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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author
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History of Segregation on American Bandstand

Like other young people across the country, black teenagers identified with different aspects of American Bandstand. Joan Cannady, who was the first black student to attend Germantown Friends High School in the northeast section of Philadelphia, remembers watching the program to hear black music that was not played at parties with her white classmates. Cannady recalled that the teens featured on American Bandstand did not resemble her white peers at Germantown Friends or the teens she knew through the black middle-class social group, Jack and Jill: “I saw American Bandstand as an Italian or Catholic school thing, and therefore of interest, but not really who we were.”[i] Iona Stroman and her friends in South Philadelphia watched American Bandstand almost every day and were especially excited to see their favorite local teenage singers perform on the show.[ii] When one such group, Weldon McDougal’s Philadelphia Larks, performed on American Bandstand, he remembers that his neighbors gathered to watch the performance:
There weren’t many families that owned televisions, but the guy who lived directly next door to me did have a television. And he would let us sit on the porch and he would open the window so we could look in and see it. And when I was on television on American Bandstand, he went next door and got my mother and the other neighborhood kids so they could see it.[iii]
Outside of Philadelphia, Julian Bond remembered watching American Bandstand after growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. Bond, who went on to become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) communications director and the chairman of the NAACP, writes that before being inspired by the civil rights work of black students, “My role models—although we did not call them that then—were white teenagers, mostly Italian American youngsters who danced five afternoons a week on ABC’s American Bandstand. I was a rural, small-town kid…these youngsters were big-city sophisticates to me, and I aped their clothes and style.”[iv] In addition to these individual black teenagers, black newspapers in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and Philadelphia noted when black artists appeared on American Bandstand.[v] While black viewers saw many of the top black recording artists on American Bandstand, they almost never saw any black teenagers among the show’s dancers or studio audience.

As noted earlier, while several black teenagers attended Bandstand in the show’s first two years as a local program (1952-53), the program soon adopted admission policies that, while not explicitly whites only, had the effect of discriminating against black teenagers.[vi] Among the black teenagers who protested this discrimination, Walter Palmer engineered a plan to get membership cards for black teens by giving the applications Irish, Polish, and Italian last names, and teens from William Penn high school in North Philadelphia wrote to the Commission on Human Relations asking the city’s discrimination watchdog group to investigate Bandstand’s segregation.[vii] None of these efforts changed the show’s admission policies, and, by the time Clark took over the show in 1956, it was primarily a space for white teenagers. Shortly after Clark became the host of the show, the Philadelphia Tribune ran its first front-page story on Bandstand. Citing a “flood” of “complaints of racial segregation” by black teenagers who sought admission to the show, the front page story declared “No Negroes on Bandstand Show, TV Boss Says They’re Welcome.”[viii] In response to the Tribune reporter’s questions, James Felix, a WFIL program manger, insisted that the show admitted teens on a “first-come, first-served basis.” Felix also said he suspected that few black teens “showed up at the station because they didn’t ‘feel welcome.’ But…that does not mean that we (the station) do not want them to participate on bandstand.”[ix]

The following year, a group of black teens from South Philadelphia tested the contention that American Bandstand held a color-blind admission policy. Young community activist Vivian Brooker organized the test in early October 1957. Brooker later recalled that the Little Rock school integration crisis, and rise of racial tensions in Philadelphia that followed Little Rock, started the planning that led to the protest of American Bandstand. Brooker and her peers were among the many Americans who examined what political theorist Danielle Allen calls local “habits of citizenship” in the wake of Little Rock.[x] The teens who participated in the test were part of a fan club who wanted to see South Philadelphia teen singer Bobby Brookes perform on American Bandstand. They wrote to the show a week in advance to request tickets and, after receiving no reply, arrived at the show early to wait in line. They continued to wait as the studio door guard admitted white teenagers and they pleaded with the guard for over an hour to allow them into the studio. The guard finally admitted the teenagers after a reporter from the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s largest black newspaper, asked to speak with the station manager. Iona Stroman, who was one of the teens who challenged the show’s segregation that day, remembered that while the door guard used racial slurs, “once we got in things were fine. We grew up around a lot of those [white] kids, so there wasn’t any tension there.” Asked about what motivated their test of American Bandstand’s segregation, Stroman recalled: “It wasn’t like we set out to change history or anything. We just thought that this is unfair. It’s right here in Philadelphia, and we can’t even go to it.”[xi] Despite their efforts, the barrier that Vivian Brooker, Iona Stroman, and the other teenagers cracked in October 1957 remained in place. Without an explicit policy of segregation to protest, the teens and the city’s civil rights advocates lacked the leverage to overturn American Bandstand’s discriminatory policies. Although they were not able to change the show’s policies, these black teens used a national civil rights story as motivation to challenge discrimination in their own city.

