Young people danced in 1939. Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

Santa Cruz had a Footloose moment in 1956 when rock-and-roll dances were banned

In June of 1956, Santa Cruz had a real-life “Footloose” moment. Police officers had been dispatched to check in on a Saturday night dance at the city’s civic auditorium. They were disturbed by what they saw. According to a police report, about 200 teenagers gyrated to the sounds of a rock-and-roll band, with some couples moving in “highly suggestive, stimulating and tantalizing motions.”

“This type of affair,” the report concluded, “is detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”

The dance was halted, and the band — led by Los Angeles saxophonist Chuck Higgins — was exiled from town, told never to return. The next morning Santa Cruz Police Chief Al Huntsman announced a total ban on rock-and-roll dances.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel carried the news on its front page on June 4, 1956.

Santa Cruz Sentinel, via California Digital Newspaper Collection

As the news spread, Santa Cruz’s teenagers protested and national news wires flooded the police department with calls. Within a couple days, city officials were forced to clarify that there was no official ban on rock-and-roll dances. Still, enough people wanted one, and on Aug. 28, City Council members passed a resolution giving the manager of the civic auditorium the right to halt dances that he deemed immoral.

Less than a decade later, Santa Cruz welcomed a new U.C. campus founded as a showcase for progressive education — with no big-time sports, no fraternities, and no grades. Liberal students flocked to the university, making it a hub of countercultural values that gradually seeped into the larger community. Today, Santa Cruz qualifies as among the most culturally permissive cities in the country.

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