In a new documentary short called “The High School That Rocked,” graduates from Staples High School delve into how a couple of students were able to bring some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll to a small high school in Westport, Connecticut. Between the years of 1966-1968, six Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bands performed in a school auditorium including The Doors, The Animals and The Yardbirds.

“I saw this story as a distinctive chapter in rock history,” documentary writer and producer Fred Cantor told Amplify. “I had never heard of another high school that had been able to attract in such a short time period so many iconic bands with hits on the charts–in other words, legendary groups that were at or near the peak of their fame.”

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“The High School That Rocked,” directed by Staples graduate Christopher Casey Denton, has been making the film festival circuit and received the Jury Award for Best Regional Documentary at the SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival in Rhode Island.

The documentary short details how student Dick Sandhaus ran for junior class president in 1965 on the promise that he would make junior prom free. In order to keep good on that promise, Sandhaus teamed up with another student, Paul Gambaccini, to put together a rock concert to raise funds for the prom. The two began combing through their Billboard magazines for artists and their record labels.

“This all happened thanks to the efforts of two precocious students,” Cantor said, adding “but it also happened thanks to the fact that rock concerts, by and large, had not become the enormous business that they would in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

After being laughed out of the room by record executives and managers, Sandhaus and Gambaccini were able to book The Beau Brummels with funding from Westport’s Board of Education. The students hobbled together gear from friends to complete the stage equipment and the school’s auditorium transformed into a rock’n’roll hotspot. The students went crazy for the show that shook the stage and Sandhaus and Gambaccini proved they could put on a hell of a show.

They followed the success of the Beau Brummels show with a rock sensation, The Animals, and a local band called The Remains. The latter featured two musicians from Westport who went on to work with artists like Emmylou Harris and Kenny Rogers.

“The live music scene was, in certain respects, more accessible during the mid-sixties,” said Cantor. “First of all, tickets were much more affordable (even factoring in the rate of inflation since then). And, the fact that there were some smaller venues where you could see some of the biggest names in rock made the concert-going experience more pleasurable for those who had the opportunity to see their favorite bands without the necessity of a jumbo screen.”
Having created a rapport with talent agent Frank Barsalona, Sandhaus was next able to land The Yardbirds with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. The same night, the “rave up” (supporting) band was fronted by a young man they were calling the “Mick Jagger of the tri-state area.” That young man, Steven Tallarico, now goes by the name of Steven Tyler.
The 26-min short goes on to detail how, even after graduating, Sandhaus continued to book shows for the school’s auditorium. He managed to book Cream, Sly and the Family Stone, and, four days after The Doors played The Ed Sullivan Show, they took the stage at Staples High School.
The film also details how this brief injection of rock’n’roll in Westport sparked enthusiasm in the town’s students, which resulted in many successful music careers from graduates. Sandhaus went on to book shows for Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Gambaccini became a popular radio presenter in England and many students featured in the documentary have worked with high-profile artists since 1968.
 “I viewed this as a little-known story that rock history aficionados would hopefully find fascinating and one that would resonate with baby boomers who grew up with the music of that era, regardless of where they grew up,” Cantor said.
The next screening for “The High School That Rocked” will be on July 15 by the Westport Cinema Initiative as part of the Westport Rocks Summer Festival. As part of that festival, the Westport Library will be holding a panel discussion on the music scene in the sixties featuring local high school alumni who achieved success in the world of music.
To follow the film and discover when it is playing near you, head to the documentary’s Facebook page.
Taylor Mims

Taylor Mims

News Editor at Amplify
Taylor Mims is Amplify's News Editor. She is a Los Angeles native and received her Masters in Creative Writing from Cal State Long Beach.
Taylor Mims

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