A Half a Century Ago By Jack Coll
A HALF A CENTURY AGO
Michael Dennis Became Conshy’s 15th Derby Champion
By Jack Coll
July 4, 2016
By 1966 the borough was beginning to feel the overseas steel import crunch, hard-times laid ahead for the borough and its residents. Although Alan Wood Steel was still a decade away from going belly-up a number of industries along the Schuylkill River had closed or was on the verge of closing.
A number of local family owned businesses were hanging on throughout the borough including Dougherty’s Pharmacy, Big John’s Café, DelBuono Roofing, Schank Printing and Johnny Cross’ American-Italian Restaurant back when it was located at 500 West Ridge Pike. Billy Danitz was behind the grill at the 401 Restaurant, Paul Pilecki was still pumping gas at North Lane, Joe Camaioni was still cutting hair at 517 Fayette Street and Doyle & Hemcher were local contractors who sponsored a number of Conshohocken’s Soap Box Derby Cars over the years.
Rooney’s, The Rising Sun Tavern on West River Drive in West Conshohocken was pouring cold-ones from the tap. The ladies were still flocking to Charles Hair Salon on Fayette Street, if you needed a quality Zenith Color Television you could pay in installments at Charles Hicks Store, Park Holly Cleaners was at Ninth and Fayette Street, spare parts could be purchased at Kehoe’s Hardware Store and cool drinks could be purchased at Don’s Cold Cuts once located at 241 E. Eleventh Avenue.
In 1966 there was only one racing bracket in the soap box derby and only one champion. Mike Dennis beat out 53 other competitors beating Daniel Donahue by a half-car-length for the championship. Mike’s car was sponsored by Tose Trucking where his father Mickey was a 20 year employee at the time. Upon winning Mike was presented with a $500 savings bond and an all-expense paid trip to Akron Ohio where he competed in the All American Event, and at that time it was still known as “The Greatest Racing Event in World for Boys.”
While in Akron Mike rubbed shoulders with television stars like Forrest Tucker, Ken Barry and Larry Storch from TV’s “F Troop,” and also enjoyed the company of Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorehead and Dick York of “Bewitched.” For many years Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars made appearances at the All American Event.
Mike was one of a number of racers who won Conshy’s derby race back then who lived on East Thirteenth and East Fourteenth Avenues. John and James Koniewicz in the early 1960’s, Jimmy Harper won it in 1969 and Steve Schwartz won it all in 1964. In 1964 when Schwartz went to Akron to race he spent time with members of the TV show “Bonanza.” Lorne Green, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon were with Steve along with Perrell Roberts. Steve and Mike Dennis were neighbors on Fourteenth Avenue. Swartz went on to have a very distinguished career with the military.
Mike’s father Mickey Dennis went on to serve as Conshohocken’s Soap Box Derby Director for many many years and was well loved in the community along with his wife Rita.
Just to remind all of us of the times back in 1966, well the United States and the U.S.S.R. signed a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons in outer space, which always confused me, nuclear weapons hidden in the hills of West Virginia were OK, but just not in outer space. Betty Friedan founded the National Organization of Women, Pampers introduced the first disposable diaper and the most important news of 1966, (at least to some Americans) “Star Trek” began its first season on NBC.
As we know the 1960’s were troubled times in our country, in 1966, eight nurses were murdered in Chicago by Richard Speck, The Supreme Court ruled to protect the rights of police suspects in Miranda vs. Arizona, leading to the Miranda Rights. The formation of the Black Panthers, a militant civil rights group in the United States, continued to spread their message throughout the country about the increasing dissatisfaction with non-violent protest.
Watching television was about as 1960’s as it gets with “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “Green Acres” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. In 1966 Lyndon Johnson was the President of the United States, do you remember who the Vice-President was?
A house on the Avenues in Conshohocken could be had for $10,000–$12,000. A new car at Moore’s cost about $2500., gas was 30 cents per gallon and the average income for steel-workers was a little over $6,000 per year.
We had good taste in music in 1966, no we had great taste in music in 1966. Hits like “Wild Thing,” “Summer in the City,” “Monday, Monday,” “I’m a Believer,” “Cherish,” “Good Lovin’,” “Hanky Panky,” “Lightnin’ Strikes,” and “Last Train to Clarksville” were lighting up the charts, (WITH A BULLET)
Movies from 1966 included “A Man for All Seasons,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
And by the way Hubert Humphrey was the Country’s Vice President in 1966.
Hey, “Thanks” for taking a little trip down memory lane on this Fourth of July, I always enjoy looking back and moving forward.
And congrats to Mike Dennis who captured his very special day just 50 years ago
In 1966 the Conshohocken Soap Box Derby Race was co-sponsored at the time by Moore Chevrolet, Joseph Wagner 772 American Legion Post and the Knights of Columbus Conshohocken Council 1603.