Barn Burners 

Infernofest celebrates the garage bands who made rural Mansfield famous, if only for a mid-'60s moment.

The Ohio Express lit up the local rock scene in the mid-'60s.
  • The Ohio Express lit up the local rock scene in the mid-'60s.
If you wanted to catch a hot regional rock band in the middle of Ohio in the mid-1960s, you didn't find it in a nightclub or bar, but in a civic hall that had been transformed into a teen rock venue for the weekend. Mansfield today won't be mistaken for a musical mecca, but in its prime, it was abuzz with teen hotspots like the Balloon Farm (famous for its psychedelic lights) and the Inferno, clubs that sprang up to satiate teens' growing appetite for rock and roll music.

"It was a great time for music in this area," says Nancy Wasen, unofficial historian of the city's teen-pop heyday.

"We had Peter and Gordon in Mansfield, the Turtles, the Lemon Pipers from Oxford, and the Choir from Cleveland. Wow, what a heady time it was, if you were a rock and roll lover."

In those days, clubs like the Inferno were where rock and roll lived. The music found in bars and nightclubs in the mid-'60s was that of drinking-aged adult squares, not rock and rolling teenyboppers.

Teen rock "clubs," on the other hand, mostly amounted to specific teen dance nights held at existing dance halls and civic centers.

In the case of the Inferno, it was first held at Grotto Hall in Mansfield and later at the local YMCA.While Mansfield gained notoriety for being the birthplace of national acts like the Ohio Express and the Music Explosion, teen rock clubs such as the Inferno were actually commonplace throughout Ohio.

Enterprising promoter Larry Woolson was the man responsible for throwing open the doors of the Inferno, as well as the Sugar Shack in nearby Mount Vernon and the Olympian in Marion -- all while in his early 20s.

The Mansfield News Journal featured the Inferno -- and its decidedly clean-cut image -- on July 25, 1965. In the article, Woolson explains, "The rules are no smoking, no drinking, no fighting or arguing," The article also indicated a strict dress code: "No short shorts . . . Jamaica and Bermudas are acceptable attire, and practical too for an evening as warm as last Thursday."

But as the teenyboppers grew up, so did their tastes. They got into alcohol and other popular chemicals of the late '60s, and rock concerts moved from teen dance halls into the adult world.

Since 1999, Wasen has coordinated Infernofest, an annual benefit show for the Hospice of North Central Ohio that memorializes the Inferno and the halcyon days of rock and roll in Mansfield. Several of the scene's most prominent and fondly remembered musicians will reunite for the occasion, including original members of the Buckles, Wildlife, the Dantes (the Columbus band with the distinction of being the biggest Infernofest name to never score a national hit), the Music Explosion (best known for its hit single "Little Bit o' Soul"), and the Ohio Express, which hit it big with "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" and "Chewy, Chewy."

Before being renamed by their slick New York producers and transformed into bubblegum idols, the members of Ohio Express reigned over the regional teen club circuit as Sir Timothy & the Royals, belting out originals and cover tunes in classic mid-'60s garage style.

"There hasn't been such a music scene since, with the exception of a club scene in the '80s, but that was more of an adult scene," Wasen says.

"I feel sorry for kids today, that they don't have the places to go and hear live music of their generation. I tell some of them now what was available to us, and they are so envious."

Indeed they should be. In addition to some of the most timeless rock and roll ever sweated out, audiences at the Inferno were exposed to a camaraderie so infectious that it even spilled backstage.

"Most of the bands got along good with one another, but it may have been a bit tense if we were competing in a 'Battle of the Bands' against each other," recalls Dean Kastran of the Ohio Express, who, with Dale Powers, will perform their hits on acoustic guitars -- a format that went over well at last year's Infernofest.

"Otherwise, if we had a chance to party together, it was always a pretty peaceable time. We also found much victory in winning away a girlfriend of an opposing band member. That went on a lot -- especially when we would go to Columbus to play. Those girls treated us like we were from a million miles away, kinda like the Brits.

"It seemed like every band back then was trying to fit one of three images: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or U.S.A. bands like the Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Monkees, etc.," Kastran says. "We were definitely cloning the more clean-cut, pretty-boy bands like Beatles, Dave Clark 5, and Herman's Hermits, as opposed to some of the rebel bands. That lasted until we got into Hendrix, Cream, and the like, and we let it all hang out." The Infernofest invites you to do the same.


More by Michael David Toth


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