Teen Canteen letters shed light on ’60s youth culture

Sam Kinsey’s fabled Teen Canteen, a teen dance club which operated from 1961 to 1977 at various locales in San Antonio, wasn’t only an important rock venue of the era – the Sir Douglas Quintet, Mike Nesmith (pre-Monkees), Mike Post, Gene Thomas, Bubble Puppy, the Moving Sidewalks, ZZ Top and dozens of legendary teenage garage bands played there — it was a godsend for parents.

Kinsey recently donated his meticulously-maintained archives to The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. The former record shop manager and band booking agent’s business records offer exquisite insight into middle class, principally white, teen culture of the era.

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For example, among the invaluable newsletters, advertisements, contracts and photos are numerous letters and notes from parents grateful for the wholesome venue he provided for their children. They liked that he was strict – and that his place was a safe haven for students. Young people had to have their parents’ permission to join the Teen Canteen.

In his heyday, no-nonsense Kinsey carried a flashlight to shine in the faces of young couples getting too cozy during a slow dance song.

Kinsey never served liquor; older boys were allowed to smoke. He insisted on a dress code (blue jeans and shorts were not allowed). Dances were always supervised by adults. Police officers were usually present. Kinsey’s mother even sometimes attended. Teenagers could not come and go as they pleased; and if they left for the night, they were not permitted to re-enter.

The letters in the collection – telling the story from the older generation’s perspective — make for some fun reading. They also show that the values of the 1950s still lingered well into the new decade. Here are some select excerpts.

In 1965, Mrs. Walter J. Hagen wrote to Kinsey. Her daughter was one of the original go-go girls there.

“We want Shari Hagen  to belong to your Teen Canteen, because, we feel that it is about the only place that a parent can safely send a young girl and not have to feel concern about it. We can drop her off, and relax until time to pick her up, as your dance is always so well chaperoned.”

Sponsored by Silvey Music where Kinsey worked, the Teen Canteen started humbly as Silvey’s Summer Canteens for junior high school students. Held at a small community hall, admission to the record hop was 25 cents. By December 1961, the Teen Canteen was born on Fredericksburg Road just south of the Woodlawn Theater. Admission was 50 cents; six-month membership cost a dollar.

By 1963, the Teen Canteen moved to a dance studio in Wonderland Mall. After the Beatles became the rage in 1964, Beatles-Beatnik dances were introduced; 1965 would end with a bang with a Halloween appearance by actor Ted Cassidy (who played Lurch on “The Addams Family”) to bellow and dance to “The Lurch” and a concert by the homegrown Sir Douglas Quintet the following month riding the hit “She’s About a Mover.”

If the entertainment reflected the times, so did those parents’ letters. Sometimes there was a bone to pick.

In September 1965, Mrs. D.L. Blass wrote to Kinsey to OK the renewal of their daughter Marilyn’s membership “although I do not approve of the increase in the admission fee.”

That same month, Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Curtis wrote to the Teen Canteen owner. They approved of their daughter, Janice, having a membership in “such a club where teenagers can enjoy clean, wholesome fun.”

A letter from one mom in November 1965 assured Kinsey that her daughter “is ready to act correctly now” with regard to his venue’s rules.

In another letter from November 1965, a father asked Kinsey to reconsider reinstating his son’s membership because: “My wife never knows where he is, and at least while he is there I know that he is being supervised.”

Another father wrote that he was allowing his son to go to the Teen Canteen “only because it seems to keep him out of trouble.”

Sometimes the letters were more serious.

In August 1965, a grateful mother wrote Kinsey a three-page letter thanking him for helping to find her son who’d run off with a married woman to Dallas. Through his teen pipeline, Kinsey located the young man, who, by his mother’s account, was “very ashamed” and “had learned a lesson.”

A father from South Texas wrote to thank him for finding his son and a friend who’d run away.

By 1966, Kinsey was on a mission to build a permanent home for the Teen Canteen but was having trouble securing a loan. Parents mailed him letters of recommendation and shared their experiences about the place.

In a touching handwritten note from July 1966, a woman who’d just become a widow wrote that fatherless boys like her son “need a place like your canteen even more now.”

One dad in the summer of 1966 noted that Kinsey was exceptionally caring.

“Not everyone finds it easy to steer a slightly tipsy young man coming in for a dance to a taxi so that he can get home safely. Your waiting at the door for some inconsiderate (or forgetful parent till the wee hours until they come for their daughter.”

One single mother of three thanked him for helping her keep her 17-year-old some from dropping out of school.

Another mom wrote to Kinsey in July 1966 that S.A. teens needed “a good clean place to belong – and not the street corners.”

The ’60s generation gap was on her mind, too: “They need relaxation much more than their parents. They are trapped in a world of confusion, such as my generation never knew.”

Parents encouraged Kinsey to follow his dream and stay the course. “Maybe if you wanted to build a drunken topless nightclub for so called adults you would go further,” one mother wrote sarcastically.

Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Pickett offered the following endorsement in June 1966. “Frankly, we are grateful that San Antonio has ‘Teen Canteen’ – whatever in the world would our teenagers do without it?” Kinsey opened his new building on June 14, 1968. The end wouldn’t come until almost a decade later.