Dick Clark was smooth when in front of a camera. Real smooth. And American Bandstand, while not the slickest production in show business, was a smartly produced national hit during its Philadelphia run. Teenagers of that era thought it was just about the coolest program to ever hit the air.
But, when Dick Clark arrived in Philadelphia in 1952, the show that was to become American Bandstand five years later hadn't taken to the air yet and his TV employer, WFIL, was mired in third place in a three-station market. Technology was crude by modern standards, but creativity was high as all three stations vied for the sparse (but growing) audience that often found just receiving a viewable signal to be a major undertaking.
WFIL-TV had begun operations in downtown Philadelphia, from the station's mail room on the 18th floor of the Widener Building. They soon moved down to the 11th floor where the 5,000-watt lights created heat and light so intense that announcers were either blinded or soaked from sweat in the 120-degree heat. Wide shots were only possible when cameras were dollied into the hall, creating complaints from the dentist whose office was on the same floor.
Early programming included cooking shows, The Philadelphia Catholic Hour, Phil and the Three Cheers and Ramar of the Jungle. Happy the clown and Chanin the magician were precursers of popular kids programs hosted by Sally Starr and Chief Halftown. The popular Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club was mercifully broadcast from the less-cramped Armory at Broad and Calla Hill streets.
Although topping WFIL-TV in the ratings, WCAU-TV was pretty much the same sort of bare-bones operation. Popular kids show star Willie the Worm was crafted out of ventilating hose from an auto parts store and the live western, Action in the Afternoon, was broadcast from a parking lot where an occasional airplane or automobile would miraculously appear in the background. When fame architect Frank Lloyd Wright dropped in for a guest appearance, he remarked that the architect who designed the place "must have had very good kidneys because the restrooms were 7,000 miles from the studio."
This was the Wild West of early television that Dick Clark entered as a 22-year-old in 1952. Roger Clipp, general manager of WFIL radio and television at the time, saw potential in the young man he had just hired.
“The minute he walked in...I thought to myself we certainly can use this young man," Clipp said on This Is Your Life on June 24, 1959. "He was well- dressed, clean-cut, polite, a guy knowing where he was going. He gave me the feeling that you could count on him to do a job right."
Time proved Clipp to be correct.
Author Larry Lehmer is putting the finishing touches on 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.