It was February – 30-below zero. Steam rose from street grates. And there were patches of slippery black ice on the pavement.
Just back from his first trip to New Orleans, where revelers ran half naked by day, Bobby and a couple pals were braced in heavy coats against the brittle wind after leaving The Cassius Jazz Club at closing time. The Cassius was a neighborhood joint catering to a mostly black crowd with Chinese apartments above, Chinese writing on the outside and the bar on the first floor.
Irv Williams had been the headliner that night – a tenor sax man Bobby dug who’d been with Count Basie before settling in the Twin Cities. Irv had run into Bobby and the other kids when playing for the Saturday night dances at The Pillsbury House. Bobby always enjoyed a good tenor sax and he loved the way Irv Williams played Stardust.
It was a Saturday night and as Bobby recalls, “maybe I had one beer, if that. They must have known we weren’t 21. But since we were the type that never caused trouble in there…ya know? It was a nice little club.”
Leaving the club was when the trouble started.
So much trouble it made the front page of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune.
Here’s how Bobby tells it: “We went from the club to Cedar and Lake, to a place called Emily and Frenchies – a hamburger joint we hung out at. It was closed. So we’re walkin’ down Lake from Cedar to Bloomington. There were a couple of hamburger joints down there where we could get something to eat. When we got to 18th Street and Lake, this guy starts honking his fuckin’ horn as we’re crossing the street. And he says; get the fuck out of the way.”
Bobby was walking with a couple of friends, Joe Halpin, described by some who knew him as a wild and crazy guy. And Gordy Newstrom, the tough guy they called “Go-Go,” who worked with Bobby on his shoplifting sprees.
After the exchange of words at the intersection, “this huge dude,” Bobby called him, “starts getting out of the car. Joe slammed the door on the guy, he goes down and Joe kicked him in the head. And then this even bigger guy got out and we took off down the street.”
The big guy caught up, and on the corner of 17th and Lake, he got into it with Go-Go.
It was a wrestling match with short punches delivered for effect. The big guy says he’s an off duty cop. Go-Go, who has him pinned to the ground said they didn’t want any trouble, “if I let you up, will you let us get the hell out of here?”
The cop said sure, but when Go-Go loosened his grip, the violent dance continued through the plate glass window of Nolanders Department Store. The cop was cut. The boys – all on probation – scattered. And, once again, Bobby went into hiding. “I knew this was not gonna be good,” he said. “I went home really late and I went upstairs to my room. Then I slipped into my sister’s room which faced the street. And there, I could see the spotlight looking’ for the address. So I just got my fuckin’ clothes on, went downstairs, met the cops at the door, told my mother it had nothing to do with me. I’m a witness.” And off he went to jail …again. This time it was serious. The broken store window had severed the femoral artery of the off duty cop. He bled to death.
“I spent the rest of the night talking with other inmates on the 5th floor of the Minneapolis Courthouse,” Bobby recalls. “One guy was facing 40-years in Stillwater and he’s got his arm around my shoulder – comforting me. All of a sudden, something was thrown at the bars of the cell.”
There were two cops outside the cell – brothers of the officer who had died. They had the look of men who wanted a piece of Bobby Dale.
The dead cop, in fact, had three brothers who were police officers and also had five or six kids, as Bobby recalled.
And, as it turned out, he and his partner had been sitting in the Bee Hive Tavern since two that afternoon with a bottle of bourbon and beer chasers.
They were dead drunk when they tangled with the boys on Lake Street. There also were 30 witnesses to the confrontation, and the Grand Jury returned a no bill. The boys were free to roam.
But it would never be the same.
College life at the University of Minnesota was short but sweet; music appreciation, history, humanities and speech. Three A’s and a D. The D was in speaking. “I went there about a year-and-a-half,” Bobby recalled. “Of course I kept dropping out to hitch hike to New Orleans for Mardi gras. I mean, we have to take care of our social obligations.”
Returning from one of those trips in 1955, his traveling companion, Jack Latsall, said he was going to check out The Brown Institute of the Air, a radio school on Lake Street, not far from Bobby’s home. “It’s really hard to explain,” Bobby said. “When I walked in there they had me read a little something. I think they would have taken you if you’d been Harpo Marx, but I’m tellin’ you man.” Bobby was hooked.