Entertaining Tucson In the 1950s

These are excerpts from the 4-volume set of “Entertaining Tucson Across the Decades” by local Tucson author and publisher Robert Zucker. In more than 750 pages, these volumes cover Tucson entertainment from the 1950s through the end of the 1990s. This includes music from rock to standards to country and more, local sports and entertainment figures are interviewed and covered over five decades.

Each volume features several decades: Volume 1 covers the 1950s through 1985; volume 2 features 186 through 1989; the 3rd volume is Tucson entertainment in the 1990s; and the fourth volume contains the indexes, tables of contents and highlights from all three volumes.

Read more pages from “Entertaining Tucson Across the Decades” and purchase copies online at Amazon.com.


Tucson’s musical memories of the ‘50s

By Michael Hamilton

Hey Daddy-O! Let’s hearken back once again to when today’s baby boomers– those born between 1946 and 1964– were assembling their first mini-crystal sets and searching for their first station with “rock and roll” rhythms. It was a chance to dig the world of cars, cliques and class, with this new mod music in the background. This was the 1950s in Tucson, Arizona.

The newest fad– customizing cars in California– set the pace for a few local car clubs. Tucson’s “Banshees” beamed proudly with vehicles sporting fender skirts, flipper hubcaps and continental kits. The twin aerials brought in radio signals from a society of high fidelity, both fraternal and familial. Yah, man, Ike smiled, Khrushchev rattled his rockets, but all else was well!

From ‘53 to ‘63, the nation cruised as smooth as a finely tuned engine. Life was lived for the daily fun of it like an adventure rather than a venture as it is today. Young lads had fun pegging the five local stations on their brother’s car radio before he went on the “big date” that evening. She looked neat with his class ring hung on a chain around her neck, as they smooched (in front of people). He looked cagey in his flashy car club jacket as they roared down the lane with the open pipes purring.

Kids sure wanted to be 16 in a hurry to cruise about– even in an Edsel! Vroom! But, kids just rode their bikes and settled for a “transistor” sister radio hanging from the handlebars listening to KTKT-990 AM – Tucson’s top rock and roll radio station. This reporter reminisces each time he sees a ‘50s logo, be it cars, soda pop, or petrol! Like wow man!

Pop art Americana comes to Tucson in the ‘50s. The sweet, colorful echoes of heartfelt “Fabulous Fifties” music sprung to life in the form of the Sonic Drive-in restaurant, on West Grant Road east of the Interstate. Baby boomers, who once cruised the four Johnnie’s Drive-In’s, then Ritchie’s on 22nd Street, with great pride, will reminisce with much fervor once again here, as the spontaneity of youthful life whiles on and idles by …

Brushing aside the glossy gossamers off one’s memory, one recalls rising for high school to the radio alarm clock and the Guy Williams program of the city’s flagship rocker station KTKT. Williams’ shifty mercurial shenanigans were so symbolic of the late 1950s to early ‘60s era.

The “wild one” of the Swingin’ Seven played a variety of tunes typical of the times. Listeners sometimes cringed as groups cut songs like “Did Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor On the Bedpost Over Night” and “Itsy Bits’ Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and the like! Thank your lucky airwaves that these melodies we interspersed among better ballads like “The Battle of New Orleans” or “Big John” by Jimmy Dean. “El Paso” with Marl Robbins’ eerie alto wail was on the Top 40 for 14 months.

There were several crossover country songs back then. KMOP and KHOS were favorite footpattin’ frequencies of those days. This reporter walked to school and played sax in a “before classes” combo that belted “big band” sounds like “In the Mood,” etc. Understandably, it was not too popular with the student rockers of the day.

One thing, though, almost any student could make music during voluntary study halls. Ample students were allowed to leave the campus, head for burgervilles, thinking that was just neat, choice, and boss … ! (continue reading in volume 1)


Talking with Rex Allen

By Nick Nicholas and Michelle M. Sundin
September 1991 – Entertainment Magazine. Page 15

J
ust before the dedication of a bronze statue of famed Western singer and actor Rex Allen on July 20, 1991, this reporter visited with Rex at this ranch near Sonoita to spend an enjoyable afternoon talking with him about his life and show business career. The following are highlights of that conversation.

Rex, you were born and raised here in Arizona and you had a real cattle and horse background. Tell us a little about those early days. “I was born in my grandmother’s house in Willcox and shipped back to the homestead a week later and didn’t get back to town until I was five or six years old when my older brother, Wayne, was bit by a rattlesnake. We lost him because there was no medical care within 40 miles so there wasn’t much that could be done.”

You also had a couple of famous cousins in show business, didn’t you? “Yeah, Glenn Strange who made a ton of westerns and was more familiar as the bartender in Kitty’s “Long Branch Saloon” in “Gunsmoke.” Did you know that he was also the first Frankenstein in the movies? It was a non-speaking role in which he just lumbered through the picture. This was way before Boris Karloff.”

Continue reading in volume 1 of Entertaining Tucson Across the Decades.


Shopping Tucson Downtown during the 1950s

Downtown was the “shopping center” in Tucson during the 1950s. Most businesses stretched along a few blocks between Congress, Alameda and Pennington Streets. Congress Street was also the hub for the major four indoor movie theaters, including a Spanish movie house.

The 1,300-seat Fox Theatre, 17 W. Congress, opened on April 11, 1930 with the showing of “Chasing Rainbows.” The Fox closed in 1974 because of economic conditions and competition from TV, outdoor drive-ins and new multiplex movie theaters. The Fox has been refurbished and reopened December 31, 2005.

The Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress Street, opened in 1920 and was closed in 1984 after a gas explosion and has since reopened for performing arts and concerts.

The State Theatre, 51 E. Congress, originally opened in 1897 as the Tucson Opera House. The 1,000-seat movie house closed on September 22, 1953.

The Letty Shop next door, 47 E. Congress, carried “ladies’ ready-to-wear” apparel from New York and Los Angeles. The shop, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jules Abelow, originally opened at 34 E. Congress on June 24, 1944 in a building formerly occupied by Sayer’s Linen Shop. The store moved across the street some years later and closed about 1956. The Letty Shop was named for the Abelow’s daughter, Letty, who later opened her own mid-town clothing stores, simply Samples and Career Threads in the 1980s.

The main downtown department store was Steinfeld’s at the corner of Stone Avenue and Pennington Street. The two-story building with a mezzanine carried everything from glassware to neckwear, shoes to lamps and a “Tucsonian Shop.” Nearby, at 26 E. Congress, was the popular Grabe’s Record Center where 45 RPMs filled the record containers. Other department stores included, Jacomes, J.C. Penny, Sears and Levy’s.

Read more articles about Tucson entertainment from “Entertaining Tucson Across the Decades.

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