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On Target

Web Posted August 6, 2020

It was a pretty unlikely group which congregated yesterday in a building on Market Street in west Philadelphia. You could see Mayor Ed Rendell and a handful of other politicians, even Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, all rubbing shoulders with other movers and shakers. A fund raiser? Political shindig?

Then the music began to play.

Dick ClarkYesterday was the 40th anniversary of Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and for a few hours anyway, that building was transported back in time to the days when was part of TV station WFIL, and a crowd of teenagers filed in each afternoon to listen while a DJ would spin vinyl, and everyone could dance to the music of Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, the Bobbettes and other acts.

Outside, the crowd dedicated a plaque honoring the show, which pretty well sums up the story...


This television program had a major impact on the music, dance, and lifestyles of American teenagers. "Bandstand," a local show, began in 1952. Dick Clark became host in 1956, and on August 5, 2020, "American Bandstand" debuted on the nationwide ABC network. Until 1964 the show was produce from WFIL-TV here. This 1947 building was one of the first designed and constructed exclusively for television productions.
-- Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 1997

In retrospect, the story of Dick Clark, the "eternal teenager" and Bandstand is almost quaint.

It was Ike's second term, and the country was finally tapering off its drunken binge with McCarthyism. TV was still considered a bit of a luxury, and we were locked in a cold war with no light at the end of that tunnel. From pulpits and podiums, Americans were admonished to prepare for the sight of Soviet bombers flying overhead, or the equally pernicious skullduggery of Russian spies and subversives under our beds. bomb shelter gifA population wave born in the aftermath of World War II was reaching puberty; years later, economists, politicians and sociologists would dub them "the baby boomers." Suburbia was under construction with a vengeance. And in music, the confluence of earlier forms like Swing, Lindy Hop or Jitterbug had given birth to a hybrid phenomenon loosely called rock & roll.

Dick Clark, a 20s-something DJ with a degree in marketing, already was making a name for himself as a rebel. In Ithaca, N.Y. and Philadelphia, radio station execs wouldn't let him play rock music, and warned the clean-cut spinner to limit the air time to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and other traditional favorites. In 1956, Clark was picked to take over an afternoon music program coming out of Philadelphia, at WFIL at 46th & Market. He transformed the program into what writer William Kashatus described in today's Philadelphia Inquirer as "a national phenomenon that helped to promote the adolescent culture of the baby boom generation..."

As Kashatus recalls, "Rock and roll had plenty of critics in the mid 1950s. Religious leaders attacked it for promoting the evil influences of anti-authoritarianism and premarital sex among the young and innocent." Churches took sides in the emotional debate over rock and popular music; and no one could ignore the faddish and provocative hip-swinging and gyrating of Elvis Presley, or -- worse yet -- the potent influence of black culture in the resonate, throbbing beat of rock music.

"Churches took sides in the debate over rock and popular music; and no one could ignore the faddish and provocative hip-swinging and gyrating of Elvis Presley, or -- worse yet -- the potent influence of black culture..."
Swing,which had begun in the 1920s and was considered culturally subversive and morally suspect, had set the pace for many rock 'n roll dance moves. Whether it was the frenetic, almost gymnastic east coast version of dancing (you could see her panties as she flipped!), or the slower, more sensuous rendition emerging on the other side of the continent, swing and its protean spin-offs raised eyebrows and often offended the bourgeois, Protestant sensibilities. Likewise, rock emerged as something sensuous, emotive, evocative, suggestive, flirtatious and rebellious.

Part of the ritual of 50's and early 60's teen culture was rushing home from school to catch Bandstand on the tube at 4 p.m. The guys on the show wore sport coats and ties, and the girls -- many of them cutting class from local Catholic high schools -- often tried to conceal their uniforms beneath sweaters. A whole celebrity culture emerged around those dancing pairs, and the regulars soon had their own fan clubs. But if you made the trip to 46th & Market Streets and strutted yourself in black-and-white to the rest of the country, you often risked a different sort of trip later to the principal's office, or the wrath of the Mother Superior.

Before the 90's culture war and people like Bill Bennett and C. Delores Tucker, there was acrimonious debate throughout the nation about the lyrics and dancing of Chubby Checker, or the swooning verses of Fabian and groups like the Orlons. Rock was considered sinful, decadent and corrupting. Frank Sinatra, whose own songs about heated passion were themselves salacious, blasted the rock music form as "the most brutal, ugly, desperate and vicious form of expression." Hey, with friends like his, who was Blue Eyes to criticize anyone else? By the early 1960's, Rev. Billy James Hargis was claiming that rock music was a communist plot to transmogrify American youth in Kremlin lackeys and zombies. Another decade or so, and the antipathy to rock and roll would raise equally preposterous claims of "backmasked" lyrics with satanic, anti-religious messages.

