Collegiates kept post-WWII crowds swinging, swaying

The phone rang at about 10 a.m. Weir Music Store in Huron had just opened for the day and store employee Lyle Kline picked up the phone.

“When, tonight?” Kline exclaimed anxiously into the phone. “Where … Montevideo? Uh, well, sure, I think so” he said. “OK; Brookings at six? I’ll see you then.”

With his drum set and a thermos of coffee packed in his car, Kline turned onto Highway 14 heading east out of Huron and glanced at his watch: 4:15 p.m.

Ah, good timing. It was already nearly dark as January days are in South Dakota, and he was due to meet Collegiates band leader Maurice “Murph” Monahan ’56 in Brookings at 6 p.m. Kline looked forward to the evening gig substituting for regular Collegiates drummer Jim Hunter ’58 for a Saturday dance at the Fiesta Ballroom in Montevideo, Minn.

Kline eased around the Highway 14 curve on the west side of town by the Brookings airport. By 6:30 p.m., he and Monahan were on their way to Montevideo; Kline’s drums, Monahan’s saxophone, a large box of band music, and a sack of Nick’s Hamburgers all loaded into Monahan’s small Rambler American.

Following them was Ken Johnson ’62 with several other players and their instruments all crammed into Johnson’s Ford station wagon.

The next morning, Kline arrived back home in Huron at 5 a.m. His wallet contained exactly $15 more than when he had left home: $12 union scale wages for his work as a drummer, and $3 for gas money paidby Monahan. Not bad money for 1959.

This scenario was not unusual; bands signed contracts to perform, and substitutions were often necessary and on short notice.

Finding a popular beat

The Collegiates debuted on the SDSU music scene in fall 1949 and reigned until 1964. Post-World War II was the peak of the big band sound, produced at the national level by groups like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Stan Kenton.

The Collegiates, populated with SDSU students, was not a true big band (16 members) but it was large by local standards.
Band founder Vic Fondy ’52, of Whitewood, recalls that the original group was limited to “how many guys we could haul in two cars; three saxophones, two trumpets, one trombone, piano, and drums … that was about the limit.”

The original charter members were saxophonists John Sauder, Gerald Peppers ’53, and Larry Snyder ’53, trumpets Stewart Christianson ’53 and Jeff Thurston, trombonist Fondy, pianist Larry Dowd ’50, and drummer Dick Robinson ’51.

Later, band size grew to 10 players.

Monahan, of Brookings, says, “We were a clean band (no drugs) and each member paid for his own clothes and gear. Most of us had girlfriends that often checked coats or took tickets at the door of campus dances.”

Playing the ballroom circuit

The Collegiates played one-night gigs generally within 150 miles of Brookings, returning home after each engagement.

Entertainment alternatives in small communities were few and folks loved to dance. Hundreds of high schools across the region had dances. Most towns had a hall or ballroom where people could enjoy a dance and some good listening and toe tapping for $1.50 admission.

This was the year-round business environment of the Collegiates, which had a full schedule playing at regional venues such as the Fiesta in Montevideo, Dell Rapids Ballroom, Lake Kampeska in Watertown, Madison Armory, the Mitchell Corn Palace, and frequently in Marshall, Minn., and Aberdeen.

On at least two occasions, the Collegiates played at the more sophisticated Arkota Ballroom in Sioux Falls.

In reviewing her scrapbooks from her years at Washington High School, Sioux Falls native Gail Dahl of Minnetonka, Minn., says: “Oh my goodness … here they are! The Collegiates! They played for us at the Arkota on Feb. 13, 1959, for our Sweetheart Ball and again at the Arkota on Oct. 21, 1960, for our homecoming!”

Most SDSU dances took place in the Pugsley Student Union or the ROTC Armory for such events as the ROTC Military Ball and annual homecoming festivities. Fondy says, “Our first few jobs were on campus. We put up some posters, and word just spread from there.”

Adventure just a road trip away

But the Collegiates bread-and-butter were in small towns, which occasionally presented traveling challenges.

Monahan recalls an incident on his way to play for a high school prom in Wagner. He encountered a highway bridge out near Yankton.  He got stuck on a side-road detour and enlisted the aid of a farmer to pull his car out of the mire. He and several other band members arrived in Wagner late and muddy. Dance organizers were not happy; not only did the band receive only half their agreed pay, Monahan found he had damaged his car when it hit a huge pothole in Wagner.

Another time, a snowstorm in Dell Rapids resulted in closed roads and band members spending the night on cots in the town jail. In Lane, the band arrived to find the dance hall locked up and the dance cancelled; they drove instead to Huron and went to movie.

Opening for Brothers Four

If the band had its low points, it also had its highs. One of those was a crisp evening on Nov. 14, 1960, when the Collegiates opened to a spirited crowd in the field house as the lead-in for a nationally popular song group, The Brothers Four.

Monahan recalls there was standing room only and the crowd was on their feet as the Collegiates energized the room already electric with the anticipation of this national group’s momentary arrival on stage.

“This was a thrilling moment for all of us,” recalls Monahan.

Band music included pop standards such as “Sentimental Journey,” “One o’ Clock Jump,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “In The Mood” and dozens of other well-known swing, jive, waltz and ballad numbers. But a request to play in Oldham required that the band play “old-time” music. The boys didn’t have a clue, but they took the job, bought books and played the gig to everyone’s satisfaction.

The Collegiates was student-owned and unaffiliated with the college. Expenses belonged entirely to the band, but so also did the monetary returns, and more than one band member paid his way through college with these earnings.

Lead trumpet player Loren Johnson ’57, of Estes Park, Colo., says, “Each band member was paid $10 per gig and in the spring of 1954 we played six nights a week for six straight weeks for high school proms all throughout South Dakota and western Minnesota. And remember, tuition at State in the mid-’50s was about $28 per quarter. We were making money, but it was really hard to stay awake in class.”

A low-cost alternative: rock ‘n’ roll

While the Collegiates enjoyed years of popularity, societal changes were underway that would eventually lead to the decline not only of the Collegiates, but also of many large dance bands around the country.

The organic big band phenomenon upon which the Collegiates and other large brass swing bands built their business was being sidelined in the U.S. by small garage bands, electric guitars, Elvis Presley, the

Beatles and other overnight forces that emerged on the music stage to become a new music genre: rock ‘n’ roll.

Public appetites and dance hall budgets to support large band ensembles withered. For example, a 1957 Huron High School dance at the Huron Arena featured a local student group known as The Dixieland 5 for their dance music. This small combo was paid $60, a fraction of the engagement fee of $200 or more for the larger and more polished Collegiates.

In Brookings, four SDSU pharmacy students—Bruce Laughrey, Dave Powell, Roger Zobel and Don Robar—formed “The Monarchs” in 1960 and worked heavily in the local rock ‘n’ roll dance business for five years.

‘A very special night’

The Collegiates’ 15-year history came to an end shortly after 1964. But many readers will recall a formal dance in the campus Student Union with Collegiates music creating a romantic night with that sweetheart or special guy twirling around the ballroom floor … girls in their gowns, guys in their jacket and tie.

“Yes, the sock-hops were great fun,” says Deloris (Mangels) Jensen ’54/’58 of Golden Valley, Minn., “but when we knew the Collegiates were playing, we dressed up. They made us feel like adults, and we knew it was a very special night.”

Dave Lingo
Editor’s note: The writer, of Minneapolis, is a 1961 mechanical engineering graduate from State.

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