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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Imagining National Youth Culture

Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand
In Philadelphia PA
Deep in the heart of Texas
And ‘round the Frisco bay
Way out in St. Louis
And down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet little sixteen
— Chuck Berry, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” 1958[i]

It was no accident that Chuck Berry made reference to American Bandstand when he released “Sweet Little Sixteen” in January 1958. Berry made his national television debut on American Bandstand in 1957, and including these lyrics helped ensure that this new song would receive ample airtime on the program. Indeed, Dick Clark later recalled “Sometimes we heard a hit the first time we played the record—Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ was like that.”[ii] Berry’s song reached number two on the Billboard chart and stayed on the chart for sixteen weeks, thanks in large part to its frequent exposure on Clark’s show. Less obvious than his references to Philadelphia and American Bandstand, Berry’s nods to teens dancing in Texas, San Francisco, St. Louis, and New Orleans underscored a point that American Bandstand called attention to every afternoon—the existence of a national youth culture. As the show sought to establish itself as a national program it pointed to its local fans and television affiliates in different parts of the country as evidence of its national reach. In helping viewers and advertisers imagine a national youth culture, American Bandstand promoted the idea that teenagers were united in their simultaneous consumption of television and rock and roll. Through a range of production strategies, American Bandstand encouraged the show’s viewers, advertisers, and television affiliates to see the program as the thread that stitched together different teenagers in different parts of the country into a coherent and recognizable national youth culture.

In exploring how American Bandstand producers articulated this vision of national youth culture, this section builds on Josh Kun’s notion of “audiotopia” and Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities.” Kun uses the concept of “audiotopia” to describe how “music functions like a possible utopia for the listener, that music is experienced not only as sound that goes into our ears and vibrates through our bones but as a space that we can enter into, encounter, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, learn from.”[iii] American Bandstand adds a visual component to Kun’s formulation. Teenagers tuned into American Bandstand to watch other teenagers dance to records, to see musical artists perform, and to try out the latest dance moves in their own living rooms. American Bandstand’s daily images encouraged teenagers to imagine themselves as part of a national audience enjoying the same music and dances at the same time. American Bandstand offered its viewers a teenage television audiotopia every afternoon. This televised audiotopia was most pronounced for the Italian-American teenagers who were prominently represented on the show. For them, American Bandstand made their neighborhood peer culture an integral and visible component of the national youth culture. The show’s ongoing segregation, examined in the next chapter, makes it clear that this televisual audiotopia was not equally available to all viewers.

American Bandstand also adds a visual component to Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities.” Anderson highlights newspapers as one of the ways that people first understood (or imagined) themselves as part a community without face-to-face contact with other members of this community. He describes the “extraordinary mass ceremony” of the “almost precisely simultaneous consumption” of newspapers. The importance of this consumption ritual, Anderson argues, is that
each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.[iv]
As was the case with the newspapers in Anderson’s example, teenagers watched American Bandstand simultaneously with little face-to-face knowledge of the millions of other viewers watching the show. Unlike newspapers, however, as a television program American Bandstand visualized this imagined community through its studio audience, viewer letters, and maps, and by consistently addressing its viewers as part of a national audience. As political scientist Diana Mutz notes, “[w]hat media, and national media in particular, do best is to supply us with information about those beyond our personal experiences and contacts, in other words, with impressions of the state of mass collectives.”[v] American Bandstand used its production techniques and mode of address to offer teenagers daily evidence that the imagined national youth culture was “visibly rooted in everyday life.” American Bandstand’s popularity and profitability flowed from its ability to get viewers, advertisers, and television affiliates to imagine a national youth culture with the show at the center.

American Bandstand established Philadelphia as the locus of this national youth culture, and it drew extensively from the creative abilities of the city’s youth. Some of these contributions were well documented, others obscured. On the one hand, Italian-American teens figured prominently in the show’s image of youth culture. Many of the show’s regular dancers and local fans hailed from working-class Italian-American neighborhoods, and they later remembered American Bandstand as providing them with unique exposure. On the other hand, the program’s racially discriminatory admissions policies remained in place. With the program broadcasting nationally, black teens were erased not just from the “WFIL-adelphia” regional market, but also from the national youth culture American Bandstand worked to build. While the next chapter examines the struggles over segregation surrounding the program, this chapter shows how American Bandstand became established as the afternoon site of the nation’s youth.

