Despite having written this column for more than ten years, it is still very difficult to approach the last weekend of April without my thoughts turning to the Penn Relays Carnival. You cannot be from my era without having fond memories of time spent at Franklin Field to watch this spectacular track and field event. It was special when I was in high school and it remains very special today.
Each year that I have written about the Penn Relays, I find myself repeating many of those activities indigenous to the event, including. the section in which I have sat for many years; even the same seat. This section, the “horseshoe curve,” is that end of Franklin Field leading into the finish line for Relays events. It is famous in the world of Penn Relays afficionados. Many of us called this area, “Riggy’s Corner” in recognition of the many runners who tightened up or acquired rigor mortis, a term given to such runners by spectators. Today’s all-weather track is in stark contrast to the cinder track it replaced. Back then, I rose to my feet and watched like everyone in the stadium when Morgan State University runners took the track, particularly in what was then known as the mile relay.
The Penn Relays were more than just running and jumping. Those who were around in the ’50s and ’60s will always associate the Penn Relays Carnival with engaging in “a party over here and a party over there;” to Relays participants, “big fun” was endemic to this weekend, back in the day.
I am in no way suggesting that Penn Relays participants do not engage in parties today. I hear people telling others where they will be hanging out after the Relays, but little talk about parties the evening before. I am out of the loop and do not know where they go or their activities. Most of what I hear involves partying at downtown or neighborhood clubs. Furthermore, the dysfunctional and violent behavior displayed by too many of our youths and adults, as well as stricter rules with regard to consuming alcoholic beverages, has altered the world of today’s partygoer. Penn Relays partying for my generation was quite different, mainly because it took place in the environment that I call back in the day.
The partying spirit began on the Friday afternoon of Penn Relays weekend, when people traveled to Philadelphia using any means necessary. Quite often, the main mode of travel would be to flash the thumb and hitchhike. Not everyone was fortunate enough to hook up with a friend to have a roof over his or her head. I can recall cases where one person rented a hotel room and ten or more people would sleep there. One of the most popular low-end hotels where people stayed on this weekend was the Essex, at 13th and Filbert streets. With so many young people together, impromptu parties were not uncommon. I recall friends who came to Philadelphia for the Penn Relays but never attended the events, as they spent most, if not all of their time at the Essex Hotel partying. I even recall circumstances where people had to sleep in their automobiles; still they found ways to party. They did not seem to mind, as the time spent at the Relays and the time spent dancing the night away did not leave much time to sleep.
To my knowledge, there was little or no drug use back then; if there was drug usage, it was done very discretely. Fighting and unruly behavior were minimal. No, there was not total innocence, as Thunderbird wine was the drink, not necessarily of choice but what was consistent with one’s finances. If you did make it to a party on the Friday before the Relays, it was either a house party or a cabaret, but usually Friday night was for cabarets. The Imperial Ballroom at 60th and Walnut streets was one of the major places to party. Times Auditorium at Broad and Spruce was another popular place to party before the major Saturday Relays events. A University of Pennsylvania-sponsored dance on campus, also on Friday evening, was attended by many Black Relays partygoers. We attended these affairs all dressed up and danced to the favorite dances of the times; such as the stroll, cha-cha, mambo, slop, bop, strand, twist and the famous “slow drag.” These cabarets or dances were generally wild affairs on these Friday evenings before the biggest day of the Relays. Partygoers who awakened with headaches often did not show up until early afternoon. Whether you arrived at Franklin Field early on Saturday or later in the day, the signs were evident that a party was “in the air” for that evening. Serious partying was associated with and characteristic of the Penn Relays, back in the day.
Today, most people attend the Penn Relays to watch the track and field events. This was true in the past, but a large number attended as an extension or the beginning of partying. Just think back to your heydays at the Penn Relays and I am certain you will recall the large numbers who attended to simply “profile,” watch and flirt with young ladies and make contacts for an unforgettable evening. If you think the young ladies were out in force during yesterday’s Relays, nothing compared with those at the Penn Relays back in the day. Back then, young ladies purchased special outfits just for the Relays. Some purchased these instead of an Easter outfit. They wanted to present themselves in a way that separated them from the crowd. Not only were they appealing, but they had the class that most mature males from the past desired in young ladies; something that has disappeared from our current generation.
Most of my friends who have regularly attended the Penn Relays over the years have long abandoned the walks under the grandstands observing the sights. Age has a way of changing one’s view of life. So, most of them do as I have done for many decades; they sit in their reserved seats of the past, and pay attention to the track and field events. Preparation for going out on the town later that day has become a figment of their imaginations; even their imaginations have lost the creativity associated with fun they used to experience, back in the day.
If you recall, the fun and spirit of the Penn Relays became more intense as the sun began to set on a long day of events. As someone who attends the Relays each year, it has been many years since I witnessed the rivalry between the fraternities, and in some years the sororities, as they sang their favorite songs. Clearly, it was impossible for partying not to have been in the air. Many of us left the relays “ginned up” from this singing, while carrying this partying spirit home. We showered; got dressed up; went out to house parties; and did not return home until late on Sunday morning. Even though such parties were by invitation, word got out and seemingly everyone attended these “mystery parties.” There were so many parties you never stayed at one for more than a few minutes. While there were dances this Penn Relays weekend, I believe they paled in comparison to the dances and house parties many of us experienced. Partying is a “mind” thing now, but was true reality, back in the day.
Like many of you, I mainly see old friends at funerals. Thankfully, there remain groups from the past, mostly in their twilight years, who maintain relationships by coming together on Penn Relays weekend to continue glimpses of partying from the past. I have joined some of these groups of old friends at someone’s home, always with track and field enthusiasts and primarily males, to engage in modified versions of old-school partying. There is no dancing, just eating and telling stories about the Relays of the past; stories of the things associated with the Penn Relays that will be with us forever; reflecting on how we partied and partied, before, during and after the Penn Relays, back in the day.