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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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The Emergence of Dick Clark and American Bandstand

As Georgie Woods and Mitch Thomas helped popularize rock and roll, Dick Clark broke into radio broadcasting in Philadelphia. Clark was born in the upper-middle-class town of Bronxville, New York, in 1929 and graduated from Syracuse University with a major in advertising and a minor in radio broadcasting. After graduation, Clark worked as a radio announcer in Utica, New York, for one year before landing an interview with Philadelphia’s WFIL with the help of family connections.[i] Clark started at WFIL in 1952 and hosted the radio version of Bandstand from 1954 to 1956. Bob Horn hosted the successful locally televised version of Bandstand during these years. Horn’s tenure at Bandstand ended abruptly in June 1956 when police arrested him for drunk driving during the city’s monthlong campaign against DWIs. Rumors also linked Horn to a vice ring that lured teenage girls to participate in pornographic photo sessions. Fearing the possibility of a scandal, WFIL fired Horn for causing an “embarrassment to the station.”[ii]

Producer Tony Mammarella replaced Horn on a temporary basis, but WFIL’s general manager favored Clark as the new host. The twenty-six-year-old Clark debuted on Bandstand on July 9, 1956. In the wake of the allegations against Horn, WFIL emphasized Clark’s “all-American boy” image.

WFIL’s managers also hoped that Clark’s wholesome persona would keep Bandstand from being tainted by the anti-rock and roll protests that took place across the country in 1955 and 1956. Much of this anti-rock and roll sentiment was fueled by overt racism and fears of miscegenation. Asa Carter, leader of the white supremacist North Alabama Citizens Council, garnered attention from national news media for his campaign to ban rock and roll, which he described as an NAACP plot to “mongrelize America.” Members of Carter’s North Alabama Citizens Council jumped on stage and attacked Nat King Cole at a concert in Birmingham in 1956 and also picketed a concert featuring the Platters, LaVern Baker, Bo Diddley, and Bill Haley, with signs reading, “NAACP says integration, rock & roll, rock & roll,” “Jungle Music promotes integration,” and “Jungle music aids delinquency.” While Carter and his white citizens' council received the most attention, segregationists across the South picketed rock and roll concerts, and city officials in Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia passed regulations prohibiting interracial concerts and dances. In the West, a white supremacist group in Inglewood, California published fliers with pictures of young black men and white women dancing, with captions reading, “Boy meets girl…‘be-bop style,’ and “Total Mongrelization.” As the rock and roll controversy escalated, city councils ranging from Jersey City to Santa Cruz and San Antonio banned rock and roll performances, and radio stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, Lubbock, and Cincinnati refused to play rock and roll. These protests received national coverage in magazines like Time, Newsweek, Life, and Look, as well as major newspapers like the New York Times. While many of these articles expressed bemusement that a musical fad would generate so much attention, all of the articles conceded that the rhetoric against rock and roll was widespread.[iii]

In addition to fears about racial mixing, rock and roll also faced criticism stemming from the moral panic surrounding juvenile delinquency in the mid-1950s. Juvenile delinquency garnered attention from both Washington and Hollywood in the postwar era and became a front-page issue in communities around the country. A wide range of critics argued that mass media, especially comic books, Hollywood films, television crime shows, and rock and roll music, incited young people to violence and illegal behavior. These disparate critiques from social reformers, psychologists, religious leaders, and politicians coalesced into a national issue when the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency held widely publicized hearings from 1954 to 1956. The Senate hearings led to no direct action but they amplified the public furor over youth behavior and encouraged the public to fix blame on the media. Hollywood profited from and further escalated the moral panic surrounding juvenile delinquency with films like Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), the latter of which featured Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock around the Clock” over the opening credits. Although these were “social problem” films aimed primarily at adult audiences, Hollywood producers took note of the teenager moviegoers who embraced stories of rebellious youth, and produced a slew of rock and roll themed films, such as Rock around the Clock (1956), Shake, Rattle, and Rock! (1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956), and Don’t Knock the Rock (1957). Incidents of minor violence at screenings of these films contributed to the public discourse that linked rock and roll with juvenile delinquency.[iv]

