Sign in or register
for additional privileges

The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

“Observers Note a Lack of Negro Participation”

Over the course of Bandstand’s local production history (September 1952 to July 1957), teens who visited the studio or watched the show experienced it first briefly as an integrated space and later, after changes to the admission policy, as a segregated space. When it started in 1952, Bandstand admitted teenagers on a first-come first-served basis. Weldon McDougal, who attended West Philadelphia High School, remembered that although Bandstand did not yet play the R&B music he liked, he had no trouble getting into the show in 1952 and 1953:
West Philly [High School was] so close to Bandstand. Bandstand used to start at 2:45. West Philadelphia at the time, we used to get out at 2:15. When Bob Horn was there, I’d rush over there and it was first-come first-served. So I’d go in there and dance, until they started playing all of this corny music. Then there weren’t many black guys who would go over there. I was considered corny going over there. I was just seeing what was happening. It wasn’t like I wanted to be on television, because I didn’t care after awhile.[i]
As the show’s popularity increased, however, Bandstand adopted admission policies that, while not explicitly whites-only, had the effect of discriminating against black teenagers. In 1954, Bandstand selected a group of twelve white teenagers to serve as the show’s “committee.” Committee members enforced the show’s dress code (a jacket or a sweater and tie for boys, and dresses or skirts for girls) and were tasked with maintaining order among the other teens on the show.[ii] In the Bandstand pecking order, the committee members were followed by studio regulars and by periodic visitors to the show. The committee members exercised considerable sway over who would be admitted on a regular basis, and, by 1954, Bandstand required everyone but the committee members and the regulars to send a letter to WFIL in advance to request admission to the show on a specific day.[iii] In practice, this admissions policy resembled the discriminatory membership policy of the skating rinks outlined earlier. Teens who gained admission to Bandstand after 1953 did so in one of two ways. Some teens were in the same social peer group as the show’s committee and regulars, who by 1953 came mostly from Italian neighborhoods in South Philadelphia or West Catholic High School (which was predominantly Irish and Italian). Other teenagers had to plan their visits weeks or months in advance and request tickets. This became a common practice for teens who lived in Allentown, Reading, and other cities and towns outside of Philadelphia. These teens became familiar with the show from television and from the record hops in the areas around Philadelphia that Bob Horn hosted with the Bandstand regulars. These areas included growing suburban counties with small black populations, such as Delaware County (7 percent black population in 1950), Montgomery County (4 percent), and Bucks County (less than 2 percent).[iv] Given that the outlying areas had fewer black residents, the teens who traveled to visit the show were predominately white. For black teens who lived only a few blocks from the studio, the advance notice aspect of the admission policy further marginalized them from the show. As a result of these admissions policies, Bandstand’s audience became almost all-white by the end of 1954.

The admission policies appealed to the producers’ commercial goals for the program. By encouraging teenagers from outside the city to attend the show, Bandstand further established its popularity with “WFIL–adelphia.” Inviting teens from this regional area to watch the show, request tickets, and write fan letters strengthened Bandstand’s ability to persuade advertisers to sponsor the show. Here again, Bandstand’s producers marketed the program to the largest possible regional audience, appealing to those teens in the four-state broadcast area rather than the local teenagers in Bandstand’s West Philadelphia neighborhood.

Bandstand’s producers also adopted the new admissions policies to minimize the potential for racial tension among teenagers outside the studio. Yet while the producers hoped that distributing admissions passes in advance would make it easier to control the crowd of teenagers, the policy had the opposite effect. It provided black teenagers with an opening to protest their exclusion from the show. West Philadelphia teen Walter Palmer, for example, organized other black teenagers to test the show’s admissions policies. “Bandstand was segregated,” Palmer recalled. “There were white kids from all of the Catholic schools, but no black kids. West Catholic was on 46th, and they were always there; our school [West Philadelphia High School] was on 47th [and we could not go].” After graduating from West Philadelphia High School, Palmer remembered that “I engineered a plan to get membership applications, and gave them Irish, Polish, and Italian last names. They mailed the forms back to our homes and once we had the cards we were able to get in that day.” Palmer’s plan successfully undermined Bandstand’s admission policies, but that day, and other times when black teens attempted to gain admission to the studio, they frequently dealt with violence from white teens. While Palmer recalls that he and his peers from the “black bottom” held their own in these fights, he remembered there were “all-out race riots outside the studio.”[v] In their attempts to challenge Bandstand’s racially discriminatory admissions policies, black teens faced verbal and physical harassment that further marked Bandstand as a site restricted to white teenagers.

