On the third weekend of May a very successful car show happens in a very unlikely place. It's called Lost in the '50s, and in the past quarter century it's grown to the point where it takes over the entire town of Sandpoint, Idaho, for almost an entire weekend.
Never heard of Sandpoint you say? Well you're not alone. If Idaho's panhandle is the middle of nowhere, Sandpoint is the outer edge. It's smack-dab between Coeur d'Alene and Canada, and as far as Google maps are concerned, it's one of the last northernmost towns worth noting. Still, it attracts nearly 500 cars from every corner of the country.
Part of what makes Lost unique is its cruise-a trip through both time and the real streets
The event may be Sandpoint's big hurrah, but it's Carolyn Gleason's baby. Never heard of Gleason either? Well that's no surprise; she's about as unlikely a person to promote a car show as you'd think. She runs a pizza joint on Second Avenue. Reflecting on that first show 24 years ago she says, "I didn't know anything about putting on a car show. Heck, I don't even own an old car!"
What's more, the car show was adjunct to a '50s-themed dance she organized as part of a means to drum up money for the Festival of Sandpoint, a non-profit organization that brings musicians to the area. "We just wanted to do rock 'n' roll and get cars and have a good time," she explained. "There wasn't much of that going on 24 years ago. I got Bobby Vee and Del Shannon to come up the first year," Gleason continued. "I thought 'OK, we need cars too.'" So she went and begged friends and a recent winner of the Spokane Auto Boat and Speed Show to bring their early tin.
"We did a Friday night cruise where we hooked up speakers on the back of a Lincoln Continental convertible," she said. "We drove around hanging out of the car with pom-poms trying to get some action."
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But something unexpected happened: The little dance made money. "We had 26 cars that year," Gleason observed. "The next year we had 56 cars. 'Holy mackerel, what's this?'" she pondered. The third year they hired Fabian. "The dance sold out like we were rock stars," she said, bragging that the dance sold out in a tick more than 20 hours. Oh yeah, 100 cars showed up too.
The event breaks down like this: It spans four days and includes several shows, dances, a cruise through town, and a full-fledged show downtown. It kicks off Thursday night with Rock 'N' Roll Heaven at the Panida Theatre, a '20s-era vaudeville and movie house. It's an impersonation show. "I mean how do you see Elvis anymore?" Gleason asked. "A lot of these original artists are gone but we wanted to show what they were like. It's my way of getting really fun music out of young entertainers, people who bring people like Elvis, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, Jackie Wilson, The Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly back to life. It's the spirit."
On Friday afternoon cars and their drivers assemble at the high school parking lot. Once fully amassed, they line file out onto Division and head north. At this point the logistics of the cruise start to weigh in. Division is the town's longest north/south street, and as its name implies it's a fairly major thoroughfare. In fact, the city won't close off the entire street it's so important. But that doesn't really affect anything. Spectators, sometimes several people deep, line Division all the way to Cedar. It's really quite a spectacle.
Hooking a right onto Cedar is sort of a time warp. You know those nostalgic tree-lined places in the movies? Sandpoint is one of 'em. The town was incorporated in 1898, so it's got the history. It's pretty obvious by the buildings that the timber-harvesting money stayed here.
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As the cruise winds the rest of the way through town, it becomes obvious that the money never stopped coming in. Sandpoint is the home to aviation (Quest Aircraft), specialty culinary (Litehouse Foods), and medical instruments (Percussion Aire), to name a few. The idea that upscale clothing manufacturer Coldwater Creek planted itself in Sandpoint suggests that the town is more of a destination than a waypoint. The abundance of high-end restaurants around the main store confirms that. While not officially sanctioned, the cruise generally lingers for a few hours.
Two events take precedent Friday night, and depending on family dynamics people generally go two ways (well three if you count the restaurants). The event established a true street dance a number of years back to cater to families. "It was basically created for kids," Gleason said. "I wanted them to have something more-they've never danced in the street. They never had a band in the street or anything."
The second event is the star of the show, so to speak. It starts about sundown, and unlike the street dance it's an adults-only gig. "Because at the dances you can't have kids and sell liquor," Gleason noted.
