On the occasion of the death of Dick Clark, patron saint of New Years Eve, we rifle through our archives and find Tony Kornheiser’s 1982 Style homage, explaining how the man defined what it meant to be a teenager in America.
The Beat of the ‘Bandstand’
Maybe Dick Clark didn’t invent teen-agers. But he gave them a place where they could invent themselves.
It’s 3:15 on a weekday afternoon in 1959 anywhere in America. A kid, 11, 12, 13, is riding his bike home from school as fast as he can because in a few minutes it’s going to be on and he doesn’t want to miss it, ‘cause they’ll be rockin’ on “Bandstand”; Fill-a-DELF-ya-P-A.
Live TV. Live bodies. Boys and girls. And can you teach me how to dance reeeeaalll slow? Every weekday from South Philly. “American Bandstand” with your host, Dick Clark. Real people, just a couple of years older than us, showing you how it was gonna be. When a girl changes from bobby sox to stockings and starts trading her baby toys for boys. Coast to coast. Rites of passage. Role models. Bob and Justine. Frannie Giordano. Hey, pretty baby, you can’t sit down; you got to make it, break it, shake it all around.
Before “Bandstand” there were all these people wandering around without a sense of community. The original identity crisis. What “Bandstand” did was provide the window to some that the rest could look through. The sharing of the culture. This hadn’t been done before. Nothing on TV specifically addressed this demographic group called teen-agers. And then Dick Clark did, and the rest is, well, it goes something like this: Each night I ask the stars up above, why must I be a teen-ager in love?
Starting in 1957, when “Bandstand” went on network, millions of teen-agers from all over the country--deep in the heart of Texas, and out in Frisco Bay--tuned in to see bunches of white urban ethnics from South Street (where the dancin’ is elite)--teach them, just by virtue of being on television, what to wear, how to look and, most important, how to dance. There is probably no accurate count on how many kids did this, but for sure there was at least one girl in Brooklyn who learned to dance by watching “Bandstand” and practicing the Lindy while holding onto the doorknob.
If “American Bandstand” showed us anything at all about being teen-age in America in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, it was not to worry. You comb your hair, chew gum, snap your fingers and dance. You could get on TV. You could be a star. Gonna put you on “Bandstand,” buy you a Cadillac. Sign here, kid. And later on Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell will come by and sign your book. Okay, maybe you have to wear a coat and tie, but we all knew what that was about. Clark said it yesterday: “The parents back then were terrified of these kids and how they looked. Not only did they look wild, but here we were letting them dance to that terrible music. So we asked the guys to wear coats and ties.”
But even in coats and ties the urbanization of America was reflected five days a week. Live. If it wasn’t for “American Bandstand” showing us that real live girls can get on TV in tight dresses and lipstick, she’s sportin’ high heel shoes and live to tell about it, we might have thought that the only teen-agers out there were Dave and Ricky. Praise Dick Clark and pass the Clearasil.
So yesterday, to reward his faith and his formula, there was a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History honoring “American Bandstand” (”I give it a 85. I like the beat, and you can dance to it.”) and Clark. In an eloquent introduction of the exhibit of “Bandstand” memorabilia, Roger Kennedy, the director of the museum, called “Bandstand” “an American phenomenon of considerable importance . . . a kind of waving at each other from one generation to another.” He talked of the “continuing thread of bafflement, wonder and sometimes apprehension throughout the generations” and how “Dick Clark said it’s going to be all right; we’re all going to be friends.” He called Clark “a major link in holding a distressed, distended society together.”
That’s nice. But it ain’t a-poppa-poppa-pop- pa-poppa-oooh-mau-mau-poppa- oooh-mau-mau.
Clark called “Bandstand” “a stray puppy that arrived on America’s doorstep and just stayed there.”
And that’s nice too.
But it ain’t a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom.
And it’s nice that the Smithsonian--America’s museum--certified what it was like to be teen-age by placing in exhibition such things as the original South Philly backdrop (a cloth painting of a ‘50s record shop), the original “Bandstand” podium, which Clark said he’d kept in his garage all these years, and Clark’s collection of the No. 1 hits of the past 25 years, which he donated. Real nice.
But it ain’t bom-buh-buh-bom-buh-bom-buh-bom-bom-buh-buh-bom-buh-buh-bom-buh-dangy-dang-dang-buh-dingy-dong-ding-blue-moon.
So what does it all mean?
Surely it’s an honor. It’s saying we not only existed, but that we were a significant part of the culture and history of America. Which is nice, and maybe even as good as rama-lama-ding-dong. But it also means that although the concept of “American Bandstand” goes on and on, and probably will go on forever, that having been duly recognized and certified, part of its spirit has certainly now been mummified.
The next step after museum, gang, is ground.
This is 1982. Dick Clark looks great, but he’s 52 years old. The postwar baby boom that grew up on “Bandstand,” that danced with the doorknobs, that was collectively responsible for the explosion in the music, film and clothing industries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that generation--my ge-ge-ge-generation--is beyond “Bandstand” now. “Bandstand” was just a window. You walk by, you look in, you move on down. Come let’s stroll. Those days are gone, kids. So you’re a little bit older and a lot less bolder than you used to be. So you used to shake ‘em down but now you stop and think about your dignity.
There was a sense of loss when “Bandstand” moved to California in ‘64 because, as Clark said, “the whole world was moving to California, the whole world wanted blond hair and surfboards.” If everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A., then everybody’d be surfin’ like Cali-forn-I-A. So South Philly (and Brooklyn, and Baltimore, and Cleveland, and everywhere else where it’s not illegal to have a last name that can’t fit on a license plate) got the big kiss-off. And it says here that it was never the same after that, that it never again reached the heights it did when it provided the ultimate “Bandstand” shared experience--the nationwide unveiling of Fabian’s last name, Forte.
It went to weekly, so you couldn’t build the kind of personal relationships with the kids that you could when they came into your house five days a week. It went on tape! (Really? For sure.) It can’t break records and dances like it used to, when if “Bandstand” played a record on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, by Friday it was top 10 nationally.
It ain’t like the old days. “Bandstand” now is just one of many. “Soul Train.” “Hot City.” “Disco Fever.” “Dance Party.” It doesn’t set styles and it doesn’t start trends. It still has performers. And maybe someday it’ll become important that the Blasters made their network debut on “Bandstand” following a tradition that includes, to name just a few, Bill Haley, Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry, Jefferson Airplane, Mamas and Papas, Doors, Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond. Maybe. But that’s for time to say. And time keeps rolling like a river to the sea, ‘til it’s gone forever.
It’ll make you crazy if you let it. But there’s one consolation.
You can come back, baby, rock ‘n’ roll never forgets.— Tony Kornheiser