When Dick Clark took over Bandstand in the summer of 1956, then, rock and roll faced widespread and well-organized opposition. Clark defended the music because he saw that the future of Bandstand, and his own career trajectory, could be jeopardized by the criticism against rock and roll. He was not, however, a dedicated rock and roll fan when he took over the show. In his 1976 autobiography, Clark admitted: “I really didn’t understand the music Horn played on ‘Bandstand.’ When I took over…I don’t think I knew more than one or two tunes on the music list that afternoon.” [v] Producer Tony Mammarella selected most of the music in Clark’s first month on the Bandstand.[vi] What Clark lacked in musical knowledge, however, he made up for with a desire to succeed financially. “I listened to the kids and let them tell me what they liked,” he remembered. “I knew that if I could tune into them and keep myself on the show I could make a great deal of money.”[vii] In addition to the show’s teens and Mammarella, Clark sought a musical education from Georgie Woods and two other deejays at the city’s two black-oriented radio stations, Hy Lit and Jocko Henderson. Clark recalled that Georgie Woods “was my line to the black music market. Many records played on ‘Bandstand’ came on first as hits that were brewing on WDAS.”[viii] While he immersed himself in a crash course on rock and roll, Clark also developed relationships with established and up-and-coming record labels, disc jockeys, distributors, promoters, managers, and singers in Philadelphia and across the country.[ix] As the radio and recording industries grew more decentralized in the mid-1950s, Clark’s connections strengthened Bandstand’s status as a vital center in the music industry.

At the same time he established himself in the music business, Clark and WFIL’s executives negotiated with ABC to pick up Bandstand as a national program. In 1957, ABC was the country’s third major network, with fewer local network affiliates than NBC or CBS. In an effort to compete with the larger networks, whose programs mostly appealed to older audiences, ABC executives opted to develop programs targeted at younger viewers.[x] As historian Christopher Anderson has argued, ABC’s “counter-programming” against the larger networks started in 1954 when the network partnered with independent producer Walt Disney to develop the Disneyland series. Disneyland, which featured Disney films, behind-the-scene footage from the Disney studio, and virtual tours of the new Disneyland amusement park, fit ABC’s desire to encourage “habitual viewing” of weekly shows rather than the expensive spectaculars offered by the other networks. As Anderson notes, “ABC’s programming strategy was built on the belief that television’s fundamental appeal was less its ability to deliver exotic events, than its promise of a familiar cultural experience.”[xi] In a 1957 interview with Television magazine, ABC executive Leonard Goldenson outlined this counter-programming strategy. “Whatever audience is not watching at any given time makes for new possibilities,” he noted. “We are not trying to take away audiences from CBS and NBC…We are trying to carve our own network audience, to create new audiences.”[xii] This corporate strategy made Bandstand and its loyal audience of teen viewers, both of which came with low production costs, an attractive addition for ABC.

To sell Bandstand to ABC, WFIL executives sent a kinescope of the show to the network, and Clark met with ABC executives in New York. The WFIL team outlined Bandstand’s sales pitch most clearly in “The Official Bandstand Yearbook 1957.” The yearbook was ostensibly a memento for the show’s fans, but WFIL also distributed it to potential sponsors. On the yearbook’s final page Clark delineated, for both sponsors and ABC, the reasons why Bandstand provided a sound commercial investment. “For nearly five years now, BANDSTAND has come to you each weekday afternoon over WFIL-TV,” he wrote. Clark continued:

For the hundreds of youngsters who come to the studios each day, and the millions of "youngsters" of all ages who watch television, we hope BANDSTAND continues to be an entertaining and enjoyable experience.

