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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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"A New Dance Everyday"

American Bandstand’s productions strategies also encouraged viewers to participate in the show by taking an interest in the show’s regulars and by learning dance steps. An October 1957 TV Guide review called attention to the show’s camera techniques: “[T]hanks to some camera work by director Ed Yates that would do credit to any TV spectacular there isn’t one of these amateur and largely anonymous supporting players who isn’t worth watching.”[i] While teens danced in the studio, the show’s camera operators made frequent use of two types of shots. First, during slow dances they used extended close-ups on the couples faces that provided viewers with an intimate look at which teens were dancing together. In turn, the show’s regulars would jockey to dance in front of the cameras so they could be seen on television. Arlene Sullivan, who along with Kenny Rossi made up one of the show’s most popular couples, remembered that “it got to the point where the regular kids wanted to be on camera all the time, so Dick Clark would turn off the red light so we were supposed to not know which camera was on. But we always knew where the camera was. We were hams.” Asked how she knew which camera was on without the red light, Sullivan recalled “Oh, you knew. You knew how they were focusing. And then Dick Clark would start to say, if he thought we were in front too long, ‘OK, Arlene and Kenny in the back, Franni in the back, Carole in the back.’ He wanted to give the other kids a shot.”[ii]

Despite Clark’s prodding, the regular dancers were on camera enough to become celebrities to the show’s viewers and teen magazine readers. ‘Teen magazine, for example, told readers they were “swamped with requests to do a story on the kids from Bandstand” and subsequently featured six cover stories on American Bandstand between 1958 and 1960, with profiles of current and former Bandstand regulars like Pat Molittieri, Kenny Rossi, and Arlene Sullivan. ‘Teen also published two eighty-page special issues for teens to read more about the show’s dancers.[iii] Daily television exposure and celebrity-style coverage in teen magazines made Bandstand’s regulars into what would later be called reality television stars. These nonprofessional performers became, as ‘Teen put it, the “most famous unknown[s] on TV today.”[iv] American Bandstand’s use of extended close-ups, coupled with numerous magazine profiles, invited viewers to follow along with the dating and style choices of the show’s regulars and provided viewers with information about another form of consumption.

When the cameras were not holding tight close-ups of the regulars’ faces, they were often focused on dancers’ feet. These close-ups on the dancers’ feet highlighted yet another product viewers could buy, Dick Clark American Bandstand Shoes. Teenagers could purchase shoes in the style popularized by the show’s dancers. In another sign of the Dick Clark’s quest to maximize profits, these shoes were advertised to black teenagers in the Philadelphia Tribune at the same time black teenagers were being turned away from the show’s studio audience.

These below-the-knee shots, ranging between fifteen seconds and a minute in duration, also captured the teenagers’ dance steps during fast songs such as “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors and “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and during group dance songs such as “The Stroll” by the Diamonds. Along with dance instruction diagrams in the show’s yearbooks and in teen magazines, these close-ups provided viewers with tutorials on the show’s dance steps and identified American Bandstand as the best source of information about “new” dances.

The 1958 American Bandstand Yearbook emphasized this point on a page titled “a new dance every day”: “‘The Chalypso,’ ‘The Walk,’ ‘The Stroll’—the list of new dances you’ve seen first on ‘American Bandstand’ just seems to grow each day. How do they get started? Well, if you ask some of the guests at the program, ‘They just happen.’”[v] Despite the suggestion that “new dances have ‘just grown’ on the program,” most of these dances did not originate on American Bandstand. Rather, many of the dances originated at local teen dances or were performed by the black teenagers on The Mitch Thomas Show.

