The Parades, the Pageants, the Fairs and the Dances
There always seemed to be parades in downtown Bay St. Louis when I was a child, all through the year. Many of them, like Veterans Day, Christmas, Mardi Gras, homecoming parades and religious celebrations were annual events, but there were also special celebrations to honor different people — like when Miss America came to town.
One parade that I vividly remember was held during the 1958 Bay St. Louis Centennial. This was a parade just for kids and it was a very big deal at the time. My buddy Johnny Shattuck and I built this makeshift car on lawnmower wheels and I somehow (shades of Tom Sawyer) convinced him to push me in the parade while I steered the contraption.
Growing Up Downtown
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.
Veterans Day Parade
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 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
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.
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).
Dances Upstairs in the Knights of Columbus Hall
As I remember it, most of the time the admission fee at the KC Hall was a dollar, maybe two if it was a bigger name band. The music was usually provided by bands from Gulfport or Biloxi like the Nightbeats, the Soul Brothers, my friend Bo & The Claudettes and occasionally even my band, the Saxons. There also on occasion, would be bigger name bands from New Orleans and Baton Rouge like the Dimensions, Deacon John and the Ivories, the Mersey Sounds and the Inn Crowd. On those occasions the place would be absolutely packed.
These were put on for teenagers 18 and younger, with no alcohol allowed. There were big, tall windows down the two side walls and no air conditioning. To say that it was hot and steamy would be a huge understatement. They had a big attic fan that would suck air in through the open windows to ventilate the place. We used to lower a string down from the upstairs window and have one of our buddies tie off a pint of whiskey and tow it back up through the window. You generally could pull this off on a big crowded night because the chaperones were generally preoccupied trying to keep alcohol from being smuggled in through the main door.
One night Deacon John and The Ivories were playing. They were one of the bigger-name New Orleans bands working these dances. The bandstand was raised and stuck up in a little alcove in the corner of the room. The stage was built up enough so that the stage floor was about level with the sill of the window in the corner. It was summertime and hot, sweaty and sticky from the climate and 175 dancing, gyrating young bodies packed up in the hall. Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, who went on to be the drummer for the Funky Meters and the Neville Brothers, was playing drums with the Ivories at the time. He was set up in the corner right next to the open window. A couple of wasps flew in through the open window and Zig started swatting and batting around with his drum sticks trying to shoo them away when he lost his balance behind the drums and toppled off of his drum stool. If one of the other musicians had not quickly grabbed him he would have gone out the second floor window head first.
I met my first real girlfriend at one of these KC Hall CYO dances. The drummer in my current band met his wife at one of these dances. While I’m on the subject of CYO dances, I have to relate this tale. One summer I met this absolutely beautiful girl from Baton Rouge while both of our families were vacationing in Panama City Beach, Florida. We had one of those torrid teenage summer romances for the week that we were in Florida and then about two weeks after we returned home, her family invited me to come to Baton Rouge for the weekend.
I rode up to Baton Rouge on a Greyhound bus and she and her sister picked me up at the bus station in her daddy’s car. This was a Friday night and they announced that we were going to a CYO dance. Well, I’m this podunk, small-town Mississippi kid used to attending CYO dances in the KC Hall with maybe 100 kids. We pulled up to the Redemptorist High School gym, which was about five times bigger than any high school gym that I had ever seen. We walked in and there were at least 1500 kids in there and the joint was jumping!
There were two bands alternating sets with each other. One of the bands was a group named Blues Incorporated, featuring a singer named Duke Royal, who was this big 18- year-old kid with a wavy pompadour hairdo like Little Richard but singing like Bobby Blue Bland. This young singer would go on to become the legendary Luther Kent, a world renowned R&B singer today. For a smalltown kid who was already ate up the live music, this weekend made a huge impression that remains with me to this day. My friend Duke Bardwell’s band, the Greek Fountains, was a huge regional band hailing from the Red Stick City during this time. Baton Rouge today remains a big musical town with an extremely vibrant local musical scene.
