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“A long, long time ago. I can still remember how that music made me smile.”
It all began in the early 1940’s when students, parents, and city leaders alike agreed that there was need for a place for Waukesha teens to congregate and socialize (under supervised conditions). The selected spot was a little-used second floor room in the old YMCA on South Street. Furnishings were donated by local businesses and civic groups.
About 50 students pitched in to refurbish and decorate the room. They painted murals of high school scenes for the walls. Booths lined the walls while the center of the room was left open for dancing. The facility was opened to Waukesha students from the ninth through the twelve grades on Feb. 26, 1943 on a membership basis, the annual fee set at 50 cents. In the first year of operation, there were 462 members enrolled.
Of course, there was need to properly name the spot, and a naming contest allowed students to submit ideas. A few days before the doors opened, the winning entry was announced: the Cardinal Attic. Cardinal came from one of the colors of Waukesha High School, while the reference to attic was obvious.
“Now do you believe in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul?”
Music and refreshments was a key to the Attic’s appeal. The former was provided by a juke box that operated without coin input. At a refreshment counter, students could purchase candy, gum, popcorn, potato chips, milk and soft drinks. Income derived from these sales was used to purchase records, pay a stipend to an adult hostess, and provide for incidental expenses. The first hostess was Mrs. Simon Rolsted. In the second year, Mrs. Ruth Brisk became the hostess, a position she held for many years. She was well-liked by students but was also an effective disciplinarian. When rowdy behavior flared up she dealt with the situation firmly by stopping the juke box music, allowing peer pressure of unhappy dancers to bring the offenders into line. Some Attic-goers of the time also credit Mrs. Brisk with creating the famous Attic dance, in both fast and slow versions. The fast Attic has been described as being similar to a jitterbug. The slow Attic had a pattern involving walking and turning while still being held close to your partner.
An elected student committee of eight set Attic policies and dealt with rules infractions. They were guided by an adult supervisory committee that included teachers, a YMCA representative and civic leaders. Student drinking and smoking was regarded as a serious matter from the start. The Attic’s original “breathalyzer” test involved a set of volunteer parents who sat on the steps leading up to the room and smelled the breath of anyone who was suspected of being under the influence. And there was at least a tacit understanding that no intimate body movements were allowed in dancing!
“And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while.”
The Attic was open Monday through Thursday afternoons from 4:00 to 5:30 and on Friday and Saturday nights from 8:30 to 11:30. As funding permitted, weekend nights featured live music provided by local bands. In addition to the hostess, parents served as volunteer chaperones at these times.
“And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?”
Early Attic-goers described typical Attic dancing in nearly identical terms. Girls typically danced together, mostly doing the Attic step. Less sure of their terpsichorean skills, boys mainly gathered in groups along the walls, eyeing the girls, and sharing opinions of the scene. According to observers over time, this dynamic prevailed for many years, although boys became somewhat more proficient and willing dancers once the Attic step came to be taught in school gym classes.
Many Attic alumni describe it as the American Bandstand of Waukesha, and like the contemporary Dick Clark tv show, popular records were the mainstay of Attic music throughout its history. Up tempo pieces certainly generated the most action at the time but today those alums primarily enjoy remembering dancing with their squeeze of the moment to slower, and more romantic, numbers such as “Please Love Me Forever” by Tommy Edwards, “Dream, Dream, Dream” by the Everlys, “Moments to Remember” by the Four Lads, and “True Love” by Der Bingle and Grace Kelly.
“And then we were all in one place.”
When Catholic Memorial High School was established in 1949, its students were initially prohibited from going to the Attic by school authorities on the basis that it was not a church sanctioned operation. CMHS students, however, quickly challenged this notion, and the ban was lifted. Subsequently CMHS students enjoyed full membership in the Attic, including serving on the student board.
Busiest times at the Attic were Friday nights following football and basketball games. After home games, WHS friends walked together to the Attic from the high school on Grand Avenue or from Haertel football field on Newhall.
Especially during such evenings, hundreds of students crowded into the Attic, such that by the early 1950’s, it was recognized that a larger facility was needed. Simultaneously, there was recognition that a larger, modern YMCA was needed to serve the broader recreational needs of the community youth. A successful fund-raising campaign was carried on, and construction of a new Y on Broadway Avenue was started in 1953. Upon its completion, the Attic moved to its new Y residence in late 1954. There it again occupied a dedicated second floor room that included chairs, benches and tables, a refreshment counter, an open central dancing area and, in place of the juke box, a built-in sound system. On weekends, dancing often overflowed into the Y’s gymnasium. Mrs. Brisk accompanied the move to the new Y, remaining as chief hostess until 1960 when Mrs. Emma Boston succeeded her. Attic alums today have equally fond remembrances of Mrs. Boston, who played her role with concern and love for students right down to the closing chapter.
“Now I know that you’re in love with him, ‘cause I saw you dancing in the gym. You both kicked off your shoes.”
