Local Current Blog

The Castaways’ Jim Donna talks about the early ’60s and the teen dance halls that ruled the scene

Credit: Photo via Martin Keller's Minnesota Music series

For the casual fan, the story of the Castaways begins in late 1965 when they broke out regionally, then nationally, and eventually internationally with their hit “Liar, Liar.” They played American Bandstand. They appeared in the movie It’s a Bikini World. For a brief time they, along with the Trashmen, were the most famous musicians in Minnesota.

But as Castaways co-songwriter and singer Jim Donna tells it, their story actually began in the early ’60s when the members of the band were still in high school. Donna still performs as the Castaways to this day (he’s the only founding member still in the group). He’ll bring his band to the Parkway Theater this Saturday night to relive those early days as part of a new series called “Return to Mr. Lucky’s,” which pays tribute to a once-popular teen venue on the corner of Nicollet Ave. and Lake St. in Minneapolis.

I called up Donna to learn more about Mr. Lucky’s, the all-ages scene of the early ’60s, and his favorite memories from that rosy-hued “time of innocence.”

Local Current: Mr. Lucky’s was a big part of the scene in the early ’60s. What are some of your most vivid memories from that time?

Jim Donna: Back in the day, back in the ‘60s, there were a lot of teen dances. There were a lot of really great Minnesota bands back then — groups like Gregory Dee and the Avanties; the Trashmen, who had the big hit “Surfin’ Bird”; and you had the Castaways with “Liar, Liar.” There were quite a few really talented bands that performed all over the Midwest, all over Minnesota, in basically ballrooms and teen dance clubs. It was a lot of fun. People could go there and dance, see their favorite band, and usually there were very big crowds. There was, for example, Danceland Ballroom in Excelsior — actually the Rolling Stones came and performed there before anybody knew who they were. You had the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, which no longer exists, and you had Mr. Lucky’s, which was near Lake and Nicollet, and it was a very popular spot for teens to come and dance to their favorite Twin Cities band. That was just one of the places that we played at, but it’s one that probably a lot of people remember because it was one of the more prominent ones. It was just good, clean fun.

Were the musicians also teenagers?

When we first started playing out I had a couple of guys that were still in high school in the Castaways. In fact, when the band first went on tour to California, when our record broke, I actually had to go down to Richfield High School and plead with the principal to let our drummer at that, to excuse him so we could go on tour. So I would say bands were 17, 18, 21, 22. They were fairly young, as I recall.

Now, it seems like most of the venues are located in bars. It sounds like this was a time when there was a big all-ages scene.

Oh yeah, there were tons. It was all over the Midwest, there were ballrooms in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa that we traveled to and drew huge crowds. And that was one of the reasons why, decades later, the original band was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame last year. Because we played those teen clubs and ballrooms in South Dakota. Same thing in Iowa — I can’t remember what year it was, three or four or five years ago, we were inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Before that, the Minnesota Rock and Country Hall of Fame. Basically because the original Castaways toured and played so many of those venues.

How would you describe the crowds at those teen center shows?

Pretty enthused. I mean, they really got into the music. They really did. It wasn’t just standing around; they were dancing. I remember at one place we played at, and I cannot remember the name of it, but it was the last day of school and you knew there was going to be trouble. A fight broke out and they had a big German Shepard that they kept in the cloak room. They just turned him loose and the whole place cleared out in about 30 seconds, we only played two songs and we were sent home. But that was the exception rather than the rule. Usually it was good, clean fun. The kids danced, they had fun.

So they’d really get into it?

Oh yeah, absolutely. They’d get into their favorite band, whether it was the Castaways or the Accents or the Trashmen or whoever. I was at Danceland Ballroom listening to Gregory Dee and the Avantis, and they had some local hit records, one was the “Baldie Stomp.” The kids started stomping on the dance floor — it was an old ballroom — and the owner just freaked out. He thought the floor was going to collapse, because it was literally bouncing up and down. You had 300 or 400 kids jumping up and down on the floor.

I read in the event description that the mid-’60s was ‘a time of innocence.’ Is that an accurate description?

[laughs] No comment. It was pretty clean fun. There weren’t any drugs yet or anything like that. I think some of the kids would sometimes sneak some booze into a dance, that was pretty much a given, there’d be some drinking, but there really wasn’t a whole lot going on. It was a different era. A completely different era.

What can you tell me about the intersection around Lake and Nicollet, where Mr. Lucky’s was located?

In that area there was K-Bank Studios, that we recorded our songs in; we had our international hit record [“Liar, Liar”] recorded there at K-Bank. So that was in the area. I don’t remember a whole lot about the area. I know the K-Mart wasn’t there.

What do you remember about Mr. Lucky’s specifically?

I probably have some photos in my scrapbook of it, I haven’t looked for a really long time. There was a decent sized stage, there was a pretty big dance floor. It was just your typical dance hall.

What else can you tell me about the time period surrounding the Mr. Lucky’s hayday? Had you broken out yet nationally when you were playing those teen halls?

Shortly thereafter, in the fall of ‘65, the record started breaking all around the Midwest. That’s when we started touring. So from probably ‘63 to early ‘65, the band was just another Twin Cities band that was trying to improve, trying to get more bookings, trying to survive, and then we got very lucky with our national hit record. Everything changed, obviously, after that point. We did come back in ‘66 after touring and things settled down a little bit, we did some of the ballrooms and teen clubs. The price obviously had changed. [laughs]

Were you working closely with the Trashmen and other successful local bands?

Yeah, we did some shows with them. There were some Battles of the Bands where there was two bands on stage, you played an hour and then the other band played an hour. We just did, three years ago I think it was, the big MSRA Back to the ‘50s thing at the State Fairgrounds, with the Trashmen and us. We headlined Saturday night and we had about 10,000 people. It was just awesome. It was fun. People really like that classic rock ‘n’ roll. The Trashmen did the surf stuff, and we did a lot of the classic ‘60s rock. It was a really fun show, and it was a lot of fun to be able to perform with some guys that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Have you had any fans that have followed you through your whole career? Do people come up to you with memories of shows from back in the day?

All the time. All the time. ‘Oh yeah, I remember you at Mr. Lucky’s,’ or ‘We saw you at the Prom Ballroom when I was 16,’ or ‘You guys played my high school prom in 1975.’ Yeah, we run into people all the time. It’s really fun.

Do you remember them, too?

Some of them. It’s hard to remember back that far. I have trouble remembering what I did last week. [laughs]

The Castaways kick off the ‘Back to Mr. Lucky’s’ series at the Parkway Theater this Saturday, November 17. 7 p.m. Tickets and info here.