In addition to these teenagers, several contemporary press accounts outside of Philadelphia questioned the policy of racial segregation at American Bandstand. In September 1958, the New York Post ran a series of articles about the program and quoted an anonymous veteran of the show who claimed that it was WFIL-TV’s “practice [to admit] only eight or nine” black teenagers per day, “and not to focus the camera on them.” When asked about the lack of representation of black teenagers, Ted Fetter, an ABC executive, said the network’s decision was influenced by the controversy that erupted over deejay Alan Freed’s television program showing black teenage R&B singer Frankie Lymon dancing with a white teenage girl a year earlier.[xii] Clark refused to comment about the camera shots of the studio audience, but held that the show’s “doors are open to anyone who wants to attend.”[xiii] In the midst of the payola scandal in 1959, the black newspaper New York Age also raised the question of segregation on American Bandstand. “[W]e are concerned about another matter which has never seemed to bother many people,” the article offered. “This is the question of Negro participation on the various TV bandstand programs.” After praising the “quiet, but effective” efforts of Alan Freed to address racial prejudice in the music business and to welcome black teenagers in his concert audiences, the article asked, “Have you ever seen Negro kids on Dick Clark’s program? Perhaps, a few times, but the unspoken rule operates—Negro kids simply have been quietly barred from the ‘American Bandstand.’”[xiv] Los Angeles musician, deejay, and antiracism activist Johnny Otis penned one of the strongest critiques of Bandstand’s racial policies in his Los Angeles Sentinel column. “There’s something about Dick Clark that I consider more objectionable than all of [the payola charges] put together,” Otis wrote. “I’m talking about the obvious and apparently deliberate discrimination against Negro people on his programs. I’ve never seen a colored face in his studio audience and Negro youngsters are rejected as dancers on stage.” Otis quoted a report from an American Bandstand staff member who said: “‘We are instructed to screen all applicants to the show by their last names…we select people whose last names sound Italian, Jewish, or foreign…less chance of picking Negroes that way.’” Masco Young, a Philadelphia Tribune columnist, noted Otis’s critique of Clark for “emceeing one of the most famous jim crowed shows on TV.”[xv]

