Youth of Legion Stadium: El Monte's Failed Attempt to Outlaw Rock ‘n Roll

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By: Alexis Monroy

If I could go back to those days of the past 

I'd show you a love, a love that would last 

Oh, I remember those wonderful dances 

In El Monte- Frank Zappa1

It is Saturday night, and El Monte's atmosphere is buzzing with a youthful glow. As the parking lot and the surrounding streets began to fill with vehicles from the American golden age of automotive design with names like Galaxie and Mercury, the space became saturated with cosmic energy. Filing out of these motherships were a diverse group of teenagers from around East Los Angeles. Every weekend they would converge on El Monte in hopes of celebrating life on the dance floor, for Legion Stadium was the meeting place and epicenter for youth throughout Los Angeles and Southern California. Iconic groups of rock ‘n roll past graced Legion Stadium's stage, including Chuck Berry, Jackie Willson, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Ritchie Valens. Famously, El Monte is forever memorialized by the Penguins’ ode to teenage love. In addition, scholars Matt Garcia and Anthony Macías have dedicated numerous volumes of work establishing the importance of Legion Stadium’s influence in Rock ‘n Roll history. Alongside their collective writings and the East of East Archive, this paper looks to highlight a forgotten youth movement that challenged and overturned the city of El Monte’s efforts to ban rock ‘n roll music. This significant victory is much more than a musical narrative; it exposes the racial anxieties of El Monte’s elected officials and their unwillingness to embrace societal change. Ultimately, once a muted piece of history is now amplified to reveal the sonic revolution that occurred on Legion Stadium’s dance floor that disrupted 1950s sensibility.  

Besides the national tours that stopped in El Monte, the local dance nights brought with them the long eye of the law, which often collided with the Black and brown bodies orbiting Legion Stadium. The point of contention was the desegregated dance floor, where bodies could move freely, away from the eyes of white authority. As a result, these dance nights became a battleground where youthful expressions of rapture were continuously under attack by the city's long lineage of white supremacy. El Monte city officials rallied around crime and decorum to shut down the dances at the Legion Stadium. However, their reasoning came from the fear of miscegenation through a multiracial dancefloor. Some nine years prior to El Monte’s attack against multiethnic rock ‘n roll concerts, Southern California was amidst a social change that radically transformed the classroom. In 1947 the United States Supreme Court ruling of Mendez v. Westminster effectively led to the desegregation of schools in California. The façade of "separate but equal" was beginning to be challenged and expressed in the courtroom, classroom, and airways. The 1950s ushered in a radical vibration that not only blended the sonic forces of Rhythm and Blues with Country music but confronted United States racial hierarchy.    

  1. The Penguins, “Memories of El Monte,” Original Sound Records, 1963, Digital.

Before Legion Stadium’s connection to rock ‘n roll lore, the venue primarily hosted numerous sporting events. Built-in the early 1930s, El Monte’s Legion Stadium was home to 1932 Olympic wrestling and Golden Glove matches. The venue's transition into popular music began as a means to circumvent many of the city of Los Angeles’ strict cabaret laws that forbid under-18 gatherings. In Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, Historian Matt Garcia explains how El Monte’s location outside of Los Angeles city limits and codes allowed legendary Disc Jockey Art Laboe to organize youth concerts that introduced the San Gabriel Valley to likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Pacomia's own Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela).2 Unlike other venues that welcomed under-18 patrons, Legion Stadium held relaxed dress codes that added to its rebellious tradition.3  These concerts assisted in the sonic and aesthetic transformation of Los Angeles. The elaborate suits and skirts of the Pachuco era became passé. Instead, the transition of style and ethics was visually marked by the short skirts and blue-collar denim that filled the arena. In addition, El Monte’s youth dances were bursting with a brown image that drastically challenged the white American notion of rock ‘n roll seen through the lens of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” No longer was this musical genre trapped in a black-and-white binary. The diversity of Legion Stadium’s audience and musicians that flowed into El Monte every weekend added an alternative perspective to the American tapestry of sound. 

