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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Mitch Thomas, Television Pioneer

If Georgie Woods became the most prominent rock and roll personality in Philadelphia and teenage singing groups and their fans provided the energy that fueled the music’s growth in the city’s neighborhoods, Mitch Thomas brought black rock and roll performers and teenage fans to television. Born in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1922, Thomas’s family moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the 1930s. Thomas graduated from Delaware State College and served in the army before becoming the first black disc jockey in Wilmington, Delaware in 1949. In 1952, Thomas moved to a larger station (WILM) that played music by black R&B artists. By early 1955, Thomas also had a radio show on Philadelphia’s WDAS, where he worked with Woods and Jocko Henderson. When a television opportunity opened up in Thomas’s home market of Wilmington, Thomas got the call over these better-known Philadelphia-based radio hosts.[xxiv]

The Mitch Thomas Show debuted on August 13, 1955, on WPFH, an unaffiliated television station that broadcast to Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley from Wilmington.[xxv] The show, which broadcast every Saturday, featured musical guests and teens dancing to records. In its basic production the show resembled Bandstand (which at the time was still a local program hosted by Bob Horn) and other locally broadcast teenage dance programs in other cities. The Mitch Thomas Show stood out from these other shows, however, because it was hosted by a black deejay and featured a studio audience of black teenagers. Otis Givens, who lived in South Philadelphia and attended Ben Franklin High School remembered that he watched the show every weekend for a year before he finally made the trip to Wilmington and danced on the show. “When I got back to Philly, and everyone had seen me on TV, I was big time,” Givens recalled. “We weren’t able to get into Bandstand, [but] The Mitch Thomas Show gave me a little fame. I was sort of a celebrity at local dances.”[xxvi] Similarly, South Philadelphia teen Donna Brown recalled in a 1995 interview: “I remember at the same time that Bandstand used to come on, there used to be a black dance thing that came on, and it was The Mitch Thomas Show…And that was something for the black kids to really identify with. Because you would look at Bandstand and we thought it was a joke.”[xxvii] The Mitch Thomas Show also became a frequent topic for the black teenagers who wrote the Philadelphia Tribune’s “Teen-Talk” columns. Much in the same way that national teen magazines followed American Bandstand, the Tribune’s teen writers kept tabs on the performers featured on Thomas’ show, and described the teenagers who formed fan clubs to support their favorite musical artists and deejays.[xxviii] The fan gossip shared in these columns documented the growth of a youth culture among the black teenagers whom Bandstand excluded. It was one of these fan clubs, moreover, that in 1957 made the most forceful challenge to Bandstand’s discriminatory admissions policies.[xxix] Although many of these teens watched both Bandstand and Thomas’s program, as Bandstand grew in popularity and expanded into a national program, The Mitch Thomas Show was the only television program that represented Philadelphia’s black rock and roll fans.

WPFH’s decision to provide airtime for this groundbreaking show was influenced more by economics than by a concern for racial equality. Eager to compete with Bandstand and the afternoon offerings on the other network-affiliated stations, WPFH hoped that Thomas’s show would appeal to both black and white youth in the same way as black-oriented radio.[xxx] The station’s bet on Thomas was part of a larger strategy that included hiring white disc jockeys Joe Grady and Ed Hurst to host a daily afternoon dance program that started at 5 p.m., after Bandstand concluded its daily broadcast.[xxxi] While The Grady and Hurst Show broadcast five times a week, it was the weekly Mitch Thomas Show that proved to be the more influential program.

Drawing on his Thomas'scontacts as a radio host and the talents of the teenagers who appeared on his show, the program helped shape the music tastes and dance styles of young people in Philadelphia. In a 1998 interview for the documentary Black Philadelphia Memories, Thomas recalled that “the show was so strong that I could play a record one time and break it wide open.”[xxxii] Indeed, Thomas’s show hosted some of the biggest names in rock and roll, including Ray Charles, Little Richard, the Moonglows, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Thomas’s show also featured several vocal harmony groups from the Philadelphia area.[xxxiii] Like Woods, Thomas promoted large stage shows in the Philadelphia area as well as small record hops at skating rinks.[xxxiv] In a 1986 interview with the Wilmington News Journal, Thomas remembered that these events were often racially integrated: “The whites that came, they just said, ‘Well I’m gonna see the artist and that’s it.’ I brought Ray Charles in there on a Sunday night, and it was just beautiful to look out there and see everything just nice.”[xxxv] The music and dance styles on his show also appealed to the white teenagers who danced on American Bandstand.[xxxvi] Because the show influenced American Bandstand during its first year as a national program, teenagers across the country learned dances popularized by The Mitch Thomas Show.

