A couple of years ago I began to embark on the glorious work of writing my parent’s amazing life story. I wrote what was equivalent to about one chapter when my life took a detour and so did the writing of this biography. I envision one day finishing their story, but for I now feel compelled to at least post the humble beginnings of what I wrote.
The ’58 Chevy Impala cruised down Long Beach Boulevard one late summer night. The Fifties, the era when cruising to nowhere in particular was standard amusement.
Jack Dexter and his late-model ride fit nicely in the car club scene. The metallic-blue looker was customized with fiesta hubcaps, cutouts and lowered to the legal limit–the width of a pack of cigarettes–off the ground. And it was fast, having proven itself time and again at Lion’s Drag Strip.
Tonight the nineteen-year-old drove near the California coast with his buddy, Sonny, both from the neighboring city of Wilmington. The salty breeze rushed through the open windows. Windows down always . . . if you’re a true cruiser.
Tunes from artists like Elvis Presley and Fats Domino emanated from the radio before the melodic voices of three young ladies filled the airwaves that night. The playful hit song, “Hula Hoop”–based on the latest fad to sweep the country–was catchy and fun.
Sonny piped up, “Hey, that’s the DeVille Sisters. I know one of the girls on that record.”
“Really?” Jack glanced at his friend.
“Yeah, how would you like to meet her?”
Jack shrugged. “Are you kidding? All we’re doing is burning up gas. Where do I go?”
“She works at Conley’s.”
The well-known Conley’s Record Rack, where Johnny Otis broadcast his radio show for KFOX, was located on Pacific Coast Highway. Turning east onto PCH, Jack drove about a half-mile down the iconic highway, pulled in front of the store and shut off the engine.
The two friends strolled inside where they caught the eye of Lori DeVille.
“Hey, Sonny.” Lori smiled from behind the register.
Sonny introduced the vivacious young woman to Jack and the three chatted a while.
Gazing at the flashy Chevy outside, Lori leaned over the counter with a twinkle in her eye and a dimpled smile. “Hey, my sisters and I are singing at the Art Laboe concert tomorrow night. How would you like to drive us?”
Jack eyed the car, looked down and grinned. He’d always surmised that girls were more interested in his car than him.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll take you guys.”
* * *
The next night Jack found himself driving solo to the home of The DeVille Sisters. He had assumed Sonny would be joining him, but since Sonny was going steady with Priscilla, escorting the three beautiful singers would not have gone over well.
Jack was on his own.
The car crawled to a stop in front of the small house on Studebaker Road. Upon exiting the vehicle, Jack’s ears were greeted with the rantings of an agitated man inside the home, presumably the girl’s father.
Jack hesitated. His pulse quickened as he approached the front porch, stepped up to the door, slowly raised his hand and knocked.
The door opened. It was not an uptight father who greeted him, but a stunning young lady who sent Jack’s heart pounding.
The young woman looked up at the six-foot-four, slender guy on her porch and smiled. “Are you Jack?”
“Uh . . . yeah. I’m here to take you girls to the show.”
“Okay, we’ll be right out.”
Jack ambled back to his car in a bit of a daze and leaned against the front fender. Soon after, three beauties adorned in identical dresses floated out of the house and down the walkway. The gorgeous full-skirt dresses were white with red polka-dots and a red cummerbund. The trio also shared the same short and stylish hairdo. All brunette.
“Hi, Jack,” Lori grinned.
“Hey, Lori.” Jack opened the passenger door and leaned the seat forward. Lori’s two sisters slid into the back leaving the front seat for Lori.
Jack got behind the wheel and started the engine as Lori introduced her younger sisters.
“This is Patti.” She pointed behind her to the most petite and youngest at sixteen-years-of age.
“And that’s Jeannie behind you.”
Jack eyed Jeannie in the rear view mirror, the one who had just caused convulsions in his chest. The moment her eyes met his he moved his gaze away. He was quite enamored with the girl, but would never have the courage to ask her out.
* * *
The Chevy Impala rolled into a parking spot. As they stepped out of the vehicle and strolled into the building the gorgeous girls did not go unnoticed. Walking beside them, Jack could hear the remarks of nearby onlookers.
“Oh, that’s The DeVille Sisters.”
Being seen with the notable singing group was something of a thrill for the young man.
The concert was MC’d by Art Laboe, the pioneering disc jockey, songwriter, record producer and record station owner, who coined the term “Oldies But Goodies”. His shows took place at various venues in Southern California, including the popular El Monte Legion Stadium, Long Beach Municipal Auditorium and others.
Regulars were West Coast acts like Sonny Knight, Jeanette Baker, Oscar McLolly and Ernie Freeman.
Out of town artists also made appearances including The Everly Brothers, Jerry Wallace, and Danny Flores of The Champs. Ritchie Valens appeared that year, having landed on the music scene with his hit song, “La Bamba”. Bobby Day also lit up the Art Laboe crowd with his smash hit, “Rockin’ Robin”.
Jack enjoyed the show that night, particularly when The DeVille Sisters performed their hit song, “Hula Hoop”. In addition, the “Doo-Wop” girl group graced the stage to sing back-up for Sonny Knight and other solo artists with their signature three-part harmony. All three ladies were easy on the eyes, but it was Jeannie who held Jack’s baby blues captive.
* * *
Jeannie sat in the backseat of the parked Chevy Impala. Her date, Jim, nestled beside her, while Jack and Jeannie’s sister, Patti, occupied the front bench seat.
The popularity of the drive-in theater was at its peak in the late 50’s, which is where Jeannie found herself tonight. Jack and his car club buddy, Jim, had managed a double date with the singing sisters, as it just so happened that Patti and her long time boyfriend, Denny, had recently split.