As popularity grew for the concerts at Legion Stadium, broader audiences from greater Los Angeles County embarked on El Monte. Researcher Anthony Macías explains that on any given weekend, "Legion Stadium drew up to two thousand black, white, Asian American, and Mexican American teenagers from all over Los Angeles city and county, becoming an alternative cultural institution from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s."4  With an influx of diverse bodies whose non-white appearance sits in stark opposition to El Monte's white settler colonial image, the festivities occurring in and outside of Legion Stadium became a source of tension for city officials and law enforcement. Matt Garcia expands upon this notion that the “patrons came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, which manifested themselves in the music and social relations prevalent on the dance floors and in the parking lot.”5  The lowriders that filled the parking lots became easy targets for Chief of Police Jay Sherman to exploit as means to shut down the concerts. In Mexican American Mojo, Anthony Macías writes that “after the shows, the party continued in the parking lot, where members of the Boyle Heights car club, the Jesters, wearing blue or green-tinted, square wire-framed T-Timer sunglasses, would cruise in their lavender-, maroon-, or gray-primered cars.”6  Lowriding cruising for decades has been seen as an act of public nuisance by law enforcement agencies and has led to the establishment of California Vehicle Code 24008, which prohibits vehicles from riding below the wheel's rim height.7  Subsequently, lowriding’s deviant associations and imagery are derived from a long genealogy of white suppression over brown bodies and their movements through contested space. 

  1. Matt Garcia, “Memories of El Monte: Intercultural Dance Halls in Post,” in Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, ed. Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 160-61.

  2. Garica, “Memories of El Monte, 162.

  3. Anthony Macías, “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles, American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004): 710.

  4. Matt Garcia, “The ‘Chicano’ Dance Hall: Remapping Public Space in Post-World War II Greater Los Angeles,” Counterpoints 96 (1996): 318, 

  5. Anthony Macías, Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 210

  6. Macías, Mexican American Mojo, 210.

    From the beginning of Anglo expansion into the southwest, Indigenous and Mexican bodies have been monitored and policed brutally for generations. In City of Inmates, Kelly Lytle Hernandez implies that since Los Angeles’ colonial inception, the strategies of conquest utilized to steal Tongva land consisted of “violence, expulsion, spiritual conversion, and famine.”9   These colonial tactics were revisited during World War II when Mexican American Pachucos were beaten and stripped of their clothes by United States service members and police officers in the summer of 1943; the media would later dub this horrific week of terror the Zoot Suit Riots. That moniker ultimately shifted the blame toward the Mexican communities in Los Angeles. This xenophobia and racial hatred inflicted upon Mexican Americans continued in various forms; whether it be the eviction and forced removal of over 300 families from Chávez Ravine, which cleared the land for the development of Dodgers Stadium, or the unlawful implementation of vehicle ordinances that criminalized the cultural expression of lowriding; the brown body has been seen as a nuance to US modernity and incapable of total assimilation to whiteness. This threat toward American sensibility has historically been met with aggression through the form of over-policing and mass incarceration. Following in the footsteps of coloniality, the city of El Monte utilized the weight of its police department to prohibit the organizing of weekend dances at Legion Stadium abruptly.  

    This unjust policing of Mexican and Black youths was met with a collective social action that exposed the racial motives behind the city’s sanctions. Promoters Hal Zeiger and Johnny Otis, the latter famous for his hit song "Willie and the Hand Jive," contested El Monte's decision to pull the dance permits. According to the Advocate, Zeiger stated that Chief of Police Jay Sherman “resented a certain section of East Los Angeles’ youths in attendance.”10 Later in the same article published on August 22, 1956, The Police Chief admits that certain "elements" at the dance were concerning.11  Sherman asserted that the “elements” he “disapproved” were easily distinguishable by the group affiliation embroidered on their jackets or the type of car they drove.12  The parking lot for Chief Sherman was an area that invited outsiders and lowrider delinquents. As a result, El Monte City Council based their majority decision to revoke the dance permits on Chief Sherman's sole advice and the increased arrest rate that occurred on Saturday nights.13  However, banning dance nights in El Monte was not met with silence.  


    1. Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017) 10.

    2. News Article “Anti-Race Charges Hurled 2-A” in the Advocate, 310114-PHAGAN-005-C, Chapter 22 Legion Stadium, Paul Hagan Collection, East of East Archives, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA (hereafter cited as Anti-Race Charges Hurled C, Paul Hagan Collection).

    3. “Anti-Race Charges Hurled C, Paul Hagan Collection.

    4.  “Anti-Race Charges Hurled C, Paul Hagan Collection.

    5. News Article “Rock ‘N’ Roll Controversy to be Addressed Monday” in El Monte Press, 310114-PHAGAN-003, Chapter 22 Legion Stadium, Paul Hagan Collection, East of East Archives, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA. 

