left quietly, including the band. In the light of day, Santa Cruz police chief Al Huntsman declared all future rock and roll dances were banned.
“Authorities have imposed a ban on ‘rock and roll’ and other frenzied forms of terpsichore in Santa Cruz as a result of ‘obscene and highly suggestive dancing’ by teenagers at an affair held at civic auditorium Saturday night,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel declared on its front page.
Santa Cruz had banned rock and roll. And the people would not be happy about it.
It only took a few days for the story to go viral, 1950s-style. Wire services around the nation picked up the tale, and the Santa Cruz police department was flooded with calls from reporters asking about the ban. The outrage came too, from young and old, who saw the move as a draconian measure to regulate fun. Many felt a racial element was also part of the police response. The band performing that night was black, the police were white.
“Because of a few bad apples, [we have] been made into a group of uncontrollable savages overpowered by the provocative rhythms,” 16-year-old Arlene Freitas wrote in a letter to the Sentinel. “… 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.”
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