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Remember how Gleason got Bobby Vee and Del Shannon for the first event? Well for the past 16 years revivalist band Rocky and the Rollers have provided backup for numerous acts like The Crystals and Johnny Thunder. And in its 24 years, Lost in the '50s has hosted 52 original rock 'n' roll and R&B artists. Gleason rattled off a few. "Let's see, we had Little Anthony and the Imperials, Chubby Checkers, the Shirelles, Gary Puckett, Peggy March, Shirley Austin Reeves-the original lead singer of the Shirelles," she said, pausing for a breath. "Johnny Rivers, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Drifters, Dickey Lee, and Little Eva," she continued. "We got a chance to have a lot of these performers play for us," she added. "A lot of them are gone now."
If a car show that closes downtown and hosts dances that attract A-list performers sounds like a big-dollar production, let us disabuse you of that notion. The big dance happens in a tin hall at the Bonner County fairgrounds. "It's not a hall that's good for sounds," Gleason admitted. At the same time, the acoustics weren't all that great in the gymnasiums and conference halls that hosted rock 'n' roll when it was new either. So in that sense these dances are closer to the way things were than we'd expect.
Saturday morning cars gather downtown. The show takes over First and Second between Pine and Cedar, which means downtown basically belongs to the show. Though it's a judged show, the criteria are pretty simple. Basically things boil down to what looks cool. In that way it's real informal.
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That informality is intentional, according to Gleason. "We take people in as if they've lived here for years." She said it's largely due to the crew who puts on the show: A flagging service for traffic control and some concessions withstanding, Lost in the '50s is a volunteer venture. So instead of confronting disinterested wage earners who'd rather be elsewhere, you meet people whose best interest is your fun. In fact, rather than contracting businesses for certain jobs, Gleason said she makes a point of paying other benevolent organizations. Cub Scouts for example. "We'd rather give money to these service organizations to do clean up after the dance."
The event exists on Gleason's funding and local sponsorship, though you'd never suspect it. Seeing how the event is a non-profit, they can't keep a dime. So they've found creative ways to spend it. And they spend it on the attendees.
Starting at the beginning, Lost in the '50s entry gifts are legendary. "People told me 'I'm sick and tired of goodie bags,'" she said. "I've asked guys what they do with them. They say their grandchildren get some, some of it goes in the garbage, and the rest goes into a junk drawer."
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So Gleason got creative. One year the entry gifts were oversized screen-printed golf umbrellas in the event colors. For the 20th she gave away stadium blankets embroidered with the event logo. "I spend the better half of their entry fee just buying something wonderful for them," she said. "They always look at us and ask, 'This is ours?' The next year we did a bag so everybody would have something to put all their stuff in."
The trophies are also unique. The first ones were literally unique; she attached various car parts-a '53 Chevy glovebox lid, a hood ornament, and a hubcap-to wooden plaques. Availability led her to simpler trophies over the years, but when an unappreciative attendee threw his plaque back in protest, she started looking. "We wanted people to feel like they were rock stars," she said. "Well I found a guy who makes gold records for the real people. I buy the frames and cut the mat and glue the records in myself." First place gets a gold record. Second and third get a gold 45 (the records are platinum for the 25th anniversary next year, by the way). "Those are just the little twisted things in your brain that make you ask, 'How can we be different than everybody else,'" she admitted.
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When you consider the formal dance that repeats itself on Saturday night and the Aspirin Rally the following morning, Lost in the '50s starts to look like quite a lot of work. And it is, according to Gleason.
Whether it's the city fathers, the sheriff, or even the governor, "Every year they try to throw a brick wall in my way," she continued. For example, when the sheriff joked that it would be safer if she just closed the whole town for the weekend, Gleason and her crew appealed to the local businesses, filed the appropriate paperwork, and got the whole downtown area for the show. "They tell me I can't do something," she said. "Well don't tell me I can't do something." For another example of her fortitude, consider that a major highway splits the town. For that evening, though, heavy trucks and all conceded to the show traffic.
It's not money that makes that sort of thing possible; it's a labor of love. Nor is it money that makes people return year after year. If there's a single component that makes Lost in the '50s successful, it's hospitality. This little town of 7,000 practically doubles every third weekend of May. And for those four days, everybody is a local.
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