One of the biggest obstacles a writer faces when tackling a subject as well-known as American Bandstand is getting things right. A person might think that in the 63 years since Bob Horn's Bandstand first hit the air on WFIL-TV, there has been ample time for basic facts about the show to bubble up, be verified and accurately entered into the show's historical record.
Unfortunately, that's not how things work. It's kind of like having 10 witnesses to a bank robbery. Those 10 witnesses will have 10 unique stories. There will be similarities, but there will be just as many differences. Sorting it out can be quite a chore.
With American Bandstand, I want to offer just one simple example. For 40 years, Dick Clark controlled the conversation about American Bandstand. He wrote all the Bandstand books, gave all the Bandstand interviews and, for most of those years, he hosted the show. Over those 40 years, he consistently claimed that he integrated the show from the beginning of its network run. He wasn't any hero, he'd say, with great humility. It was just the right thing to do.
But it wasn't true. As John Jackson pointed out in his 1997 book, American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock 'n' Roll Empire, and Matthew F. Delmont expanded on in his 2012 book, The Nicest Kids In Town, American Bandstand systematically kept black teenagers off the show for its entire Philadelphia run.
Even with Jackson and Delmont's excellent work in correcting the historical record, the discredited Clark-propagated myth that he brought black kids into the WFIL-TV studios out of some lofty moral conviction persists today.
In 2009, former Bandstand regular Bunny Gibson was knocking on doors of houses around the old WFIL-TV studios when she stumbled on a black couple whose home allowed them to watch the parade of teens and singers in and out of the studio in Bandstand's glory days. Struck by the irony of a black couple literally on the outside looking in on a show they couldn't attend, Gibson alerted Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall, who wrote a nice piece about the couple.
Three weeks later, Lew Klein (who was executive producer of American Bandstand during its Philadelphia years) wrote a letter to the Inquirer stating that the assertion in John-Hall's article that African-Americans were not allowed to dance on the show was "absolutely not true." As evidence, he cited a passage from Clark's book, Rock, Roll & Remember, from 1976.
Three days after printing Klein's letter, the Inquirer ran a correction to John-Hall's column, saying she "erred in stating when African Americans were permitted to dance on camera [on American Bandstand]." The Inquirer further stated: "Dick Clark recruited black dancers when he took over as host in 1957."
It's disappointing that a Bandstand insider such as Klein would rush to Clark's defense, especially since it was Clark's own creative mythology that was "absolutely not true."According to the unpublished manuscript for a book, Bandstand off My Back, long-time Bandstand producer Tony Mammarella details the methods WFIL-TV officials used to enforce their "whites only" policy. Mammarella lists those station executives who endorsed the policy; Lew Klein is on that list.
As a former newspaperman, I find the Inquirer's rush to judgment especially troubling. Its eagerness to throw its own reporter under the bus on the basis of misinformation that basic fact-checking would have easily proven false is a betrayal of fundamental journalistic principles.
As I said at the start, getting things right can be a tough proposition. And, sometimes, being right is just not good enough.
Author Larry Lehmer is writing a book about the Philadelphia years of American Bandstand. The book is called Bandstandland. It has lots of details about the show you've never read before. If you have any stories about American Bandstand or Dick Clark that you'd like to share in the book, contact Larry.