    During the summer of 1956, the El Monte city council waged a political campaign in an effort to ban rock 'n roll. This agenda was backed by the numerous letters written by various churches, PTA, and concerned citizens of the area calling for the prohibition of dances to be held at Legion Stadium.14  However, during a council meeting in August, over 600 teenagers and residents were in attendance to debate the fate of rock ‘n roll music in El Monte. In Upside your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, Johnny Otis states that the ACLU, NAACP, and American Federation of Musicians Local 47 were all in arms protesting the city's ban calling it an "instance of racism," which was "designed primarily to prevent young people from mingling in a mixed-race situation.”15  Ultimately, the continued pressure and presence of engaged youths, coupled with legal support, were able to overturn the city's ban with limited concessions. However, before Hal Zeiger's permit was reinstated, a list of regulations was drafted that addressed issues such as suggestive gyrations by musicians, song time lengths, and dress codes that banned Levi and leather jackets.16   Even though the Local 47 union attorney Robert Rissman objected to the city council's restriction, stating that "you have no right to impose limitations on musicians or their style of play," the show had to go on. Unfortunately, with the temporary ban, the coffers were running dry for the promoters and local musicians. 

    Left between the lines of a battle fought on the grounds of moral decency and the code language of racism was a hidden story of financial profit. The urgency of Zeiger and Otis to appeal the city’s injunction of  Legion Stadium dances was publicly argued on the grounds of racism. Nevertheless, these two promoters' lucrative monetary gain is hardly mentioned. A throwaway line in the San Gabriel Valley Sunday Tribune states that a single Legion Stadium dance ticket cost $1.50 in 1956; with over 2,500 in attendance, a Saturday night could generate $3,750 at the door alone.17  This sum may not seem like an exorbitant amount of money in Today's era, but according to the United States Census, the median family income in 1956 was $4,800.18  The sheer amount of Black and brown dollars that flowed through the box office at Legion Stadium generated tremendous wealth for these two promoters. Though the city of El Monte viewed these rock 'n roll deviants as a nuisance, their buying power could not be denied. The surge of multiethnic dollars and energy that flooded the dancefloor of Legion Stadium elevated El Monte out of the shadows and onto the national stage as must stop for National headlining music tours. 

    The lasting impact of Legion Stadium could be felt generations after its eventual demolition in 1974.19  Standing in its place is the El Monte post office, a drastic parallel to the rebellious sonic shockwaves that forever altered the musical landscape of American music.25 The blending of rock ‘n roll and Latin vibrations provided the kindling need to inspire multiethnic rock groups such as El Chicano, Malo, Santana, Tierra, and War. Their foundation ushered a Latin explosion of sound that captivated and catapulted the brilliance of brown musicianship to a global audience. The musical culture that permeated from a small Mexican barrio east of Los Angeles can be felt every Sunday through the radio, where the memories of Legion Stadium are forever ingrained in the souls of listeners that yearn for those dances in El Monte. 

    1. News Article “Anti-Race Charges Hurled” in the Advocate, 310114-PHAGAN-005, Chapter 22 Legion Stadium, Paul Hagan Collection, East of East Archives, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA.

    2.  Johnny Otis and George Lipsitz, Upside your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993), xxvii

    3. "Strict Rules may Right Rock 'n' Roll: Promoter Seeks Reinstatement of El Monte Dance License," Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1956, 

    4. News Article “City officials, Rock ‘n Roll Promoter Confer on Suspension” in the San Gabriel Valley Sunday Tribune, 310114-PHAGAN-002, Chapter 22 Legion Stadium, Paul Hagan Collection, East of East Archives, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA. 

    5. “Income of Families and Persons in the United States: 1956,” United States Census Bureau, accessed September 18, 2022, 

      Public Chat with the Last Band to perform at Legion Stadium

      Interview with Art Laboe


      Garcia, Matt. “The ‘Chicano’ Dance Hall: Remapping Public Space in Post-World War II Greater Los Angeles.” Counterpoints 96 (1999): 317–41. 

      Garcia, Matt. “Memories of El Monte: Intercultural Dance Halls in Post.” in Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard, 157-72. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 

      Girardot, Frank C. “Remembering El Monte Legion Stadium's Place in History.” Pasadena Star-News,  February 2, 2015. 

      Hagan, Paul. Collection. East of East Archives, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA. 

      Hernandez, Kelly Lytle. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 

      Macías, Anthony. “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles.” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004): 693-717. 

      Macías, Anthony. Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 

      Otis, Johnny, and George Lipsitz. Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993. 

      "Strict Rules may Right Rock 'n' Roll: Promoter Seeks Reinstatement of El Monte Dance License." Los Angeles Times, Aug 19, 1956. 

      The Penguins. “Memories of El Monte.” Original Sound Records, 1963, Digital. 

      United States Census Bureau. “Income of Families and Persons in the United States: 1956.” Accessed September 18, 2022.

      Youth of Legion Stadium: El Monte's Failed Attempt to Outlaw Rock ‘n Roll