Our effort is dedicated to bringing young men and women together in a friendly atmosphere, and to provide wholesome entertainment for a few hours each afternoon.

Because everyone who watches BANDSTAND is a part of the show, I know you will be as happy as I am to learn how successful the program is. It is, for example, the most-viewed program in Philadelphia daytime television; it has been copied by scores of stations across the country; it has a larger audience at its time period than all the stations combined in Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, or Seattle.[xiii]
Set next to a headshot of a young, neatly groomed Clark in a jacket and tie, this summary presented Bandstand as having successfully tapped into the lucrative teenage market without being pulled into the controversies that surrounded rock and roll. Clark and WFIL pitched the show in relation to a specific demographic (teenagers) and a specific day part (afternoon), both of which resonated with ABC’s niche market strategy. All of this appealed to ABC, as did WFIL’s promise to deliver the program for no charge other than the expense of transmitting Bandstand from Philadelphia to the network feed.[xiv] After this extensive lobbying by Clark and WFIL executives, ABC decided to give the show a trial national broadcast run, under the name American Bandstand.

American Bandstand debuted nationally on August 5, 1957, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. across forty-eight of ABC’s affiliate stations (viewers in Philadelphia received an extra sixty minutes of Bandstand, as the program continued to broadcast locally from 2:30 to 3 and from 4:30 to 5:00 p.m.). The show maintained several of the basic production elements established during the Bob Horn era. Dick Clark introduced records, and the camera followed teenagers as they selected partners to dance. Two or three times during the show, Clark would introduce singers or groups who would lip-sync their latest hits. The production was so familiar that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s review of the national debut noted that American Bandstand was “pretty much the same dance-disc-and-din mixture as before.”[xv] National press reviews were less generous. Billboard magazine praised Clark, but complained that “the bulk of the 90 minutes was devoted to colorless juveniles trudging thru early American dances like the Lindy and the box step to recorded tunes of the day.” The premiere succeeded as a “sociological study of teenager behavior,” the article continued, but failed as “entertainment.”[xvi] The New York Times reviewer, J.P. Shanley, shared this dim view of the show’s entertainment value. “Viewers who are much beyond voting age are not likely to derive much pleasure from ‘American Bandstand’…Those who have been voting for quite a few years may, in fact, find [the program] to be something of an ordeal,” Shanley commented. Shanley, who also praised Clark, took note of the show’s dress code: “The girls wore pretty gowns and the boys were dressed conservatively. There were no motorcycle jackets and hardly a sideburn in the crowd.” American Bandstand, Shanley concluded, was “almost identical” to a locally broadcast televised dance program hosted in New York by disc jockey Ted Steele. [xvii] Similarly, Washington Post critic Lawrence Laurent compared American Bandstand to Milt Grant’s televised dance show for D.C. teens. Laurent bemoaned the number of television shows aimed at teenagers and hoped that the trend would pass.[xviii] George Pitts, the reviewer from the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, was equally dismissive. He compared the program to dance shows hosted by local deejays Clark Race and Chuck Brinkman, and summarized American Bandstand as, “The kids screamed and chomped gum. Dick Clark giggled and sold more gum.”[xix] As these reviews suggest, American Bandstand was not an immediate hit among adult critics, and the show’s music and dancing format was similar to that of locally broadcast television shows in other cities.

While American Bandstand failed to impress these critics, it received support from other important backers. TV Guide, which like WFIL-TV was owned by Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications, published favorable reviews of the show in September and October 1957. Among teen magazines, Seventeen (another Triangle Publications property), ‘Teen, and 16 Magazine quickly ran stories featuring Dick Clark and American Bandstand’s teenage regulars. The program also proved to be an immediate ratings success for ABC. Nielsen ratings showed that 20 million viewers watched American Bandstand during the first week, and new stations were signing up to carry the show. By September, the number of affiliates carrying the show had increased from forty-eight to sixty, and ABC added American Bandstand to its schedule on a permanent basis.[xx]

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