Dancing with the stars, 1950s-style
When it comes to remembering special times in the 1950s, it might be hard to top those of a number of Elgin teenagers about a place called The Storm Cellar.
This unique gathering place located in a downtown church basement served as a center for teenagers to dance, eat or just visit. In its wake, it left many cherished memories and even some marriages.
"The idea for The Storm Cellar was conceived by my father, Dr. Carlton Rogers," said his son Carlton Rogers, Jr. "As a young pastor at First United Methodist Church of Elgin, he realized that youth in the community had rather limited opportunities for socializing. He approached the church council who agreed with his idea to open a teen center at their facility.
Elgin High School principal Roscoe Cartwright, who was a member of the church, also supported the concept and encouraged Elgin High School faculty member and wrestling coach Al Sharf to take on the job as the director. In addition to Elgin High School students, the "nondenominational and nonsectarian" weekend meeting place was also open to students from St. Edward High School and Elgin Academy.
The name The Storm Cellar was chosen by the students in a contest after the operation got under way, according to newspaper accounts. Students also sat on a governing board and helped on the nights it was open. Parent advisers also helped with the operation and provided manpower.
The teen attendees entered the church from the west side of the building and proceeded downstairs to the commodious basement. An admission of 10 cents was charged to enter.
Barbeques, hamburgers, ice cream and soft drinks were available at a snack bar, but many came to listen and dance to the music provided by a jukebox.
"We'd go to nearby Leonard's Music Store each week to pick up the latest songs to put on the jukebox," said Carlton Rogers, Jr.
The new venture launched on Sept. 19, 1956, with a teenage band. Its success was immediate with more than 500 students attending each night, but it was not uncommon for student attendance to reach 800, and on some occasions even 1,000.
Over 18,000 came to The Storm Cellar the first year and the number increased to over 25,000 in later years. When Elgin High School -- then the only public high school in School District U-46 -- had events planned, The Storm Cellar suspended its operations.
The Storm Cellar closed in 1961 and students moved their well-worn jukebox to the new Y.M.C.A. on Elgin's near east side. "Y" officials said they planned to continue The Storm Cellar tradition and other programming, but many of those that attended the original site say their experience was one that could never be equaled.
"I have fond memories of The Storm Cellar as it gave all of us a place to go on Friday and Saturday nights," said Chandler Swan of the Elgin High School class of 1960.
Swan, who also recruited comments from other Elgin High attendees for this story added, "You either met your girlfriend or boyfriend there or hoped that you could get to dance with that 'special someone.' The church basement seemed to be transformed into a dance hall with dim lights."
"The Storm Cellar is a memory the kids that grew up in the 50s will always remember," added Ken McGhie who was in the Elgin High School Class of 1960. "It was fun to watch the good dancers, and many of us wished we could move on the dance floor as only those few could. The Storm Cellar was our 'American Bandstand.'"
"I can hear 'oldies' songs today that take me right back to that basement with so many fond memories of just straight clean fun," said Margie Smith Milan of the Elgin High School class of 1961. "We arrived in anticipation of seeing the guy we liked at the time and hoped he'd show up and would ask you to dance. I wouldn't trade those days for anything."
For some, like Gene Walz, class of 1956, and Gail Gomersall, class of 1957, The Storm Cellar led to marriage and their cherished memories continue to this day.
"The Storm Cellar is very dear to us. Our first date originated from there," Gail said. "Once we started dancing with each other, there were no other partners for us."
Judi Tucker, Elgin High School class of 1961, who also met her husband Jim at The Storm Cellar, said, "Too bad kids now don't have a place like The Storm Cellar. "When we grew up, we had the greatest places to hang out. We had so much fun doing innocent things together. We lived in such a wonderful period."
Memories of The Storm Cellar• "Always a big crowd at The Storm Cellar. Lots of jitterbugging and strolling at The Cellar, but when Monte Hundley took center stage, the kids would form a circle around him and his date just to watch. He sure had the moves." -- Norm Beu, class of 1960
• "Great fun and so excited to spend time there, scared that I would spend the night never dancing, excitement about my new lavender skirt and sweater set, knowing it would change my life. Being aware that I wasn't quite in the 'in' group. All and all, it was a very important part of our adolescence and I'm so glad we all had a place to go." -- Susan Berman Lackner, class of 1960
• "Loved going there. My girlfriends and I went every week if we could. Always had to see who was there and if 'he' would be there and would ask me to dance. Really wasn't a good weekend if I had to miss going. When the lights went from dim to bright and it was time to go home." Andrea Anderson Christ, class of 1960
• "It was such fun dancing to the 45 records being played. We all did the jitterbug and the Stroll and circled around the best dancers like Patti and Norm to watch them dance. They also played some romantic slow dances, but it was good clean fun. There was no drinking or anything for parents to worry about. Every time I drive by that church I think of The Storm Cellar." -- Darlene Meller-Lawler-Schlies, class of 1960
• "It was the only place to go after a football game or a basketball game. Mostly we arrived in groups of boys and girls. As a girl, I was always hoping that one of the guys that I liked would be there and hoped that he would ask me to dance. Didn't always happen, but it was fun anyway." -- Carla Franzen Haines, class of 1960
• "Al Scharf was a great guardian of all of us. Because he was the wrestling coach and a high school teacher, one was always on their best behavior there. The Storm Cellar was a safe and fun place for young people to gather to listen to our music, watch really good dancers perform, dance yourself and fall in love and out, sometimes on the same night." -- Paul Gustafson, class of 1960
• "Always had the newest songs in the jukebox, girls danced with girls and was the only place to go to, especially after the football games." -- Dennis Sinnett, class of 1960
• "I even met my future husband there and he told me I looked cute with sweat on my nose (yeah, right!). Some of the drama of our young lives played out at The Storm Cellar such as who is dancing with or flirting with whom. After dancing away all those calories, it would be Cokes and french fries or a 15-cent hamburger at McDonald's." -- Diane Liek Duvall, class of 1960
• "(I remember) walking from Maroon Field down by Huff Grade School after football games to get to The Storm Cellar. Doing "the stroll" in a long line. Sharon Prouty Lowe and Jordan Gross dancing in the middle of the circle. Carlton Rogers walking around making sure we were behaving. Just a great place to hang out with friends." -- Diana Boren Menke, class of 1960
• "The Storm Cellar was the place to go on Friday and Saturday nights. All my friends were there to dance and socialize. It was run by Mr. Al Scharf who was the wrestling coach and drivers education instructor at EHS. After that it was heading over to Lazzara's for pizza. What a great time." -- Jordon Gross, class of 1960
• "During the fast dances, most of the boys stood around and many of the girls danced together. We all managed to get organized to do the Stroll. Loved the slow songs when my boyfriend Tom and I danced together, especially to our song, 'My Special Angel.'" -- Mary Williams Vick, class of 1960
• "It was a great informal gathering place to meet all your friends with or without a date, mostly without a date. Lots of current music and (it) was usually packed in that large place. What I remember was with all those people it was very hot." -- Susan Daniels Humbracht, class of 1959