American Bandstand was really the start of a whole era, and a new cultural wave in music. For its time, it was almost subversive. Clark, for instance, was one of the first white entertainers to promote more than his share of black talent. And who couldn't notice that the WFIL studio dance floor was being shared by teens black and white? In later years, you could catch a quick televised snippet of interracial dance partners.

Bandstand also broke down other walls, including the ones which bifurcated Philadelphia high school culture. Back then, it was them and us, the public school kids and those unlucky enough to attend the city's vast parochial school system. Bandstand was perhaps the first time someone from Cardinal Bonner or Roman Catholic could look at a kid from West Philadelphia High without seeing the grotesque vision of a fallen Protestant. My guess is that it was the same in every community where the Bandstand signal penetrated.

In the sexually-stiffled culture of the late 1950s, American Bandstand served another role. It introduced teens to the ecstatic, passionate and sensuous rhythms of rock. You wanted to be like those Bandstand dancers. You watched their moves, learned the steps, imitated the style. Along with all-night diners, car hops and drive-in theaters, Bandstand and rock became venues of adolescent rebellion, sexual experimentation and coming of age. And all of this was years before Woodstock, acid rock and the social commitment of the 60s and early 70s, or what followed in the next musical wavefront.

"And maybe, just maybe, we are collectively a bit more tolerant, open, enlightened and accepting of generational differences now, having learned something from our own music and American Bandstand..."
Forty years later and Dick Clark looks and dresses almost the same. The local media covered the WFIL-Bandstand reunion and tracked down some of the show's regulars. Many -- especially the women -- who were in Catholic schools at the time, spoke of the opprobrium that surrounded them simply for being on Clark's program. The nuns often objected to uniforms being worn on the dance floor, and back then especially, there was a diffuse cultural stigma attached to rock music that even today has not entirely evaporated, just changed. Others, you could still recognize from the old Bandstand stills; they spoke of the thrill and sheer joy of "dancing like that" and "moving your body," and how the whole thing was just so new, exciting and on the cultural edge. Rock changed, too, and American Bandstand was part of the metamorphosis. Lyrics which extolled teenage angst and romance, or lost loves killed in auto wrecks (shades of James Dean) gave way to other messages of protest. Across time and space, the WFIL signal and Clark planted seeds on the cultural scape which sprouted new, regional forms of music. Bandstand aired it all with an eclectic mix of genres, dancing and talent. Imitators hopped on the musical bandwagon Clark had really started, and rock 'n roll spilled from its confines as an adolescent subculture of styles, heart-throb mags and an after-school dance on the tube to become a pervasive entertainment force in its own right.

For at least one generation of boomers, American Bandstand was a form of mild rebellion that allowed adolescents who fretted over acne or "looking right," to break free of a host of social conventions and still enjoy the comforting embrace of their peers. By many accounts, they still remember that. On the surface, Dick Clark had helped to make rock 'n roll credible, real and acceptable, so that by the mid-sixties and beyond, even the Catholic high schools in town had mellowed sufficiently to organizers "mixers" which were a faint imitation of the Bandstand action. Those were days of chaperones and dance floor rules which tried to limit body contact and arousal. By our standards today, it was all just so antediluvian, innocent and even puritanical.

You can still catch the reruns, and music from the early American Bandstand period can be heard as the centerpiece of a 50s-60s Populuxe revival of neon-festooned theme cafes and nostalgic mixes now on CD. Those gyrating, dancing bodies from the 50s are now in their fifties, and the slick pompadours and blonde beehive hairdos have given way to a more somber look of eminence grise. That generation may not recognize names like Paula Cole or Bush, but they do remember Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and even Mitch Ryder.

And maybe, just maybe, we are collectively a bit more tolerant, open, enlightened and accepting of generational differences now, having learned something from our own music and American Bandstand. Perhaps today, when politicians, preachers or other demagogues rage against hip-hop or rap music, or protest the admittedly boorish antics of Marilyn Manson, or fret over (gasp!) adolescent sexuality, a generation of boomers will remember what it was like when they bonded with the symbols, styles, mores and music of their era. "Back then," the issues were strikingly similar to today -- free expression, testing limits, grasping for identity and at least the semblance of individuality. We may even discover that despite our culture war sensibilities, we've come full circle to become the very people we once rebelled against. Maybe there is something to learn from that journey.


    American Bandstand relocated to California in 1964, symbolic perhaps of the culture and political powershift underway in the nation at that time.

   WFIL changed its station call letters and studio location. The building at 46th and Market now houses the West Philadelphia Enterprise Center, which assists small business development. Outside of the old WFIL building is the commemorative plaque dedicated to the American Bandstand program. At Tuesday's reunion, Dick Clark had no trouble locating the spot he used to stand in during the broadcast, spinning the vinyl and interviewing guests and working the crowd of regulars. Chubby Checker showed up and did his "Twist," and other performers like Bobby Rydell and Fabian also attended.

    American Bandstand maintained high ratings until its demise in 1989, making it the longest-running program of its kind in the history of television.

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