Growing Up Downtown - December 2015
The Parades, the Pageants, the Fairs and the Dances
The folks in "the Bay" have always known how to celebrate life. Join this party from the past in the latest installment of Pat Murphy's book-in-progress about historic Bay St. Louis, and you'll get an in-depth look into our community's festive past!
What I remember most was that throughout the whole parade this contraption was falling apart. When the parade passed my grandfather’s store on Main Street, we had to stop, borrow a hammer from Gramps and nail the thing back together!
When Mississippi’s own Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley, came to town, a huge parade took place and she rode through the streets of downtown in the back of a shiny new convertible. I remember standing across the street from the courthouse and being just mesmerized when her convertible stopped right in front of me and she shook my hand. I don’t think that I washed my hand for a month after that!
There were the occasional national or state political candidates giving speeches, shaking hands and kissing babies on the lawn in front of the courthouse. Sometimes these candidates would bring bands with them. One time in the early 1960s, country music stars Porter Waggoner and Ms. Norma Jean actually played off the back of a trailer in front of the Hancock County Court House.
After the Bay St. Louis “Krewe of Chicapoula” Mardi Gras parade wound its way through the city, huge crowds would gather in the gymnasium of the old high school (later to become Second Street Elementary) and the king and queen of Mardi Gras in Bay St. Louis would be crowned. Awards would be presented for best floats and costumes. Hundreds and hundreds of townspeople, young and old, packed into that old gymnasium every year. It was a much-anticipated annual event in downtown Bay St. Louis.
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Veterans Day Parade
Veterans Day was another huge celebration and parade through downtown Bay St Louis.
Every grade in every school, all the teachers, every school band and several college and military bands marched along with all of the American Legion and Veterans' posts. There would be thousands marching for this parade and it would end in a ceremony featuring speakers on the front steps of the Hancock County courthouse on Main Street. I recall that most often the weather was pristine — cool, crisp, sunny November mornings. It was all very exciting for me as a young kid. After it was over, students were dismissed early from school. As kids, we were not unhappy about that!
Religious Parades and Celebrations
The Christ the King Parade was an extremely big deal in this very Catholic community; there were hundreds of people. Looking back it reminds me of the religious parade in “The Godfather: Part II” with the priests and altar boys marching and carrying the religious icons.
The thing that I remember most about this parade was Mr. Sam Compretta and his goat and cart. Every year Mr. Sam and his goat were in that parade! The goat and cart had something to do with the initiation of fourth degree Knights of Columbus. All I ever heard out of my dad was about some ritual of riding the goat! Mr.Sam was a fourth degree knight and along with my dad (Joe Benvenutti) and some others belonged to the statewide initiation team. They traveled all over the state on weekends initiating fourth degree knights. I think riding the goat was part of the initiation ritual. Really I think it was all a tall tale and just an excuse for all of these old guys to get away on the occasional weekend, drink and blow off steam with their friends and fellow Knights of Columbus.
The Bay St. Louis Centennial
In 1958, the town of Bay St. Louis held its centennial celebration observing the town’s 100th birthday. It’s hard for me to believe that was over 50 years ago! The town fathers even hired some company specializing in these type of events to lay out and stage a centennial pageant. This company provided costumes for the participants to wear during the pageant. The Bay St. Louis Little Theatre was also involved in the casting and presentation.
The presentation was held at St. Stanislaus football stadium (this was in the days before Bay High had a football stadium) and took place over a period of three or four nights that week. Each night, a different period of time in the town’s history was presented in this live pageant.
There was some kind of special proclamation signed by the mayor, Johnny Scafide, declaring that all of the adult men in town had to grow facial hair for the celebration. If they didn’t and got caught, the violator could be tried in kangaroo court and placed in one of the head stocks that were constructed on the front lawn of the Hancock County courthouse. I remember that they would break raw eggs in the men’s hair and throw pies and things at them while they were in the head stocks. Then they would be thrown into a makeshift jail for an hour. Needless to say most men grew facial hair or left town temporarily until the pageant was over. Back at this time, men did not wear facial hair. You never saw beards and mustaches on men.
My dad grew a goatee and many of the townspeople had acting roles in the pageant, including me and my dad. I remember that I played a child crying because I’d just lost a family member in the town’s yellow fever epidemic.
These days they are called festivals: Crab Festival, Harbor Fest, Beachfront Festival, Seafood Festival. But back in my childhood, they were just called fairs and everybody had them. From church fairs to county fairs, the schools, churches, American Legions, Knights of Columbus and SSC Sidelines Club all had fairs as a method of fundraising.
There were several childrens’ fishing rodeos with the one presented by the American Legion Post 139 being the one I remember best. The American Legion Fair was usually July 4th weekend and it ended with a huge fireworks display out on the end of their pier.
This American Legion post home was constructed on the beach side of South Beach Boulevard at the intersection of Washington Street after the 1947 hurricane. It was directly across the street from The Star Theatre and featured a long pier that basically was built on the footprint of the earlier Stokie’s Wharf. This was prior to the construction of the rock jetty and roadway. This American Legion building was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969. Most of the Catholic church and school fairs took place on the grounds of the St. Stanislaus back school (Rip’s University).
Oh, Lord, we had the dances! There were plenty of them. My musical career grew out of the love of live music that began at these dances. From the first time I experienced live music, the music bug was just all up in my bones. My Grandfather Stevenson was best friends with Ben Hille, Sr., who owned the Oldsmobile dealership and I was friends with his son, Squeaky. We used to go to the Hille residence every year for a visit on Christmas morning. I vividly remember the Christmas morning when Squeaky got his first set of champagne-sparkle Gretsch drums. Soon Squeaky and Henry “Jay” Heitzmann had a real rock-n-roll band, initially named The Scavengers, but soon changed to The Starfires (most bands during this period were named after cars). I remember going to the Bay St. Louis Youth Center and listening to Henry J & The Starfires. From that point forward, I was a live music junkie!
Dances Upstairs in the Knights of Columbus Hall