By Danny Crownover
Author’s note: Robert Elton recently sent The Vagabond his memoirs of growing up in Gadsden. Robert is originally from Gadsden and graduated from Gadsden High School. He studied broadcast production at Auburn University and went on to work for South Carolina Educational Television Network. Robert and his wife Jean Pearce Elton live in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Episode 11: The fabulous ‘50s
As teenagers, my brother and I, along with Lee (“Tick”) Charlton would go down to the Coffee Cup Café on Broad Street at night. We would drink a few cups until the Princess Theater box office closed for the evening and then would sneak in to watch the last half of whatever movie was playing. We enjoyed the endings of countless movies. That’s why when I write a story I usually start in the middle and go to either end.
Down the street on the opposite side, the Capitol Theater ran “B” movies for the most part. The Capitol was smaller in size than one auditorium of a multiplex theater today. On Third and Chestnut streets, the Gadsden Theater was the place you didn’t want your mom to know you patronized.
It played mostly the “girly” movies of the day, which were tame by today’s standards. The 1950s brought the drive-in movies, and since they charged by the person, we sometimes would get one guy to crawl into the trunk until we got past the box office. Sometimes we even remembered to get the guy out of the trunk.
The 1950s era has been glamorized by Broadway, television and the movies because of its unique music, dress, hair styles and the jitterbug dance. I can remember owning the then-popular black charcoal suit, pink shirt, pink socks, pink pocket hankie and a narrow black knit tie, squared off at the bottom. Right after I bought the outfit, I wore it to Twelfth Street Baptist Church.
Teenagers always sat together in the top left balcony in those days. We got up to sing the first hymn and I grabbed a book to share with a friend next to me, Benny Barnes. We both looked down and noticed the hand that held the book was adorned with a charcoal black sleeve revealing the price tag, still attached. You know that as a teenager, when you get tickled in church, it’s almost impossible to stop giggling, no matter how serious the sermon.
Dating in the 1950s was great fun. It took days of rehearsing to get up the nerve to ask a girl out on that first date. The usual itinerary was a movie followed by a Doyle’s Drive-In hamburger and Coke. If you knew the girl well, you might drive down to the river park or to the mountain “brow” overlooking the city to take in the “local scenery.”
Proms were held at the City Auditorium. A cute girl named Ann Watford invited a few of us wallflowers to her house so she could teach us the jitterbug dance. Ann would later become a part-time disc jockey for WGAD in the Phillipson Building.
My first prom date was a cute girl named Patricia Traylor. I got her a corsage, drove my dad’s car to pick her up and abided by my mom’s request to drop by the house before the dance to show off my date. Ann was drop-dead gorgeous in her spaghetti-strap lavender taffeta gown and her “diamond” choker necklace and earrings (they were rhinestones? Well, they sure looked like diamonds to me). Who could forget the 1950s music, especially if it was played by a live band at the dance?
Episode 12: Paper Boy Days
Delivering newspapers was one way a teenager could make some spending money for dates in those days. I delivered the Birmingham News and Post-Herald in Gadsden. Our gang of paper carriers started out with bicycles and then along came a gasoline motor for a bicycle called The Whizzer.
Raymond Frost was one of the first in Gadsden to get one. Later, some of us bought Cushman motor scooters. I bought a second-hand scooter from the chicken processing place on North 6th Street. It had a side cart they used to deliver chickens. Of course, I used it for carrying newspapers. The Cushman had an automatic clutch that engaged when you gave it gas from the handlebar control.
My scooter had a problem in that the longer it sat idling, the faster it would idle. It didn’t bother me too much until I stopped to deliver papers early one morning at an apartment building on Bay Street.
I came back out of the building just in time to see my scooter take off down the street by itself. I gave chase. Some man driving by on his way to work did a double take at this bizarre scene. The scooter hit a pole and stopped.
Often on Saturday nights we made a party out of our job. A gang of us would go to the late movie at the Princess Theater and afterwards eat a midnight breakfast of pancakes at the Mexican Chili Parlor. We then would go to the newspaper office located where the present post office stands today. We spent the night there in sleeping bags until about 3 a.m. when the truck from Birmingham arrived with our papers.
The thicker Sunday morning paper couldn’t be folded, but as long as you held the paper so that the folded side of the pages was on the side in the direction you wanted to throw it, it would sail like a frisbee. If you tossed it with the loose and unfolded side toward the house, you spent the next 10 minutes picking up every single piece of paper scattered over your customer’s yard.
I don’t know what genius invented it, but somebody at a local newspaper came up with a triangular fold for the thinner newspapers. It’s hard to describe, but it looked like a mostly flat and three-sided newspaper that was perfect for tossing where you wanted it to go.
Saturday morning was the time to go door-to-door and collect for subscriptions. I remember one day in Edenwood when Mr. Sherman, the father of my classmate Joan, answered the door.
He said, “Well, you’ll find a quarter up on the roof, a dime out by the curb and a nickel in the bushes. That’s where I get my paper. That’s where you’ll get your money.”
Lesson learned. He was kidding, of course.