Romances were born and blossomed at the Attic, some eventually resulting in marriage. Many girls looked forward to “girls’ choice” announcements by Mrs. Boston which allowed them to pick a male dancing partner. Of course, romantic disappointments played out at the Attic as well. One Attic-goer of the time recalled that there was always some girl crying in the girls’ restroom over some boy.
Attic membership numbers and attendance steadily increased in the 50’s and mid-60’s. In its first year, the new Attic drew 816 members, and total attendance of 33,950 during 312 open times. In the following year, membership grew to 1,027. A Waukesha Daily Freeman article stated that, by the mid-1960’s, membership was 1,300 to 1,500 students, and that Saturday night dances commonly attracted 600 to 800 participants. Members of WHS’60 paid $2 membership dues in their senior year. The membership fee eventually reached $3.
Attic membership rules, however, remained basically unchanged over time. In 1960, they included the following:
There is to be no smoking in the club or on YMCA premises.
No member may have alcoholic beverage on his person or on the YMCA premises, nor use it before coming to the Attic or during the evening.
Each member must work at the counter once during the year and clean up the Attic afterwards.
Mannerly, courteous conduct and language will be expected at all times.
For the good of the Attic and the YMCA, members will refrain from loitering on the steps and sidewalks in front of the building.
“I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck. With a pink carnation and a pickup truck.”
Despite these rules of conduct and their enforcement by Attic staff, crowds of Attic-goers congregating around the Y, especially at night, increasingly posed community concern. In 1955, the Freeman editorialized that police presence was needed to deal with situations of kids in parked cars, loitering around the Y building, cigarette smoking and other undesirable activities. Police responded by regularly patrolling the area at these times. Miscreants found at or near the Attic lost their memberships as well as suffering legal penalties. Jack Hunter provides a first-hand account of an incident involving a group that came to be known as the “Krambo Parking Lot Four,” that lot being located across the street from the Y. According to Jack … “It seems that we were not supposed to be drinking beer in a car at age 16. As the police car approached us and then stopped parallel to our car, we slid the incriminating six packs under the officer’s squad car while he was getting out of the driver’s seat. The officer could smell the beer but we reminded him that there was no evidence. Of course, as he drove off, he ran over the numerous six packs, spraying beer everywhere. We were busted and driven home to our parents --- a fate worse than death.” This account, the present editors note, does not relate the ultimate fate of the Attic memberships of the “KPL Four” but Jack, at least, was a familiar Attic denizen until his graduation from WHS (and probably later as well).
“So bye, bye Miss American Pie”
Such incidents notwithstanding, the Attic was held up as a highly successful social model which other communities sought to emulate. When the memberships of WHS’60 students expired for the last time, the Attic was 17 years old (about the same as our age then), and there was perhaps an expectation that it might go on forever. But, of course, social change was inevitable, and eventually various factors combined to bring the Attic’s long run to an end. An early clue was the changing of popular music in the 1960’s. Danceable rock and roll numbers and ballads of the ‘50’s were challenged by new sounds and dance styles, such as the “chicken” and the “twist.” Remember that unwritten rule prohibiting intimate body movements in dancing? Well, Mrs. Boston did, and interpreted many of the new styles as fitting this description, to the considerable disappointment of some Attic members. Growth of Waukesha, both in geographical size and in its teen population, probably also played a role in declining Attic attendance beginning in the 1960’s. The distance from new WHS South Campus discouraged traditional treks to the Attic after school and Friday night games. Opening of Waukesha North High School in 1974, also at substantial distance from the Y, split the city’s teens into two social groups. Perhaps an increasing trend for teens to have their own cars may have countered the distance factor, but it also created greater mobility and freedom to seek entertainment elsewhere. After-school jaunts to nearby county parks and lakes, evenings of cruising Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, going for pizza at Marty’s on Bluemound Road and frequenting taverns in bordering counties that permitted beer purchase at age 18 were some of the new options that increasingly competed with Attic attendance.
“I went down to the sacred store where I heard the music many years before, but the man there said the music wouldn’t play. … I knew that I was out of luck, the day the music died.”
Officially, according to Don McLean (and his opinion is at least as good as anyone else’s) the day the music died was February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper perished in a plane crash as they were leaving from a gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. We too still remember the shock of that day to our teen brains.
Music died at the Attic more gradually, however. By the early 1970’s, after-school Attic hours were dropped because of limited attendance at those times. And although an official Attic closing date isn’t known to present authors, the day the music died in Waukesha occurred in 1978. “ … something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”
Editor’s note: This account is based largely on Freeman articles dating back to 1946 and, importantly, a five-part series of November 2012, written by local historian John Schoenknecht. It includes a few personal recollections as well. We hope it brings back some thoughts of happy times to you too. If the spirit moves you, and your rapidly failing memory permits, please enter below remembrances that you would like to share with classmates. Also see vintage Attic pics in the Photo Albums section and submit your own Attic pics there.
Editorial PS: Apologies to Don McLean for unauthorized use of lyrics.