Concerned that racial tensions would threaten Bandstand’s image as a safe place for teenagers and scare off advertisers, WFIL sought help from the Commission on Human Relations (CHR) to calm the tensions among teenagers waiting in line. A May 1954 CHR case update, titled “WFIL-TV v. Negro and White Teen Agers,” states: “Plans for admittance for teen agers as guests of the Band Stand program have been ineffective and conflicts have arisen principally on the part of those teen agers who could not gain admittance.”[vi] In other words, Bandstand implemented a racially discriminatory policy, and then asked the city’s antidiscrimination agency to address the resulting protests. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that Horn assured the CHR that “the only preference shown was the case of special out-of-town groups visiting the studio” and that teens “who adhered to the policy of proper dress and conduct were readily admitted, without regard to the race.”[vii] Nominally non-discriminatory, this policy gave Bandstand the flexibility to exclude black teenagers. Concerns about the potential for race riots among teens strengthened the producers’ policy of admitting only committee members, regulars, and those who requested cards of admission rather than admitting teens on a first-come first-served basis. A second CHR report on intergroup tensions in recreation facilities in March 1955 makes clear the outcome of this policy:
Police reported that disorderly behavior of teenagers at Bob Horn’s Bandstand program, where the audience participate in the show by social dancing, had resulted in the absence of Negroes from attendance. The management denied having a discriminatory policy, and CHR had little upon which to base a case of discrimination. Observers note a lack of Negro participation.
The report went on to state that young women from the mostly black William Penn High School in North Philadelphia had raised “the question of elimination of Negro youth” from Bandstand, and that the CHR saw a need for “broad planning to effect integration of this activity for high school youth.” [viii] There is no evidence that the CHR ever undertook such efforts to integrate Bandstand, and available pictures of the show from 1955 and after reveal that the show remained segregated.

Interestingly, Bandstand’s inclusion of black R&B music increased at the same time that the show limited the admission of black teenagers. The R&B breakthrough on Bandstand came in the summer of 1954 with “Sh-Boom” by The Chords, a black vocal harmony group from New York. Following the common practice of radio stations at the time, Horn initially played a copy of the song by the Crew Cuts, a white group that often covered black R&B songs. The show’s regulars complained that the Crew Cuts’ song was not the real version and persuaded Horn to test the Chords’ version on the show’s rate-a-record segment. After the Chords’ record received a high rating, Horn agreed to play the original.[ix] The introduction of R&B and rock and roll progressed slowly on Bandstand, and R&B artists like the Chords and the Red Tops, continued to share airplay with white crooners like Tony Bennett and Vic Damone. By late-1955 and 1956 though, Horn’s playlist influenced, and was influenced by, the rise in prominence of R&B and rock and roll, and included not only white singers like Bill Haley and His Comets and Elvis Presley, but also black performers like Little Richard and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

Still, by 1955 teenagers had local knowledge that Bandstand was primarily a space for white teenagers. Lee Andrews, Weldon McDougal’s friend who attended West Philadelphia’s Bartram High School with his vocal group the Hearts and also lived in one of West Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods, told historian John Jackson in a 1993 interview that there was “‘always some reason black kids couldn’t get into’ the WFIL studio. It may have been because they did not have a membership card, or perhaps they did not meet the dress code, but for whatever reason, ‘everybody began to understand [that] this is a show for white people.’”[x] Similarly, when asked if the show was integrated, Jerry Blavat, a South Philadelphia native who was one of the show’s best dancers and became the leader of the show’s committee of regulars from 1954 to 1956, recalled: “Well, there was no integration back then. And I guess sponsor-wise…you have to understand it was white television back then in the 1950s, because dollar-wise, advertisers were not beaming into the black community.”[xi] Reporting on the drunk driving arrest that cost Horn his job, the Philadelphia Tribune also noted the show’s segregation: “The news of Horn’s arrest came as a distinct shock, both to the hundreds of white parents whose children have appeared on the show and to countless Negro parents, who have sought in vain to have Horn consider their children on his televised ‘Bandstand.’”[xii] For Philadelphia teenagers, then, Bandstand as both a local dance space and as a regional television show became a site for white youth, and television viewers across “WFIL-adelphia” saw evidence of Bandstand’s segregation on a daily basis.

Go to notes for this section
Comment on this page

Discussion of "“Observers Note a Lack of Negro Participation”"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...

Previous page on path Bandstand's Local Years: 1952-1957, page 6 of 6 Path end, continue