A World of Its Own

by Matt Garcia

El Monte’s American legion Stadium

El Monte’s American Legion Stadium, on the other hand, reflected the aesthetics of an emerging rock ’n’ roll culture. Built prior to the 1932 Olympics, the developers constructed this multipurpose structure with the idea of hosting major sporting events and conventions to accommodate the mostly working-class communities of the San Gabriel Valley. In its early days, Legion Stadium hosted the wrestling matches for the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles, and later became the sight of roller derby matches for the Los Angeles team, the Thunderbirds. In addition, as an American Legion hall, the armed services used the facility for benefits, reunions, and meetings for local veterans and service people. Moreover, the auditorium maintained an open invitation to organizations interested in using the stadium. Regardless of the event, the functions held there inevitably reflected the blue-collar image of the people who lived nearby and used the hall.

An assortment of economic, geographic, social, cultural, and political preconditions contributed to El Monte’s development as a venue for rock ’n’ roll music. The formation of rock ’n’ roll bands and the creation of new music represented youthful attempts at imitating the popular images presented on television and in magazines (for example, Ricky Nelson and Elvis), mimicking African American rhythm and blues sounds emanating from the radio, and achieving a degree of local celebrity and respect. For many promoters, record company representatives, and disk jockeys, economic reasons propelled their involvement. Radio personalities gained popularity as interest in the music increased, while a nascent recording industry began to realize the profitability of the emerging youth market in terms of record and concert ticket sales. At times they exploited young artists, causing distrust among performers and promoters of rock ’n’ roll music. Initially, however, competition between bands, recording companies, and disc jockeys helped nurture the rock ’n’ roll music scene.

Regardless of their motivations, all involved agreed that live performances contributed to the promotion of rock ’n’ roll. Many of the potential consumers of this music, however, represented “underage” teens who could not attend many concerts because of a Los Angeles city ordinance that restricted gatherings of people under the age of eighteen. Therefore, although many promoters and local disc jockeys wanted to host local concerts in the City of Los Angeles, this law often prohibited even the performers of this music from participating due to their underage status.

The spatial dimensions of Greater Los Angeles and the less restrictive laws of Los Angeles County created the potential for the development of a dance hall culture in the Southland. Art Laboe, a noted local radio disc jockey, record producer, and concert promoter, stated simply, “Concerts started at El Monte because the laws were different in the county than they were in the City [of Los Angeles].” In particular, rules restricting underage gatherings did not exist in the county, which permitted Laboe and other disc jockeys and promoters to host rock ’n’ roll shows for teenagers. Similarly, relaxed county legislation also benefited other venues situated in Los Angeles’s hinterlands, including Rainbow Gardens and the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium; the latter competed with the Legion Stadium in size and reputation.

Angelenos’ experience of life in Greater Los Angeles – a network of suburbs connected by parkways and freeways – encouraged young people to drive from their homes to county dance hall sites. Although young people may have lived in a particular neighborhood segregated by race and class, the common experience of listening to music broadcast across the Southland on KRLA and other radio stations prefigured the interethnic popularity of the halls. Located approximately fifteen miles east of downtown Los Angeles and accessible by the main traffic arteries in the region, El Monte drew a diverse clientele from all ends of the Southland. Recalling the racial and class composition of audiences, Art Laboe commented: “White kids from Beverly Hills, black kids from Compton, and local Chicano kids used to come out to our shows every weekend.”

The commute gave rise to an emergent car culture. Inheriting or borrowing the cars of their parents, young people altered or “customized” their vehicles and formed car clubs. According to one faithful El Monte Patron, Richard Rodriguez, “lowriders were early fifties, and everybody was lowriding.” To lower their cars, teens would heath the suspension springs underneath their wheel base or load their trunks with sand or cement bags. For those who owned their own vehicles, elaborate modifications were possible. Many invested in expensive chrome “spinners” or hubs and whitewall tires that they illuminated by affixing semi-truck lights to the fenders and skirts of their cars. These truck “reflectors” came in amber, blue, orange and red, allowing individuals to vary colors, which gave each car its unique look. Often, lowriders played music from within their cars as a way to prepare for the night’s entertainment. As Rodriguez remembered, “you had your record player that was made by Craig. The actual 45rmp record inside the car! If you hit a bump in the street, there went the record”.

In addition to the cars, clothes shaped the world of the teen dance halls. Unlike Rainbow Gardens, which maintained a dress code, El Monte American Legion Stadium allowed young patrons to wear whatever they desired. This condition led to an eclectic, nonconformist fashion at El Monte, indicative of the cultural diversity extant in rock ’n’ roll audiences. Khaki pants and a “Sir Guy” brand, Pendelton-style, plaid shirt were particularly common among many local Chicanos, while Chicanas frequently wore a short-sleeved blouse with a tight-fitting, short, pegged skirt, usually cut about six inches above the knee. According to El Monte patron Marta Maestas, women also wore white, flat shoes known as “bunnies.” Maestas remembered, “you wor them with socks.” She added, “If you were ‘bad,’ you pulled them up, if you weren’t you kept them down.” These fashion statements expressed subtle acts of rebellion on the part of Mexican American youths who consciously broke with the “classy” suit and gown look of their parents.

If you wouldl like to continue reading, please click here to down load a PDF of the full story.