Ray Smith, who attended American Bandstand frequently and has done research for one of Clark’s histories of the show, remembers that he and other white teenagers watched The Mitch Thomas Show to learn new dance steps. Describing the “black Bandstand,” Smith recalled:
First of all, black kids had their own dance show, I think it was on channel 12, but one of the reasons I remember it is because I watched it. And I remember that there was a dance that [American Bandstand regulars] Joan Buck and Jimmy Peatross did called "The Strand" and it was a slow version of the jitterbug done to slow records. And it was fantastic. There were two black dancers on this show, the “black Bandstand,” or whatever you want to call it. The guy’s name was Otis and I don’t remember the girl’s name. And I always was like "wow." And then I saw Jimmy Peatross and Joan Buck do it, who were probably the best dancers who were ever on Bandstand. I was talking about it to Jimmy Peatross one day, when I was putting together the book, and he said, "oh, I watched this black couple do it." And that was the black couple that he watched.[vi]
These white teenagers were not alone in watching The Mitch Thomas Show. Smith’s experience of watching the show supports Mitch Thomas’ belief that “[American Bandstand teens] were looking to see what dance steps we were putting out. All you had to do was look at ‘Bandstand’ the next Monday, and you’d say, ‘Oh yeah, they were watching.’”[vii] They were watching, for example, when dancers on The Mitch Thomas Show started dancing The Stroll, a group dance where boys and girls faced each other in two parallel lines, while couples took turns strutting down the aisle. Thomas remembers that the teens on his show “created a dance called the Stroll. I was standing there watching them dancing in a line, and after a while I asked them, ‘what are y’all doing out there?’ They said, ‘that’s The Stroll.’ And The Stroll became a big thing.”[viii] The Stroll was actually a new take on swing-era line dances, and while the teens on The Mitch Thomas Show did not invent The Stroll, they, along with young fans of black R&B in other cities, were among the first young people in the country to perform the new version of the dance.[ix] The Stroll was inspired by R&B artist Chuck Willis’s song “C.C. Rider,” itself a remake of the popular blues song “See See Rider Blues,” which was first recorded and copyrighted by Ma Rainey in the 1920s and was subsequently recorded by dozens of others artists. Following Willis, a string of other R&B songs were produced based on the dance. By late 1957, the Diamonds, a white vocal group that frequently recorded cover versions of black R&B songs, released “The Stroll,” a song made specifically for the dance. Dick Clark was a friend of the Diamonds’s manager, Nat Goodman, and told him: “if we could have another stroll-type record, you’d have yourself an automatic hit.”[x] The Diamonds version outsold the others largely because American Bandstand played the song repeatedly. In addition to helping move the Diamonds’s version of the song up the charts, the frequent spins also falsely established American Bandstand as the originator of the dance. The show offered viewers instruction on how to do the Stroll by showing close-ups on the dancers’ feet during the dance.[xi] The show’s yearbook offered fans of more explicit instruction on the dance.

All this emphasis on American Bandstand as the birthplace of The Stroll upset some of the teenagers on The Mitch Thomas Show. Thomas later recalled that Clark was gracious when he complained to him about American Bandstand taking credit for the dance. “I called Dick Clark and told him my kids were a little upset because they were hearing that the Stroll started on ‘Bandstand’” Thomas remembered. “He said no problem. He went on the show that day and said, ‘Hey man, I want you all to know The Stroll originated on the Mitch Thomas dance show.’”[xii] While Clark was courteous in this instance in acknowledging the creative influence of The Mitch Thomas Show on American Bandstand, the television programs remained in a vastly inequitable relationship. The Mitch Thomas Show broadcast to the Delaware Valley on an independent station that was not affiliated with one of the three major networks. American Bandstand, on the other hand, reached a national audience of millions with the financial backing of advertisers, ABC, and Walter Annenberg’s media assets. The question of the Stroll’s origins remained contentious because such “new” dances were one of the many products that American Bandstand sold to viewers. The appropriation of these creative energies contributed to the frustration felt by black teens who were denied admission to the show. The dance styles perfected by the black teenagers on The Mitch Thomas Show did reach a national audience, but the teens themselves were not depicted as part of the national youth culture American Bandstand broadcast to viewers.

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