Dancing with the stars, 1950s-style

  • Students using The Storm Cellar were provided a membership card.

    Students using The Storm Cellar were provided a membership card. Courtesy of Chandler Swan

  • Hundreds of Elgin-area high school students gathered each weekend at The Storm Cellar, located in the basement of the city's First United Methodist Church. Begun in 1956, the popular location was a place for teens to dance, eat, or just visit.

    Hundreds of Elgin-area high school students gathered each weekend at The Storm Cellar, located in the basement of the city's First United Methodist Church. Begun in 1956, the popular location was a place for teens to dance, eat, or just visit. Courtesy of the city of Elgin

  • Carlton Rogers, Jr. and Chandler Swan sort through some old 45 rpm records and yearbooks in the basement of Elgin's First United Methodist Church. Both were involved with the 1950s teen center that drew 500 students each weekend.

    Carlton Rogers, Jr. and Chandler Swan sort through some old 45 rpm records and yearbooks in the basement of Elgin's First United Methodist Church. Both were involved with the 1950s teen center that drew 500 students each weekend. Courtesy of Jerry Turnquist

  • Elgin High School teacher and wrestling coach Al Sharf was the director of The Storm Cellar. Students said his well-respected reputation added to a smooth operation.

    Elgin High School teacher and wrestling coach Al Sharf was the director of The Storm Cellar. Students said his well-respected reputation added to a smooth operation. Courtesy of Jerry Turnquist

 
Posted11/17/2015 1:00 AM

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.

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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."

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