Jeannie wanted to watch the movie, but spent the duration of it attempting to evade the repeated advances of her date. All the while, she couldn’t help but notice all the chatting, joking and laughter going on up front. Jack was hilarious. Patti was clearly having more fun on this date than she was, making Jeannie wish she were in the front seat with Jack.
* * *
The girls had a gig at Long Beach Auditorium and drove their dad’s black ’57 Chevy DelRey. After the show, they were piling into the car when Jeannie piped up,”Let’s go cruise Jamar’s.”
“Gee, I wonder who Jeannie might want to see at Jamar’s”, Patti grinned and gave Lori a knowing look. It was common knowledge that the Wilmington drive-in restaurant was the common hang out for the Essens, Jacks’ car club.
“Why not?” Lori replied as she headed the car west to Wilmington. Pulling into Jamar’s parking lot she spotted the metallic-blue Impala, rolled to a stop and called from her open window, “Jack!”
* * *
Jack had heard radio promos all day about the concert that night billing The DeVille Sisters and had thought about going. Instead he found himself at Jamar’s shooting the breeze with a couple of car club buddies who had hopped into his car.
One of his friends tilted his head and peered past Jack. “It looks like some girls over there are trying to get your attention.”
Jack turned and spotted the sisters.
“Oh, that’s The DeVille Sisters.”
His friend snickered. “No way! You don’t know The DeVille Sisters.”
His other buddy chimed in. “Yeah, right.”
“Hang on. I’ll go see what they want.” Jack opened his door and stepped out, ignoring the persistent wisecracks.
Jack stepped up to Lori’s window, put his hand on the roof and leaned over.
Lori looked Jack with that twinkle in her eye she got when she wanted something. “Patti and Denny are back together. She and I both have dates tonight and Jeannie needs a ride home. You think you could give her a lift?”
Jack glanced at Jeannie, causing blood to course through his veins. It was midnight and Jeannie lived on the other side of Long Beach. Yet, lacking the nerve to ask her out, he knew this was his big chance.
“Well, yeah, I guess I could do that.”
Jack headed back to his car and opened the passenger door. “You guys are gonna have to get out. I gotta take one of these girls home.”
Suddenly the wisecracks dissipated followed by remarks of bewilderment.
“Whoa man! You serious?”
Jack held the door while the stunned teens fumbled out of the car and stepped aside for Jeannie DeVille.
* * *
The car hummed down the road with Jeannie in the front passenger seat.
“Would you do me a favor?” Jeannie’s voice was soft and sweet.
“Well, sure. What?”
“Would you cruise Grisinger’s?
Jack raised his eyebrows and contemplated what appeared on the surface to be a simple request. Grisingers Drive-In, the hangout of the Long Beach car club, The Vandals. While there were no gang wars between car clubs, there was indeed some friction. Jack feared he’d be taking his life in his hands, so to speak, if he cruised Grisinger’s with his Essens plaque clearly stating his affiliation.
However . . . for this woman? He’d take his chances.
He looked at Jeannie sitting on the far side of the bench seat.
“Sure, I’ll drive Grisinger’s, but on one condition. You gotta move over here next to me so nobody thinks you’re my sister.”
Jeannie complied and slid next to him. Whether Jack was actually on a date with Jeannie DeVille or not, this is how it appeared.
* * *
The Chevy Impala eased up into Grisinger’s driveway. Vandals club cars lined the parking lot. Some members relaxed inside their vehicles while others lingered outside. A few leaned on hoods with arms wrapped around their girlfriends.
Patti’s boyfriend, Denny Parker, was there with his lowered “49-50 Chevy Fleetline”. Denny had drawn the logo for The Vandals, which featured a man in a zoot suit with a hat and Tommy Gun.
Adrenaline rushed through Jack’s veins as his tires rolled passed The Vandals. His modified pipes gave off a low rolling rumble. He couldn’t help but notice many Vandals giving him “the bad eye”, yet he felt reasonably assured nobody would go after his drag strip winning car.
Jeannie’s ex-boyfriend, Alan Hughes, stood beside his newly famous black hotrod, which had recently appeared in the movie, High School Confidential. Upon Jeannie’s break-up with Alan, he had appeared on her doorstep to retrieve the chromed dual dipstick he’d given her. While it was customary for most boyfriends to give their girl a class ring, Alan gave his dipstick.
On the way to Grisinger’s, Jeannie had revealed to Jack that her secret motive to cruising the joint was to make her ex jealous. Jealous that she was with another guy or simply impressed by the car she was in, Jack wasn’t quite sure. Either way, her wish was his command.
After cruising around the parking lot once, Jack chose to take one more slow spin, once again receiving “the bad eye”. Having safely graced the Vandals twice around, Jack decided he better leave well enough alone. He pulled onto Atlantic, having braved the Vandal’s hangout for a girl . . . the beautiful brown-eyed girl who still sat close beside him.
* * *
It was nearing 1:00 a.m. when Jack pulled into Jeannie’s neighborhood, but Jeannie wasn’t ready for the night to end.
“Just pull over here,” she directed. “If you park in front of the house my mom and dad will start flashing the porch lights.”
In the dark of night, the two continued their conversation. They talked and they laughed . . . and then they talked some more and laughed some more. Jeannie just couldn’t get enough of Jack’s comedic humor. He was a great story teller and so easy to converse with, which is part of what attracted the shy brunette to him.
An hour or so passed before Jack turned the key in the ignition. “You’re dad’s gonna shoot me. We better get you in the house.”
He pulled the car around the corner and parked in front of Jeannie’s house.
“Hold on.” He jumped out, hurried to the passenger side and pulled open Jeannie’s door.
The couple dawdled along the walkway, their conversation picking up right where they’d left off. Having stepped up to the porch, the two lingered . . . and talked still more.
And then they sat down and dialoged into the wee hours of the morning.