Despite its popularity among black and white teenagers, Thomas’s show remained on television for only three years, from 1955 to 1958. The failure of the station that broadcast The Mitch Thomas Show underscores the tenuous nature of unaffiliated local programs like Thomas’s. Storer Broadcasting Company purchased WPFH in 1956.[xxxvii] Storer frequently bought and sold stations and, at the time of the WPFH acquisition, Storer also owned stations in Toledo, Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami, and Portland, Oregon. Storer changed WPFH’s call letters to WVUE, and hoped to move the station’s facilities from Wilmington closer to Philadelphia. The plan faltered, and the station suffered significant operating losses over the next year.[xxxviii] Thomas’s show was among the first victims of the station’s financial problems. While advertisers started to pay more attention to black consumers in the 1950s, a product-identification stigma lingered throughout the decade, preventing many brands from sponsoring black programs.[xxxix] WVUE cancelled The Mitch Thomas Show in June 1958, citing the program’s lack of sponsorship and low ratings compared to the network shows in Thomas’ Saturday timeslot.[xl] Shortly after firing Thomas, Storer announced plans to sell WVUE in order to buy a station in Milwaukee (FCC regulations required multiple broadcast owners to divest from one license in order to buy another). Unable to find a buyer for WVUE, Storer turned the station license back to the government, and the station went dark in September 1958.[xli] The manager of WVUE later told broadcasting historian Gerry Wilkerson: “No one can make a profit with a TV station unless affiliated with NBC, CBS or ABC.”[xlii] As Clark and American Bandstand celebrated the one-year anniversary of the show’s national debut, local broadcast competition brought The Mitch Thomas Show’s groundbreaking three-year run to an unceremonious end. Mitch Thomas continued to work as a radio disc jockey through the 1960s, until he left broadcasting in 1969 to work as a counselor to gang members in Wilmington.[xliii]

Thomas’s short-lived television career resembled the experiences of African-American entertainers who hosted music and variety shows in this era. The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57) failed to attract national advertisers and lasted only a year. Before Nat King Cole, shows hosted by black singers Lorenzo Fuller (1947) and Billy Daniels (1952) and the variety program Sugar Hill Times (1949) also fared poorly. Among local programs, the Al Benson Show and Richard Stamz’s Open the Door Richard, both had brief periods of success in 1950s Chicago. Two other local dance programs featuring black teens proved more successful than The Mitch Thomas Show. Teenage Frolics, hosted by Raleigh, North Carolina deejay J.D. Lewis, aired on Saturdays from 1958 to 1983, and Washington D.C.’s Teenarama Dance Party, hosted by Bob King, aired from 1963 to 1970. Most famously, Soul Train started broadcasting locally from Chicago in 1970 before being picked up for national syndication from 1971 to 2006. Fifteen years before Soul Train, however, Mitch Thomas brought the creative talents of black teenagers to television.[xliv]

Georgie Woods viewed Thomas’s breakthrough television show as a first step in securing more black-oriented, black-produced, and black-owned media. As Woods grew in popularity through the 1950s, he became increasingly vocal about these goals. Starting with these critical appraisals of the media industry, Woods used his platform as a broadcaster to become a prominent civil rights activist in the early-1960s. Woods’ early work as Philadelphia’s “king of rock and roll” made this later work possible. As Woods’ radio show and concerts continued to attract larger audiences, rock and roll thrived in Philadelphia. Teenage vocal harmony groups and their fans kept the music going at the neighborhood level and Mitch Thomas highlighted the talents of these musical artists and teenage dancers every Saturday afternoon. On the eve of Bandstand’s national debut in 1957 the television show was part of the local development of rock and roll in Philadelphia, but the most influential performances took place outside of Bandstand’s television studio.

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