A short-lived teen recreation center, Escanaba's
Club A-Go-Go hosted an appearance by Sam the Sham and
the Paraoahs in 1966.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
Like the national phenomenon it reflected, Escanaba's Club A-Go-Go was a short-lived teen hangout, lasting just a few months in 1966.
At the time, hundreds of teen dance clubs sprung up around the country, providing aspiring rock bands with a readily available audience to test their live performance skills.
The entrepreneurs behind the new enterprises figured to profit from the burgeoning youth market.
Club A-Go-Go, owned by Gene Smiltneck, was located at 2000 Ludington St. in a building previously occupied by Town and Country Motors Inc., a dealer for Oldsmobile and Cadillac products.
"I found the vacant garage on Ludington Street and decided to give it a go-go," Smiltneck told me.
In the weeks prior to opening, Smiltneck made various changes to the former garage to make the building (now Kobas Electric) more appealing to a teenage clientele.
After removing years of grease and oil, Smiltneck repainted the walls and ceiling. He also constructed a stage to offer the proper accommodations to the bands he arranged to play at the facility each weekend.
Besides dancing, teenagers were able to play cards, checkers or chess on a specially-built terrace. The hall also featured pinball games, a jukebox, and pop and candy vending machines.
Early on, plans were made to turn the front showroom of Club A-Go-Go into a soda fountain, cover the cement dance floor with tile and enhance the stage lighting system.
Although he would later move to Escanaba, during the early days of Club A-Go-Go Smiltneck drove to Escanaba from his home in Menominee on a daily basis.
It seems Smiltneck liked show business at an early age. He formed his first combo at age 11. His father Arnold was a well-known band leader in the 1940s and 1950s.
After attending college in lower Michigan, the younger Smiltneck returned to the Upper Peninsula and formed the Vikings.
The combo performed throughout the U. P. and northern Wisconsin. They appeared at the Escanaba Junior High School gym on Friday, April 27, 1962 to provide music for the Class of '62 Senior Ball. The four-piece group was "considered to be an excellent dance band," student Mike Fry said.
"I had promoted some dances at Teamsters Hall with my band, the Vikings from Menominee, which were very successful. This provided me with the confidence to consider finding a larger building for our promotions," Smiltneck said.
He named the facility as a take-off on Whisky A-Go-Go, the famous Los Angeles nightspot opened in 1964.
To launch Club A-Go-Go with a bang, Smiltneck signed nationally-known rock 'n' roll band, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. He also booked various local and regional acts.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs were still riding high on "Wooly Bully" when the Dallas- based group appeared at Club A-Go-Go on Monday, April 11, 1966. A poster advertising the show exists in the collection of Riot Squad bass player Bob Anzalone.
As an opening act, Smiltneck hired Beat Incorporated, an early Escanaba rock band which consisted of Hank Mroczkowski (bass), brother Corky Mroczkowski (lead guitar), Bruce Douglas (keyboards) and Jim Lewis (drums).
Keyboard player Douglas said the headliners put on a great performance.
At the time of the Escanaba show the Pharaohs consisted of Tony "Butch" Gerace (bass), Frankie Carabetta (sax), Andy Kuha (guitar) and Billy Bennett (drums).
Group namesake Domingo "Sam" Samudio sang lead vocals and played the Farfisa organ belonging to Douglas. In fact, Samudio was one of the first rock artists to use Farfisa equipment, manufactured in Italy. After leaving Escanaba, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs had another gigantic hit with "Lil' Red Riding Hood."
As entertainment for the following weekend at Club A-Go-Go, Smiltneck lined up five bands to donate their time to aid the coffers of a local charity.
The Trolls from Iron Mountain played from 8 p. m. to midnight on Friday, April 15, while a Battle of the Bands was scheduled for Saturday, April 16.
Four bands participated in the contest, including Beat Incorporated, Orphics, Minute Men and the Riot Squad.
The two events were sponsored by Holy Name School Key Club and Escanaba Area High School E Club with the cooperation of Club A-Go-Go management. To enter the building, teens had to observe school dress codes.
Near the end of the evening on Saturday, police were called due to a disturbance, but no arrests were made. The Cancer Crusade received a donation of $165 from the weekend.
It isn't clear who won the battle of the bands, but the Riot Squad had a lengthy relationship with Smiltneck. The Escanaba group was comprised of Jim Joque (rhythm guitar), Dan Curran (drums), Bob Anzalone (bass), Brendan Williams (lead guitar) and Greg Curran (keyboards and vocals).
Club A-Go-Go is where Smiltneck met members of the Riot Squad. "They were all in their early teens and needed a mentor and knowledgeable manager. I had managed bands of my own for ten years and had the experience needed to get the Riot Squad started on what became a very successful business," Smiltneck said.
The club owner also booked the Tremolons, an all-girl combo from Niles, Mich. When the Tremolons may have played at Club A-Go-Go is uncertain because existing evidence indicates the downstate band was scheduled to play on several different dates.
The Tremolons consisted of Char Vinnedge (vocals and lead guitar), sister Chris Vinnedge (bass), Mary Gallagher (rhythm guitar) and Faith Orem (drums). The estrogen-charged combo played at Escanaba Area High on Aug. 10, 1966, having changed their name to the Luv'd Ones.
Teenagers were attracted to the alcohol-free atmosphere at Club A-Go-Go and parents likely appreciated its focus as a "teen recreation center."
"Club A-Go-Go provided many fond experiences and memories for me and for the Riot Squad during our teenage years. It was a great location for teens to interact, hear a variety of music, and for us in the Riot Squad to express our music," rhythm guitarist Jim Joque said.
But, like similar clubs around the country, the local facility didn't generate sufficient income to remain open and closed within a few months.
Still, Smiltneck got some valuable experience working with young people. He saw potential in promoting entertainment in the new rock environment and launched a booking agency in Escanaba. Bands Unlimited was very successful in promoting young bands such as the Riot Squad and dozens of others, over the next decade.
"Gene (Smiltneck) brought to town some great music acts that normally we would not have heard. That alone was a valuable contribution to our community," Joque added.
Smiltneck later owned a recording studio, radio station and the Night Hawk and Arcadia nightclubs. He also arranged entertainment at the Upper Peninsula State Fair for a number of years.
Today, Smiltneck lives in Green Bay. He had emergency heart surgery in February. "It has made me appreciate my life in Escanaba even more at this time," he said.
Smiltneck's Club A-Go-Go, meanwhile, remains an erstwhile experiment, fondly recalled by many.