The Canteen

“See you later, Mom. I’m going up to the Canteen.” Those were words heard often on a Friday or Saturday evening around our house on Thomas Street. Most often I would go by Remy Guilmart’s house down the street to see if he was going up there too. Of course he was. If you were a teenager during our Crafton High School years of 1957 to 1961, that was the only place to go, the only place to be, on a weekend night.

In my school years, the Canteen was on the second floor of a building on Noble Avenue at Bradford. This big space with a stage at one end had been a theater of some kind once upon a time. I’m told a group of guys including Tony Grande, Steve Schoenberger, and Tom Longwood opened a dance hall there in the 40’s, so our Canteen brought it back to that use. The big orange brick structure, now somewhat dilapidated, housed O’Connell’s drug store on the ground floor corner, where a Peter Pan Cleaners had once been. A well faded advertising sign painted high on the side wall hinted at a former furniture store in the building. Rumor had it that a roller skating rink had occupied one of the building’s floors in days gone by. There were four bowling alleys in the basement, long unused. Some other small retail businesses fronted along the Noble Avenue side also. One of them was John Froetchel’s barber shop, where all the cool guys got their hair cut. (John’s brother Charles was also a barber and had a shop on Ingram Avenue.) A meat market and an organ building/repair shop were also along there at one time. In later years, my good friend Sal Grande ran a bar, a “beer joint” in proper Pittsburghese, along this strip, where Craft Heating had been in my high school years.

You entered the Canteen though a door on the Bradford Avenue side of the building and walked up a set of old industrial-looking stairs to the second floor. There was a modest admission fee to get in. Once you paid your admission, and hung up your coat in the coatroom, there you were, in the big open space that was the Canteen! The old elevated stage at the far end of the room now housed the record playing equipment where the usually volunteer disc jockey spun the music from a large collection of 45 rpm records – you know, the little ones with the BIG hole in the middle.

The stairway continued up to a third floor, but a locked door prevented us from going there. A fire exit door on the Noble Avenue side of the building, across from the post office, went directly up up up a long set of stairs to the third floor of the building. I’m not sure how we discovered this door was unlocked one Friday night, but I can recall a group of guys creeping up those stairs into the dark of that upper floor. I’m told the local Masons had held meetings and events up there years ago, but what we found seemed to be a deserted gymnasium, with old mats on the floor and abandoned exercise equipment around. It was very deserted, very dusty, and very spooky, even for a bunch of brave guys like us. It was on this floor, later converted to several apartments, that the fire that destroyed the building many years later began.

A snack bar well stocked with good old western Pennsylvania “pop”, as well as chips, candy bars and the like, was located across the room. Prices were right for teens in this era when pocket money wasn’t particularly commonplace. Next to the snack bar was the entrance to a couple of back rooms. The first one held a pool table and a ping-pong table. Mostly the guys played pool, gettting their practice here, as well as at the real “pool hall” across the street by the post office. Beyond the pool table room were the bathrooms. The relatively few smokers in our midst always hung out in there. You could find the bathrooms with your eyes closed from the smell of cigarette smoke coming out under the doors. Parent chaperones were like the FBI in their attempts to prevent smoking in the bathroom. Given the age and condition of the old building, the fear of fire was probably number one on their list of worries. Alcohol use was rare – those that imbibed usually opted to hang out under the Thornburg Bridge instead – and in that far off time, drugs as they are known today simply didn’t exist.

Seats, (maybe folding chairs, maybe benches?), lined the long side walls of the place. Generally guys hung out in some areas, girls in others. We had our turf. Some abnormal guys were apparently natural dancers and found no trauma in simply walking right up to one of the girls and saying something profound like, “Ya wanta dance?” But using myself as an example of more normal males of the era, this was not something that came easy or without much consternation and perhaps perspiration too. Actually walking up to a girl and asking her to dance? Whew, that was a big deal, because what if she said “no?” Speaking for the guys, self-doubt was a commodity found in generous abundance when it came to communicating in any substanial way with girls.

I can still remember a time during my freshman year, my first year at the Canteen. Almost all of the boys in the freshman class were infatuated with a senior girl. Of course I don’t remember her name anymore – that’s the way it works. But in the fall of 1957 I too was madly in love with even the thought of her. I would name all my future children after her I solemly pledged (to whom? – sorry, I don’t remember that anymore either. One by one, in the order of our ability to muster up the courage it took, guys would meander across the dance floor heading generally in the direction of the gaggle of senior girls with which she stood. You didn’t head right for them, you sort of wandered about, ending up there as if you were somewhat surprised yourself. Say it quick, before you chickened out, “Do you want to dance?”

And then he got “the look”. The look that said, “Pardon me, but you, a lowly freshman, have the nerve to even think about, much less actually ask, me, a ladeedahdeedah senior to dance?” It was a very short look, but it actually said all of the above if not a few volumes more. The look was followed by the reply. “No.” That said, the guy would not meander back, but rather would skitter-scurry back much in the fashion of a blow-up doll that had just had the plug pulled. He would seek solace in the words and presence of those who had previously failed to climb this particular mountain. Yet Mount Humiliation had a strong allure, and others kept trying. My turn came somewhere down the line. I too got the look and the reply. I can still see that look. But I got even. I didn’t name my children after whatshername after all.

I actually did ask some of the girls in my own class to dance on occasion, and often the answer was “Yes, sure, OK.” I actually liked to dance, fancied myself a good dancer. But it always took a long period of mustering up the courage to ask, and so I missed out on a lot of potential dancing time. Of course, even with girls our own age, sometimes the answer was still “no”. The eyes of all the guys followed the brave ones across the floor, and pity the poor “rejected” guy who had to slink back to the “boys’ side” of the room, not to sympathy this time, but to the taunts and finger popping “shootdown” gestures of his supposed friends.

But dancing was only the sideline event that drew us to the Canteen. Just hanging out was pretty much the real reason for going there. The DJ provided most of the musical entertainment, but occasionally some “local talent” could be persuaded to perform. I can still hear Margaret Smith belting out “Sweet Georgia Brown” from that stage. Some years earlier, Chuck Osborn, who had some recording success under the stage name of Scott Free, performed live on the Canteen stage as well. Guest disc jockeys, who were reportedly semi-famous, sometimes appeared, probably for a chunk of the nights entry receipts.

Like most teenagers then, now, and forever, I was pretty much brain-dead when it came to being aware of who was actually doing the work to provide the services I took for granted. I honestly don’t know who “ran” the Canteen. I think it was a student and parents group, but they must not have asked for much help or my Mom would have been helping cause she was always a helper. It wasn’t a parent/teacher thing, because I never saw any teachers I recognized. So I offer a belated “thank you” to whomever was handling the logistics that had to go into running the place.

In later years the Canteen was moved to other locations. I think it operated for a few years in the old Ben Franklin 5 & 10 building which itself had had a second life as a roller rink. But even the site of the Canteen I knew is gone now. The building was owned by the O’Connell family. Bill O’Connell lived in one of the apartments he had built on the third floor. Somehow an electrical fire started one night in 1998, and burned the whole place down. Like the song says, people came along and tore it down and put up a parking lot. Crafton’s “business district” was pretty much a memory before the fire. Afterwards it was only a smoky memory. A portion of the property has now been put to good reuse with the building of a new Borough fire house.

School age kids in any era are notorious for always whining, “There’s nothing to do.” Kids in my Crafton High School years couldn’t do that whining, at least not on Friday and Saturday nights, because the good old Canteen was always right there waiting for us.