San Marco in the 1960s

San Marco in the 1960s

By Laura Jane Pittman
Resident Community News

Regular Way We Were contributor David Gum has moved us into the 1960s, providing a wonderful comparison of today’s San Marco Square to the Square of fifty years ago. Thanks, David, for the memories!

High School Photo: David Gum

High School Photo: David Gum

Elegant shops, upscale restaurants, Balis Park, personalized sidewalk bricks, lion statuary – these images probably come to mind at the mention of San Marco Square. The cosmopolitan commercial district surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods is today a destination for discriminating shoppers and diners citywide. Art festivals draw throngs of locals, mostly content to just stroll through the charming Square to people-watch.

But if you rewind about fifty years to the early- and mid-1960s, the glitz and glamour had yet to descend on the Square. Shopping flourished then as now, although businesses in the old Square primarily served nearby residents seeking essentials such as groceries, medicine, gas, clothes, and low-priced general merchandise.

For a while, San Marco hosted two grocery stores, A&P and Setzer’s, as well as two full-service gas stations. Balis Park was once a Sunoco “island.” Speaking of necessity shopping, does anybody recall nagging your parents for shoes from Utsey’s Buster Brown store in order to receive a Poll Parrot plastic egg? Those contained treasures we all needed.
Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a comfort knowing our entire school life would be spent in the familiar realm of San Marco. This idyllic situation ceased in 1965 when Southside Grammar closed and Landon Junior-Senior became merely Landon Junior High. Another certainty for a generation of job-seeking teenage boys was that if all else failed employment always awaited them at the Clarkburger Factory down the boulevard.

Only a mile away from my boyhood base of St. Nicholas, San Marco held much allure for someone with a bicycle. Back then, the San Marco Theater showed weekend matinees for 25 cents and six RC Cola bottle caps. There was the option of just chilling at Coley-Walker Drugs’ soda fountain (now Bank of America) and playing its pinball machines.

Possibly the most fun a pre-driving lad could have in the 1960s Square was hanging out at the duckpin bowling alley. Located in what is now a windowless building between BOA and TAG, the bowling alley had been around for years by the time my age group discovered the place. Older kids had worked there as “pin monkeys,” a celebrated position that vanished with the advent of automated bowling machinery. Duckpin bowling was played with three-pound, palm-held croquet-sized balls rolled on shorter lanes, using smaller pins than its regulation counterpart. The sport hasn’t been around for decades and is probably unheard of by most.

Nightlife in San Marco has thrived for years at Square One, formerly Café on the Square. Seasoned residents might remember its predecessor, the Town Pump. In the ‘60s, San Marco’s signature watering hole was the one place off-limits to bike-riding teens. Once on a dare, a friend and I waltzed into the Pump and did a lap around it before being escorted out by a stern barman. This first pub visit confirmed my suspicion that growing up took way too long. The place had everything – a piano, giddy patrons, abundant dankness, and a bouquet suggesting some sort of divine ashtray.

1970 Wolfson Prom

1970 Wolfson Prom

Two of the most vital San Marco institutions for us teenagers were actually in the same complex – the South Jax swimming pool (many of us receiving our only formal aquatic training there) and its downstairs neighbor, the Southside Youth Center. By the time we were teens, dances at the Youth Center were drawing kids from all over town. Attempting to shed our awkwardness with the opposite sex, we stumbled for hours to the sounds of the Lemon Twisters, Mouse and the Boys, and the Soul Searchers.

The Baptist Eye Center occupies the one-time site of San Marco’s iconic hangout, the Texas Drive-In. Teen-friendly food and a barely-lit dirt parking lot made it naturally one of the first nocturnal destinations for a newly licensed driver with dad’s car – and an easy place to get a black eye.

In retrospect though, marking time at the Texas was probably no more dangerous than flying dad’s car over Thrill Bridge on River Road.
These are some of the more vivid memories of San Marco by a boy who began the ‘60s on a Schwinn and closed the decade in a parental Pontiac. Most of our haunts from that day have vanished. With any luck, the new kids on the block will one day have their own trove of San Marco nostalgia to share.

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