St. Stanislaus Homecoming Dances
Youth Center Dances
The Yacht Club Dances
The Bay Yacht Club was the first place that I ever saw Deacon John and the Ivories. The yacht clubs had better budgets and could afford to pay better bands. The CYO dances would have bigger bands maybe once per year, while the yacht clubs had big name bands every time. Irma Thomas and the Royals, Art and Aaron Neville with the Hawkettes. Deacon John, Roger and the Gypsies, the Glory Rhodes and later, the Funky Meters all played regularly at Bay-Waveland or Pass Christian yacht clubs. Both yacht clubs also had junior nights on a weeknight in summer. These dances provided work for the younger, up-and-coming bands like mine: the Subway Prophets and Tomorrow’s Dawn, as well as Pass Christian’s Mustangs and Gulfport’s Flower Power.
Several funny episodes come to mind about Bay-Waveland Yacht Club dances. Bay-Waveland was always elevated so the main level where the dances were held was actually on the second floor. One night I climbed out the window (this was before air conditioning) to go get alcohol and fell about ten feet to the ground. Apparently, I must have been pretty “relaxed” because I wasn’t hurt, but obviously didn’t need any more alcohol.
Another time Irma Thomas and The Royals were playing and there was a big fireplace with a mantle that the band always set up in front of for dances. This was one of those dances where the capacity of the yacht club was 300, while there were probably 450 in attendance. Anyway, I jockeyed my way up to the best seat in the house and was sitting up on the mantle of the fireplace behind the band. Irma Thomas was already a huge local star with lots of big records, but my favorite was a tune called “I Did My Part.” As usual, I was “extremely relaxed.” As Ms. Irma’s set progressed, I became increasingly more vocal, yelling “Irma, Irma, I Did My Part, play I Did My Part." What comes to mind with this story is the scene in the movie Animal House when the fraternity boys discover their party band, Otis Day and the Knights, are on the bill at a rural juke joint and proudly announce “Wait until Otis sees us, he loves us!” Anyway, after one too many times of hearing me say, “Irma, Irma, I Did My Part," the Soul Queen of New Orleans spun on me and announced “I did too, white boy, now get down off of the stage!”
Ironically, one of my lifetime musical friends and heroes, Deacon John Moore, was playing (in his words) “one of those New Orleans Country Club society wedding receptions” when a woman approached him and related that she was a friend of first lady, Laura Bush and that he would be “getting a phone call.” Fast forward to the White House Christmas party and my friend, then Congressman Gene Taylor (a veteran of many, many Bay-Waveland Yacht Club dances) is walking around the Bush’s Christmas party. Gene hears, but doesn’t see the band and thinks to himself that this sounds awfully familiar. He seeks out the room where the band is playing and there is our friend Deacon John doing what he does — for George and Laura Bush’s White House Christmas party! Deacon John and his band the Ivories still “hold court” annually on the 4th of July Saturday at the Bay-Waveland Yacht Club more than 40 years later.
The Bowling Alley
This bowling alley was BIG news for Bay St. Louis’s population. Soon there were men’s, women’s and children’s bowling leagues and for a while, this business was a major player for the town’s entertainment buck. I remember that once - and only once - my Dad bowled a perfect game. I think the highest that I ever bowled was a score of around 220. The bowling craze in Bay St. Louis was a lot of fun. Later, Ms. Yaryan got out of the business and it was taken over by Fred Cabell under the name of Tower Lanes in 1965.
All I can tell you is that I, along with every other adolescent male in town, went bonkers over the go-carts. If my dad would have let me, I’d have spent every cent that I could get my hands on to get behind the wheel of those go-carts. It was our first experience behind the wheel!
Both the putt-putt courses and the go-cart tracks were seasonal, but they sure were enjoyed by a lot of the locals and tourists for several years!
I’ve also found in my research that in 1950 there was apparently an amusement park of some sort named Coney Island of the South. This park was located at Jackson Ridge, which at a later date was the garbage dump, but now is the location of Buccaneer State Park, on the southern end of Waveland. I haven’t talked to anyone who could tell me anything about this, but the newspaper ads in the Hancock County Eagle don’t lie! This could possibly have been a short lived venture, however.