Before we get to Ronnie Hawkins and the summer’s night concert at the Alexandra I should set the stage. The Alexandra was a roller rink on the edge of Hamilton’s downtown. It opened on Christmas Day 1906. It was a popular entertainment spot that featured skating, dancing, big band music and some great rock n’ roll concerts. The roller rink is no more. It closed down in April 1964 and was torn down soon thereafter and replaced with an office complex called the Undermount.
You can’t be too surprised that the Alex was torn down … it was a fire hazard waiting for a match. It was basically a wood structure and inside you were held captive by the high walls that enclosed it. At one end of the rink there was a stage and this where many an artist entertained weekend audiences.
I can remember, as a young teenager, taking the bus with friends down to the Alex. We were all roller skaters. We’d been doing it since we were in public school. We skated to school, we skated the streets in the evenings and we had lots of skinned parts on our body to prove our dedication. The Alex was special .. you rented boot skates with hardwood wheels … wow, what an experience. We felt so grown up, in the downtown, with the music playing and holding hands with our current female friend. Sweet times.
I’d been at the station about a year and, at just 20 years of age, I was at the centre of the rock n’ roll excitement … and at times, just a little overtaken by it all. Ronnie Hawkins was coming to town to do a concert at the Alex and the station said that the promoter had asked if I would be the Emcee. It was a paying gig and it was Ronnie Hawkins – of course I would do it. I loved those guys.
It was a hot summer’s eve and inside the Alex it was getting steamy as the throng of teenagers arrived. The wooden floor and wooden walls held the heat adding to the energy of this highly anticipated event. No breeze, no air conditioning just a thick humidity that was quickly losing it’s oxygen as the crowd grew. It was going to be a sold out night and when everyone started dancing the place would be just thrumming (is that a word?) with energy.
I could feel my nervous energy starting to build. I was all decked out in my bright blue station jacket, white shirt and formal bow tie … wow, I felt like a pretty slick dude. There were a few hello’s as I pushed through the crowd, a few nice glances from some of the young ladies, and squinted eyes from their dates. Yeh, typical Saturday night. I climbed the wooden stairs and went to what they called backstage. It was really a storage area of some sort, that doubled as a place where acts could relax before going on. I made my introduction to Ronnie and the members of the band. They were pleasant towards me but I could tell that my station outfit relegated me to “outsider” status with this band of jolly rogues. Despite their thin assessment of me it was all very polite and, we agreed, it was going to be a hot night. After a brief back and forth it was time to do some rock n roll.
The stage at the Alexandra was not the biggest in the city but it was big enough for bands and rock groups to put on some great shows. Tonight would be no different. I went out on stage, introduced myself, made some not-so-memorable comments and received a good round of cheers and applause mixed in with a few hoots. All in all it felt like a good start. As I introduced Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks the volume level went off the scale. The crowd went wild. I started to worry that the nails might come out of the walls and the whole place would fall on our heads. Ronnie and the band took over the stage and for the next hour they just sent everyone into a dancing, cheering frenzy. Meanwhile, the temperature kept rising. It was probably more than 80F in the old Alex and getting hotter. Inside my station jacket hell had taken hold and my shirt was stuck to my body, adding to the rush of perspiration down my legs. Even my socks were soaked.
It came time for the blessed break and we all went back to the little room behind the stage. Ronnie and the band sat down on some wooden chairs, pulling them into a horseshoe. Quick as a bunny, out came a 26’er of scotch. Each of the guys took a shot. They talked about the first set, what was good, the cute girls, the heat, the next set .. and on, for about 15 minutes. I was the outsider in the group, keeping an eye on the time and, though I was offered a shot, I was drinking water. Once the break time finished I asked the Ronnie if I could introduce the second half.
“Hell no boy! We’re not done our break”. This was directed at me as a new round of shots was being poured out for the group. I could hear the murmur of the audience, anticipating the start of the second set. What was I going to do? Ronnie gave me the direction, “Just go out and entertain them for a bit.”
I’d never done improv or stand up. I was pretty fair at adlibbing but I never expected to go out in front of a crowd and, on the spur of the moment, be entertaining or, at the very least, interesting.
I strolled onto the stage, enjoying the enthusiastic welcome of this mass of teenagers. I knew it wasn’t for me. It was for the start of the show. I felt a little awkward knowing what I knew. I did the expected things a young jock does. You know. “Is everyone having a great time” That’s such a lovely slowball pitch. Everyone can hit that. The crowd responds. “You all look so fabulous tonight and you dance like you’re on American Bandstand” Another nice pitch. It get the expected yeas and cheers. From here on in it is very uphill. I don’t know what I said or did but I managed to do some bits that had them laughing and applauding for almost 15 minutes. It was really a case of “do it” or “you die”. By the last quip or two the crowd was no longer amused. Not even slightly. They were there for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, not this perspired d.j. with fear in his eyes. As I quickly exited the stage, I promised them Ronnie was coming. The crowd was in its own frenzy, chanting “we want Ronnie”, over and over and over.
Backstage the party was going just fine. It was obvious that another shot or two had been shared. I said to Ronnie “OK guys, it’s time to hit the stage”. One of the band members said, “but the bottle isn’t empty yet and we ain’t goin’ on until it’s done.” In a very squeeky voice I shrieked “if you don’t get out on that stage right now, they are going to kill me!” I remember those words so precisely all these years later. They were uttered not so much out of fear as they were out of frustration.
In that moment Ronnie Hawkins stood up and, with a good humoured smile and laughing voice, said to the Hawks “Come on guys, let’s go save this boy’s life.”
I went out on stage, with the crowd watching closely, and they could sense that they were going to be granted what they had been chanting for for the last five minutes. I introduced Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and the band and I were rewarded with a deafening cheer. The band jumped in and blew the house down ’till pretty well all the oxygen in the old Alex was pretty well spent, and I was left with another memorable moment to look back on all these years later with my own good humoured smile.