Originally Published in the Prince Albert Daily Herald on October 19, 2017
For 44 years, from 1957 until 2001, the Prince Albert Lions Club sponsored the highly entertaining Halloween snake dance for the city’s high school students. It was all about school spirit. Hundreds of students gathered at their schools and formed long “snakes,” holding hands and pulling each other zig-zag fashion down the streets towards Central Avenue, chanting school songs and yells as they went. The snakes ended up at the Armouries where a dance with a live band was held for the students. While inside the Armouries, the high schools were judged on Halloween displays (which they had completed ahead of time), costumes, and their school song and yell. They had been judged on their snake conduct on the way down.
The snake dance had its roots at Prince Albert Collegiate Institute (PACI). Prior to 1955, each classroom at the high school prepared a float for the Collegiate Day parade. When that tradition ended, the city-wide snake dance replaced it – but not without a bumpy beginning.
“Halloween Damage Worst in 26 Years,” read the headline in the PA Daily Herald on November 1, 1956. Nineteen charges were laid after high school students ran amok in the downtown streets during the snake dance. “At the Empress Hotel the glass front door was broken and the crowd entered the premises, tipped over the showcase and stole some candy,” the police report said. “The group forced the door of the Club Café, and ran through the building, overturning tables and on one occasion knocked a waitress down.” Plate glass windows on Central Avenue “received a severe soaping,” the report continued, “and on several windows appeared the name of the current teenage rage, Elvis Presley.”
One year after the near-riot of 1956, the PA Lions Club came to the rescue, becoming the event’s official sponsor. The Club’s goal in 1957 was not to raise money for its community projects. Rather, the snake dance was conceived as a community project in and of itself – an opportunity for the Lions “to do something constructive for teenagers on Halloween.” Over the next few decades, the annual snake dance grew and thrived under the capable direction of the Lions Club.
Each fall, Lions members met with school representatives and city police to discuss plans for the snake dance. Routes for each school were mapped out. Competitions for cash prizes and an overall trophy were organized. Halls and bands were booked for the dance. Insurance, fire protection, and security details were put into place.
Riverside and PACI were the first high schools to participate. St. Mary’s soon joined in. By 1963, there were five or six schools in the snake dance: Riverside, PACI, Tech, Composite, St. Mary’s, and the Academy. In 1965, 1,500 kids attended. By 1970, there were over 1,800. An admission fee was charged for the dance, and the Lions put any profits towards the increasing costs of hosting the event, as well as towards payments for property damage done to the Armouries by students during the dance.
“The Lions Club deserve a vote of thanks from all Prince Albertans for sponsoring another successful high school snake dance which attracted about 2,000 students on Halloween night,” the Daily Herald wrote on November 2, 1972. The Herald hoped the Lions would continue to host the event in future years “so that Prince Albert will remain free of destruction on Halloween.”
The PA Lions had their hands full running this event. Vandalism was always a problem. In 1980, for example, a railway flare was set off in the middle of the hall causing considerable damage to the Armouries. Security guards were hired each year just to monitor the washrooms.
Another problem was declining attendance. When the number of high schools in Prince Albert was reduced with the opening of Carlton Comprehensive High School in 1974, the Lions Club planned four snakes from Carlton and one from St. Mary’s. Under the circumstances, the school spirit competition lost its appeal. As participation continued to drop, the Lions began inviting high schools from nearby communities like Meath Park and Birch Hills. In 1988, only 115 students participated in the “snake” portion of the evening; by 1992, this number had dropped to 40. The Lions Club decided that the response to the snake was not worth the time being put in by its members. The snake dance lost its snake in the mid-1990s, evolving into a dance-only event.
The last snake dance was held on Halloween 2001. It was a disaster. When problems occurred outside the Armouries, the police asked that the dance be shut down early. At 11:15 pm, the Lions announced that the dance would end at 11:30 pm. The students were asked to leave and go home. Chaos ensued, and the Lions Club volunteers struggled to maintain control of the crowd. At its meeting the following day, the Lions Club considered its options. Most felt that, while the snake dance had been an excellent community project for the past 40-plus years, it was time to end sponsorship of the event – all because of a small number of youth who created problems. There were no more snake dances after that year.
Thanks to James Wilm of the Prince Albert Lions Club, and to the Bill Smiley Archives, for their assistance in the preparation of this column.