For one thing, baseball was going bi-coastal as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants played out their final seasons on the East Coast before pulling up stakes and heading west. Scientists worldwide were wading into the first trimester of the heralded International Geophysical Year when the USSR shook things up on October 4 by launching an artificial moon known as Sputnik into space.
And, of course, American Bandstand was gaining a foothold in American teen culture with what Richard Aquila, author of That Old Time Rock and Roll, dubbed “the daily meeting of their (peer) group.”
What seemed so simple on TV was anything but for host Dick Clark, who was navigating uncharted waters in trying to corral a sizeable group of teens who were largely attracted to the music and dances that many of their parents found to be unmelodic at best and subversive at worst. That he was mostly successful is borne out by the longevity of the show, but there were challenges. Like the time an Oklahoma TV station tried to give Bandstand the boot.
Clark addressed the issue head-on on the American Bandstand of Dec. 17, 1957, when he read a letter on air:
“A note here from Jeanine Papano who lives in Oklahoma. She says a few weeks ago KTEN, our station, threatened to take off Bandstand and the response was so tremendous that KTEN was almost afraid to take station breaks. They tried to start a local wingy-do but that apparently did not succeed. I'm awful glad to hear that we're back with you."
That Clark successfully mobilized teens across the land to stand up to adult-run institutions like TV stations should not be surprising since he carefully crafted every phase of American Bandstand to be a positive reflection of teenage experience. He often pointed out that he avoided talking about controversial issues, like going steady. In Dick Clark's American Bandstand he wrote of the kids who danced on American Bandstand: “Were they having sex? I’m sure some were, but that wasn’t talked about. ... If any of the girls who danced on the show got pregnant, I never knew about it. ... Some of the kids on the show were gay, but like most aspects of sexuality, it wasn’t something that was discussed publicly."
But kids watching American Bandstand rarely felt short-changed. Quite the opposite. Julian Bond, who had a stellar career as a Georgia legislator and civil rights leader, was a teen growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when American Bandstand burst on the national scene. He reflected on his reaction to the show in a keynote address at Lincoln University in May 1992:
“For a teenager riding a rural bus route to a one-room school with an outhouse, these young people [on Bandstand] represented everything that was big city, sophisticated, hip, cool, and correct. We imitated their dance steps, copied their clothes, and mimicked their walk. We recognized in the music a message of racial and generational change that white young people felt, too.”
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.
Photo: Julian Bond as 23-year-old.