Several of the white teenagers who danced on American Bandstand in the late 1950s support the contention that participation of black teenagers did not increase substantially after Clark took over the program. Arlene Sullivan, a regular on the show from 1957 to 1959, remembered that black teens “had their own show [The Mitch Thomas Show],” and that while “nobody ever kept anybody out,” only a few black teens ever came to the show.[xvi] When asked about the racial or ethnic composition of the audience, Joe Fusco, who attended South Philadelphia High School and danced on the show every day from 1957 through 1959, was more suspicious:
It was very, very white, that’s what it was. At that time, I would watch people who were black, or not white, Puerto Rican, I don’t care what they were, they wouldn’t let them in….To this day, Dick Clark takes credit for the few times black kids got in there, but he never wanted them in there. And that was very disgusting to me. I had no control over something like that. That was about the most disgusting thing, to see that is very heartbreaking, as a kid and knowing what they’re actually doing and doing it in a sneaky way. Because no matter how long those kids waited in that line, somehow someway they didn’t get in, because I used to look to see if they got in later. And in my time going to that show, I only saw two black kids that got in and sat in the bleachers, and he [Dick Clark] paid no attention to them.…Not many [black teens] even tried to get in there. That I really want to stress. You’d never see that many try to get in there, but when you did, and you knew that they were not going to get in, it bothered you.[xvii]
Ray Smith, who was not a regular, but who attended the show enough that classmates at West Philadelphia’s Bartram High School called him “Mr. Bandstand,” remembered that the threat of violence also limited the number of black teens who attended the show. “I don’t remember one” black teenager who regularly attended the show, Smith recalled.
It may have been an integrated show but black kids didn’t go…I also think that when blacks came to the show they were very often beat up afterwards. I only saw it once, and that could have been the only time it ever happened, but knowing the mindset of a lot of those [white] kids, I don’t think that was the only time.…But from the years between, I started in 1956 and left in ‘59, I don’t think I ever saw black kids there. I saw them in line one day, and that’s where I saw kids beat up in the parking lot.[xviii]
In addition to these recollections, black teens continued to report to the Philadelphia Tribune that American Bandstand’s staff was turning them away from the studio. The circumstances of these complaints in 1959 and 1961 resembled earlier cases. The show’s producers denied that they had a white-only policy, but the black teenagers who tried to get into the studio were always excluded for some reason. Some were told that they lacked a membership card, others that they did not meet the dress code, and others that the studio was full.[xix] Between 1958 and 1963, the Philadelphia Tribune also published seven editorials or letters to the editor regarding American Bandstand’s exclusion of black teens. A December 1958 column sent Christmas greetings to “Dick Clark of Bandstand,” wishing him a “new attitude toward Negro children which will permit them to be welcomed to his show.” A 1960 letter to the editor conveyed similar feelings: “I am a songwriter and a school teacher and I can’t understand why our youngsters don’t appear on American Bandstand. American Bandstand is a Nation wide program coming from a northern state, but it is segregated.” Finally, in 1963, American Bandstand’s last year in Philadelphia, a letter writer suggested that black deejay Jocko Henderson “approach one of the local TV stations about starting a Negro bandstand-type program” to challenge the “white teenagers who dance on Dick Clark’s show.”[xx] Henry Gordon, who grew up in the Cobbs Creek Section of West Philadelphia and attended West Philadelphia High School in 1963 and 1964 agreed that black teens remained unwelcome on American Bandstand: “It was all white. It didn’t bother us, we just know our, I don’t want to say knew our place, but that’s what it basically boils down to.”[xxi]

In theory, the issue of American Bandstand's segregation should be an empirical questions: How many black teenagers made it into the show's studio between 1957 and 1964?  The question, unfortunately, is not this simple. Establishing definitive evidence of American Bandstand’s studio audience in these years is difficult because dick clark productions, inc. holds almost all of the existing video footage of the program. In June 2010, however, the company launched an online licensing portal, the “dick clark media archives.” The Web site includes more than 130 short clips of American Bandstand from 1957 to 1963, all of which feature white teenagers.[xxii] Additionally, the archive at the Paley Center for Media in New York has two full episodes of American Bandstand from 1957 and three anniversary specials, and neither the episodes nor the clips from the anniversary specials show any black teenagers.[xxiii] Similarly, all publicly available visual evidence of American Bandstand’s audience in these years supports the view that the audience was not regularly integrated. Several hundred photos from the show in the late-1950s and early 1960s are available in American Bandstand souvenir yearbooks (1957-59); ‘Teen magazines (1957-1963); Clark’s autobiography Rock, Roll, and Remember (1976), Clark’s two coauthored histories of the show, The History of American Bandstand (1985) and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (1997); and in the Dick Clark’s American Bandstand 50th Anniversary booklet (2007). Among the images of thousands of teens in the studio, only two pictures include any black teenagers, a pair of girls seated in the bleachers in each photo.[xxiv] All of the evidence, including contemporary press accounts, the recollections of regulars on the show and those excluded from the show, and all available pictures and video material, suggest that American Bandstand remained a space for white teenagers until it moved to Los Angeles in 1964.

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