For every recent generation, music has been the soundtrack of our youth.
I was lucky to be a teenager during arguably the most important music upheaval of our lifetime: the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” were two of the big hits that ushered in the rock era in 1954.
Just before the rock revolution, the early-50s produced a number of major hits and performers, including the likes of Frankie Laine (“I Believe”), Tony Bennett (“Rags to Riches”), Patti Page (“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”) and Joni James (“Why Don’t You Believe Me?”)
A Philadelphia disk jockey, Bob Horn, came up with the idea in 1952 of having a TV show where local high school students would show up after classes and dance to the day’s biggest hits. Every once in awhile, the artist who made the hit popular would lip-synch the song while the starry-eyed teenagers looked on in awe.
You might say: “Hey, this sounds like American Bandstand.” You’re right. But, you say, “American Bandstand is linked to Dick Clark.”
The truth is that Horn initiated Bandstand (which became American Bandstand when it went on national TV in the fall of 1957).
The old WFIL-TV studio at 46th and Market streets in Philadelphia has become a national historic site because it was the home of “Bandstand.” How appropriate, because for those of us who grew up in the ‘50s, Bandstand was a shrine, a teenage religion.
It was 1953. I was a 14-year-old ninth-grader in junior high school. About 20 of my classmates and I paid $7.50 each to charter a bus from our hometown of Summit Hill in Carbon County to Philadelphia to make our television debut on Bandstand.
Bandstand was the place to be. Every day after school, in ritual-like fashion, we hurried home to change clothes then met at a home with a TV set to watch the show (3:15-5 p.m. Monday through Friday).
Now, here we were, a bunch of small-town “coal-crackers,” in line waiting to become a part of the action.
That morning was one of the few times I spent about a half-hour in front of a mirror making sure I looked my best. I carefully chose my coolest pair of pegged pants – the black ones with the white stitching down the side. I decided on this pair over the geekier pair with the white stripe.
Next, I picked my shocking pink shirt and muttered softly because my mother, despite my pleas, refused to press the collar in the “in” way. I worked over the collar with my hand until it stood up, so I could look my coolest.
Then came the black-knit tie. Although I didn’t wear a tie much, I had to make an exception. Ties were mandatory to get into Bandstand. And, finally, the pink jacket that complemented the pants and shirt.
After a bus ride of nearly two hours, followed by a 45-minute wait in line, we were finally ushered into the Bandstand set. Although we had tickets – they didn’t cost anything but were used to control the number of people attending any day’s show – there was no guarantee we would get in.
On more than one occasion, kids with tickets had come from more than 100 miles away only to be too far down the line. They couldn’t get into the area that accommodated just 250. Frequently, more than 1,000 were in line on any given day.
We were amazed at how small the Bandstand set was, especially the dancing area. It looked a lot bigger on TV. We were taken to a bleachers-like area and waited another 45 minutes until close to airtime. We made small talk and laughed a lot to cover our nervousness.
A young man came toward the bleachers, called for attention and spelled out the ground rules: “Ya gotta keep your ties on because if ya don’t, out ya go,” he warned. “No goofin’ off either. And no wavin’ at the camera,” he admonished. “Any of youse (the Philly plural of “you”) who make a gesture with your finger is in big trouble,” he said. We snickered because we knew what he meant.
About five minutes before air time, the Bandstand regulars came in amid whistles and scattered applause. They swaggered by us with contemptuous and haughty looks.
We saw Justine – my secret love – and her boyfriend, Bob. There were Arlene and Kenny and Bobby and Peggy, too.
A few minutes later, host Bob Horn appeared. “Ten seconds to air,” came a voice from behind a camera. We bolted to attention. Then, there it was: the “Bandstand” theme song, and the regulars got up and started dancing as the show went on the air.
None of the guys in my group fast-danced (jitterbugged). We did the slow dances (“waltzes”). Our first chance to dance came with Les Paul and Mary Ford’s big hit “Vaya con Dios.”
I asked my classmate, Margaret Ellen Henry, to dance because she could follow my inept lead. I led her toward camera one because I wanted to make sure everyone back home saw us. Suddenly, the red light came on; we were on TV. I pretended to make small talk to Margaret Ellen but broke out in a cold nervous sweat.
The camera hovered over us like some monstrous eye for what seemed to be forever. I felt my hands turn clammy and sweaty. My throat got thick, and I gulped several times. Finally, the red light clicked off, and the camera backed away. I could breathe again.
Thirty or so records and 50 or so commercials later, the Bandstand experience was over. When we returned home, practically everyone we met told us they saw us on TV. We were big deals for about a week, but then life slowly returned to normal.
Bob Horn was charged with drunken driving and a morals offense involving a 13-year-old girl and was suspended from the show, opening the door for a young DJ of a WFIL radio music program, Dick Clark, whose first Bandstand broadcast was in July of 1956. Clark convinced ABC to take the program nationally the next year, and the rest, as they say, became music history.