Sid’s was the epicenter of the Fabulous ’50s

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From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren

Roger VanHaren

It’s always seemed a little strange to me the way we break time down into decades. (You know: “the Fabulous ’50s,” “the Roaring ’20s,” etc.) Because to me, my life doesn’t break down that way. As I look back at my life, I realize that a lot of the phases of my life cross over decade lines, and some of them are way short of a decade. It isn’t fair to cut history into slices of 10 years.

The Fabulous ’50s, for example, for me was an odd 10 years, because I went from grade school through high school and halfway through college in that decade. The 1950s were known for many things. The Korean War started in 1950 and loomed large in our lives for most of the first half of the decade. In July 1953, about two months after I “graduated” from eighth grade, the United States, North Korea and China signed an armistice, which ended the “police action” in Korea, but it didn’t bring about a permanent peace; the Korean people are still divided. Almost 30,000 American service members died in battle, or from battle-related injuries, another 4,200 died from non-combat causes and 93,000 were wounded in action seriously enough to be evacuated. There were 7,245 service members who became prisoners of war. The “war” influenced everything — even after it ended.

Other factors that characterized the ’50s were white racist terrorism in the South, television (and TV dinners), abstract art, the first credit cards, the rise of drive-in theaters to a peak number in the late ’50s with over 4,000 outdoor screens, hot-rods, “conformity” (remember when that expression crept into the language?), “middle-class values” (whatever that meant), the rise of modern jazz, and the advent of fast food restaurants and drive-ins (McDonald’s was first franchised in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois).

There was no McDonald’s in Oconto Falls when I was going through the Fabulous ’50s. (There still isn’t!) My friends and I spent a lot of our free time at Sid Johnson’s Candy Shop on Main Street, right next door to the movie theatre. Sid’s was the Oconto Falls equivalent to the soda fountains that became glorified in such classics as “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti.”

At Sid’s, you could order custom-made sodas and ice cream. Sid would mix soda water with flavored syrups to create carbonated beverages and ice cream floats, among other tasty treats. We’d stop there for a snack after school or after a ball game or movie. My sister and I would use the pay phone there to call home so our folks would come and pick us up. (We had this system – which everyone used: We’d put a dime in the phone, dial home, and hang up after two rings. Our parents knew that was the signal to come and get us, and we got the dime back to spend on a cherry phosphate or a black cow!)

“Messing around” or “goofing off” were popular expressions (and real pastimes), and Sid’s was where we did it. Sid’s had a great jukebox, too, and for a nickel, you could hear “Rock Around the Clock,” “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” “Unchained Melody,” “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Moments to Remember” or “Dance With Me, Henry.”

Sid mixed up such frothy brews as strawberry floats; vanilla, strawberry and lime phosphates; cherry and vanilla Cokes; banana splits; triple chocolate malts (chocolate ice cream with chocolate flavored malt powder and chocolate milk – phew!). They were all guilt-free, too, because fat and cholesterol were not buzzwords in the ’50s, hallelujah!

If you were like me, a teenager growing up in the “happy days” era of the ’50s, then you know how special it was to meet your friends after school at the local soda fountain. Most of those soda fountains of yesteryear are gone now. But for us, Sid’s was a town meeting place where kids could meet after school or on a Friday night uptown for a malt, play a tune on the jukebox, talk with girlfriends and boyfriends or have a game of pinball. Ah, the good old days!

For me, the middle of the “Fabulous ’5os” was pretty fabulous. But then the end of the ’50s was when I met Marilyn: How fabulous can fabulous be?

Contact Roger VanHaren at