Fewer & fewer people know “The Lost History of El Monte’s Legion Stadium.” But this massive former high school auditorium had a wild ride as the R & B, Rock & Roll and Country Western music EPICENTER from the 1940’s-1960’s.
As a resident of the City of El Monte myself, I've only seen minimal 'official' recognition on this part of its vivid past, until recently that is! On a rainy winter weekend, the skies parted with rays of sunshine and a cool breeze as El Monte city officials welcomed the famed deejay Art Laboe to give him the “Key to The City,” honoring the man who was the first to officially broadcast the newfangled sounds of Rock & Roll across the West Coast at the Legion Stadium. The talented Mr. Laboe is now 92 years young and still has the voice of smooth butter...oh man I can listen to him all day! Good news is, you still can on radio station 93.5 KDAY where he still spins the “Oldies but Goodies” from 6pm-Midnight on his own show called “The Art Laboe Connection.”
Vilma's Diary & The Legion Stadium
Vilma's 1952 diary primarily focuses on her PRE-Clifton’s Cafeteria day to day life as a blossoming 17-year-old growing up in her home town of El Monte, California. But it just so happens that our Vilma lived about one block away from The American Legion Stadium, and many of her diary writings put us directly in the swing of the 1950’s Rock & Roll and Country Western music played here… along with the cars, culture and dating night life of this kitschy space-age-y era like no other. So read along from my past blog posts for more!
In the late 1940’s Country Western music was HUGE! A talented entertainer and producer by the name of Cliffie Stone had heard about the massive venue and moved his big Country Western Variety Show in on Saturday nights. “Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree” became the biggest thing on the West Coast and was televised across the nation for almost a decade. The locals called this the “Oakie Stomp” or just “The Stomp” for short. The “who’s who” in Country Western and Country Western Swing descended on El Monte for the weekend with performers such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Speedy West, Bucky Tibbs, female artist Molly Bee and many, many more! El Monte became known as “The Grand Ol’ Opry of the West Coast.”
Cliffie Stone eventually decided to move the variety show to another city, but this by far was not the end of the Legion Stadium! Just about this time, in the early to mid 1950’s this newfangled style of music called “Rock & Roll” was beginning to emerge. And it was wild I say, just wild! The gyrating hips of Elvis Presley could not be stopped. Large throngs of young people were being swept up in the latest craze. Band promoters couldn’t keep up and were trying to locate venues large enough to hold those screaming teens. The problem was, it was the decade before the Civil Rights movement and race relations and segregation were sparking tensions within the County of Los Angeles. Funny thing is, it was music that was bringing blacks, whites and Chicano’s together.
Well, the city would still have none of it. The Los Angeles County politicians deemed up an ordinance that prohibited large numbers of teens from gathering in one place.
Organizers and band promoters scrambled to find a large enough venue to hold their musicians, many of which were black—and unwelcome. Here comes the Legion Stadium to the rescue! At the time, El Monte lived on the outskirts of L.A. County and was not subject to that pesky ordinance. So to El Monte they came! And Deejay Art Laboe led the pack!
Art Laboe broadcasted “live” out of the stadium for more than a decade and brought with him literally ALL of the famous doo-wop & R & B musicians of the day, with the likes of Ritchie Valens, Rosie & the Originals and The Penguins. And you just might remember their famous song called “Earth Angel” too! Frank Zappa, who was a regular at the stadium, wrote a special song called “Memories of El Monte.” He collaborated with the Penguins to set it to the tune of that very song!
The Post Office
What stands in its place is the El Monte Post Office, and now a brand-new Townhome complex. For YEARS there has been a lonesome single column with its own tiled roof portico directly in front of the Post Office. It displays images of many of the musicians that played here along with sporting events like boxing, wrestling and the craze of the Roller Derby competitions. Sadly, this little column has been mostly forgotten, it’s tattered images are wind-whipped and showing the years of dirt that I don’t think anyone has ever washed off. As I see people busily completing their mail errands, I usually take the time to wander the five yards or so from the Post Office entrance to this sad lonely memorial. I’m the only one there of course, snapping photos with my iPhone and thinking “wow, most people have no idea what went on here!”
You can see her interview explaining the significance of the piece below:
The cars, dancing, Rock n’ Roll, Doo-Wop and R & B artists of the day created a very special and lasting harmony inside and outside this non-descript former High School stadium, which still deeply resonates with the thousands who remember attending the shows here. Thankfully, the city and the construction company have stepped up to officially recognize the unique historic value of the piece of land where the history of Rock n’ Roll began on the West Coast.
And thankfully we have a girl named Vilma, who took her pen in hand...