When ABC decided to take Bandstand national in 1957, dozens of local markets already had or would soon start their own teen dance shows. Like Bandstand, programs such as The Milt Grant Show in Washington D.C., The Buddy Deane Show in Baltimore, High Time in Portland, Oregon, The Clay Cole Show in New York, Dewey Phillips’ Pop Shop in Memphis, Clark Race’s Dance Party in Pittsburgh, Robin Seymour and Bill Davies’s Dance Party in Detroit, Phil McClean’s Cleveland Bandstand, Jim Gallant’s Connecticut Bandstand, and David Hull’s Chicago Bandstand cost little to produce and provided their stations with opportunities to capitalize on the profitable teenage demographic.[vi] A sales pitch for The Milt Grant Show highlights the commercial appeal of these locally televised teen dance shows. Speaking directly to the camera, Grant addresses potential sponsors:
Gentleman, I’m about to offer you the best television buy in the world. I’m Milt Grant, the producer and emcee of The Milt Grant Show and record hop here in Washington…we have a winner that can win for you and your client…you see the ingredients are sure fire. First of all, we have the top records of our day. Then we have big named stars…and we have a studio audience of seventy sampling for your clients’ products. Some of our clients are Motorola, Pepsi-Cola, [and] the Music Box store…our commercials are thoroughly integrated with the program content. We have a winner and its growing…Gentleman, here is the combination of sales, showmanship, audience, and price that makes the Milt Grant Show the best television buy in the world.[vii]
While clearly hyperbolic, Grant’s pitch is indicative of how local deejays and television stations sold their dance shows to potential sponsors. To distinguish American Bandstand from these local programs, every aspectfrom the show’s title, introduction, and set design, to Dick Clark’s banter before playing recordsprovided advertisers, record producers, and viewers with evidence of the program’s national reach. For fans of the locally produced Bandstand, the most obvious change when ABC started broadcasting the program nationally was the title, American Bandstand. (The show continued to use both names while it broadcast from Philadelphia, using American Bandstand for the national ninety minutes, and Bandstand for the opening and closing thirty-minute segments that were only broadcast locally). By calling the show American Bandstand, the program’s producers offered both an accurate acknowledgment of the affiliates broadcasting the program and an ambitious evaluation of the national audience they hoped would tune in. For viewers in other parts of the country, many of whom were already familiar with their own locally broadcast dance shows, the title immediately announced American Bandstand as the national offering.

In addition to the name change, through its new introduction and set design American Bandstand encouraged viewers to imagine themselves as part of a national audience of television viewers. Each show opened with the camera focused on teenagers dancing in the studio to “Bandstand Boogie,” a big band swing style instrumental written especially for the show. The camera would pull back to reveal a large cut-out map of the continental United States, made out of blue-glittered cardboard. With the teenagers now pictured as dancing inside this national map, the producers superimposed the show’s title at the center.[viii] Using this technique, within the first minute of each program American Bandstand depicted its studio audience as literally dancing across the nation.

American Bandstand’s studio design also integrated this national perspective. Across from Clark’s podium sat a second map of the United States featuring the call letters of each of the local television stations carrying the show. This map, which was visible periodically during each show as the camera tracked teens dancing around the studio, served as a reminder of the program’s national reach. More important, Clark frequently walked over to the board to make direct references to cities and stations in other parts of the country. “Let’s go over to the Bandstand big board to see which stations we are going to check today,” Clark announced in a typical episode in December 1957.[ix] With the camera focused in tight close-up on the map, Clark informed viewers that Frankie Avalon’s “De De Dinah” was topping the record charts in Buffalo, New York (home of affiliate WGR); Cleveland, Ohio (WEWS); Akron, Ohio (WAKR); and Youngstown, Ohio (WKST).[x] In another show that same week, Clark highlighted stations in San Francisco (KGO); Stockton, California (KOVR); Fresno, California (KJEO); and Decatur, Illinois (WTDP) before introducing Sam Cooke’s “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons.”[xi] Built into the structure of each show, this affiliate map of the United States. offered TV stations, advertisers, and viewers evidence that American Bandstand was a national program. With this national map of television stations American Bandstand encouraged viewers to imagine a nation of audience members watching along with them.[xii] Within a broadcast medium that repeatedly sought to generate a sense of a national culture, American Bandstand stood out for its insistent and geographically specific reminders that viewers were part of a national television audience.

The American Bandstand Yearbook, 1958 reiterated this ideal of a national audience with a station map featuring thirty-four teenage viewers from twenty-one different states. The yearbook showed WFIL-TV’s signal reaching in concentric circles across the United States, and told advertisers and fans that these “friends from around the country” were “at ‘American Bandstand’ too.” This national map motif expanded on the “WFIL-adelphia” theme that WFIL originally used to sell the station’s four-state regional broadcast area. The photos of these teen viewers resembled headshots in a typical high school yearbook, but rather than representing a single city or town, the American Bandstand yearbook gathered teens from Fort Wayne, Buffalo, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans into a national cohort of teenage consumers. Despite this regional diversity, the fans highlighted in the yearbook reiterated American Bandstand’s white image of national youth culture.[xiii]

Even when the station map was not pictured on the screen, Clark made frequent references to affiliated stations and markets when he presented records, introduced audience members from out of town, and opened viewer mail. In different programs, Clark told viewers about the popular records in Boston (WHDH) and Detroit (WXYZ), welcomed twin teenage girls from Minneapolis (WTCN) to the audience, and read a fan letter from Green Bay (WFRV).[xiv] By integrating the station call letters in this way, Clark emphasized the national reach of American Bandstand while also providing affiliates with brief advertisements that raised their local profiles. In an era when local NBC and CBS affiliates as well as independent stations could elect to carry individual ABC programs, these affiliate advertisements were critical to the commercial success of American Bandstand and the network. Since Clark and ABC’s network executives worked on a market-by-market basis to increase the number of affiliates carrying the show, these station announcements also offered a warning to stations that considered dropping the show. On the December 17, 1957 show, for example, Clark read a letter from Aida, Oklahoma that relayed news that the local affiliate (KTEN) threatened to replace American Bandstand with a locally produced dance program. Teenagers in Aida, the letter continued, protested by writing to the station to demand that KTEN keep American Bandstand on the air. The protests proved successful, and Clark thanked the teenagers for their efforts. Using less than a minute of broadcast time, Clark provided viewers across the country with a tutorial on how to compel affiliates to continue broadcasting the program. Moreover, these station announcements identified teenagers in different parts of the country as television consumers linked to both a specific market and the national market.

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