True Bandstand fans realize that Dick Clark did not start the show. They know that it was Bob Horn that got things rolling, nearly five years before it became a national sensation. But how many fans know that it was George Skinner who staked an early claim on the Philadelphia teen video music scene?
While some might characterize Skinner's Philadelphia experience as an opportunity missed, George went on to have a pretty good career despite his apparent Philadelphia mis-step.
I have been unable to learn much about Skinner overall, but his pioneering role in Philadelphia television broadcasting history has been amptly documented.
It is believed that Skinner was a Portland, Oregon, native who arrived at Philadelphia's WPTZ around 1948. Skinner assumed a number of duties in his early TV career and earned a reputation as a "one-man cartel." His on-camera skills included an easy manner that soon propelled him into the hosting role of an eclectic music program called Whirligig.
Whirligig was built around a mix of records and live singers before an audience of teenagers, but with an unusual twist. A "combination electronic and optical device" projected geometric patterns of light on the screen "in sync with the music." For this, Skinner was given the honorary title of Philadelphia's first video disc jockey and Whirligig lasted some 2 1/2 years.
Television was in its infancy in 1950 and stations around the country were wrestling with ways of presenting popular music in a visually interesting way. This challenge was chronicled in a special report in Billboard magazine on October 7, 1950. George Skinner was the first video disc jockey to be quoted in the report.
Skinner acknowledged that "spinners" will be "laboring through the adolescent stages" as they grapple with the problem, but hinted at the future when he said, "The TV jockey must accept the premise that his viewers will not sit in front of their sets with both feet glued to the floor."
Fearing the worst, though, Skinner also predicted that "records will be accompanied by elaborate and meaningless dances, endless complicated art work and horrible pictures of local talent or the recording artists themselves trying to lip-sync their singing."
The Billboard article cited 40 people from TV stations across the country to assess what was working. What they found was that virtually every gimmick of the past was being tried - from vaudeville acts to quizzes to interviews, even to boa constrictors - but not one person mentioned dancing.
The respondents included such luminaries as Martin Block and Peter Potter. It also included a then-little-known Philadelphian, Ed McMahon, who held late-night court at WCAU-TV with his Off the Record Show.
Another interviewee was an up-and-comer at WXEL in Cleveland, Alan Freed, who offered some hope when he said, "There is a great future for the disc jockey in television if the guy can get out from under all the soft years and create."
That guy wasn't George Skinner. Within three years he had turned in his "Video Disc Jockey" badge and was now known as a "conversationalist." On October 30, 1953, he provided the narration for the first color program to be originated by a Philadelphia TV station at WPTZ. Within two years after that, he found himself in New York City, first at WCBS radio then at WNBC. He became an expert on programming and published a popular pamphlet titled The Nuts and Bolts of Radio.
Skinner and WPTZ may have missed the boat, but they may well have set the course for what was to come.
Do you have any stories about Bandstand, Dick Clark or growing up in the Philadelphia area during the show's run at WFIL-TV? Please share them in the comments section or e-mail them to me.