Most of the obituaries of Clark, who took over “Bandstand” in 1956, have noted that the show used rock-and-roll to break down racial barriers, mostly because that is the story Clark told. But that is where his legacy gets complicated. While the nationally televised dance program hosted a number of prominent black performers, the show regularly blocked black teenagers from its studio audience until it moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1964. The image of teenagers that “American Bandstand” popularized bore little resemblance to the racial diversity of American teens.
When “American Bandstand” started broadcasting nationally in 1957, it had to avoid being tainted by the anti-rock-and-roll protests taking place across the country. City councils from Jersey City to Santa Cruz to San Antonio had banned rock performances, and radio stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, Lubbock and Cincinnati refused to play rock and roll. The fear was in large part fueled by concerns about racial mixing, and on that front, “Bandstand” was indeed groundbreaking. Clark’s show put African American music and performers on television every day.
While it featured a sanitized version of rock-and-roll, with white teen idols such as Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon, “American Bandstand” also hosted black vocal groups such as the Coasters and the Impressions; early girl groups such as the Shirelles; Motown artists such as Mary Wells and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles; and R&B and soul pioneers such as James Brown and the Famous Flames, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. Clark brought African American performers to national television in an era when such performances were rare.
“American Bandstand” also helped invent the demographic that still dominates popular culture: teenagers. It was the first national television program aimed squarely at teens, and it laid the groundwork for the baby boom generation, defining what teens listened to, how they danced, and what they wore, ate and drank. Clark was well aware that advertisers were eager to reach teenagers, and his show offered daily access to young consumers. “It’s been a long, long time since a major network has aimed at the most entertainment-starved group in the country,” Clark told Newsweek in 1957. “And why not? After all, teen-agers have $9 billion a year to spend.”
Most important, “American Bandstand” defined what teenagers looked like for a generation of viewers. And the image Clark presented in those early years was exclusively white. Viewers would have had little idea that African Americans made up nearly 30 percent of Philadelphia’s population in this era or that black teens developed many of the dances that “American Bandstand” popularized nationally.
When I started research six years ago for a book on “American Bandstand,” I believed, as Clark claimed, that the show’s studio audience was fully integrated by the late 1950s. In his 1997 history of “American Bandstand,” for example, Clark contends, “I don’t think of myself as a hero or civil rights activist for integrating the show; it was simply the right thing to do.” More recently, when asked about the racial policies of “Bandstand” in a 2011 New York Times interview, he answered simply: “As soon as I became the host, we integrated.” Most of his obituary writers have repeated some version of this claim.
But Clark’s recollections differ from archival materials, newspaper accounts, video and photographic evidence, and the memories of people who were regulars on “American Bandstand” or who were excluded from the show.
Archived reports of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations show that “Bandstand” was initially segregated in the early 1950s, when it was a locally broadcast show hosted by Bob Horn. The show’s producers implemented racially discriminatory admissions policies because they feared that racial tensions around the studio in West Philadelphia would alienate advertisers.
Rather than a strict whites-only policy (like at Baltimore’s “Buddy Deane Show,” made famous in John Waters’s “Hairspray”), “Bandstand” used other means to block black teens from the studio. In addition to a dress code, Clark’s show required visitors to write in advance to request tickets, and these applications were screened by name and address. Black teenagers undermined this ticket plan on at least one occasion. “I engineered a plan to get membership applications,” Walter Palmer told me, “and gave them Irish, Polish and Italian last names. They mailed the forms back to our homes, and once we had the cards, we were able to get in that day.”
The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s leading black newspaper, reported on a group of black South Philadelphia teens who, in October 1957, protested their exclusion from “American Bandstand.” The teens were part of a fan club that wanted to see South Philadelphia teen singer Bobby Brookes perform on the show. Young community activists Vivian Brooker and Iona Stroman organized the protest, and Stroman later told me that the teens were inspired by the Little Rock school integration crisis to challenge discrimination in their city. “It wasn’t like we set out to change history or anything,” Stroman recalled. “We just thought that this is unfair. It’s right here in Philadelphia, and we can’t even go to it.”
Despite this, Clark claimed for years that he integrated “Bandstand” by the late 1950s. He first commented on the program’s integration in his 1976 autobiography, when “American Bandstand’s” ratings were in decline and the show faced a challenge from Don Cornelius’s “Soul Train.” When Clark initially referred to “American Bandstand’s” “integration,” he emphasized black musical artists performing on the show. From 1976 to 2011, however, Clark became progressively bolder, and less accurate, in his retelling of how he integrated the studio audience.
We often use the history of popular culture to talk about the history of race in America. We don’t want to remember all-American “American Bandstand” as discriminating against black teenagers. And that says more about our desire to embrace a more comforting narrative of racial progress than it does about Clark’s legacy.
The decision to maintain discriminatory admission policies flowed logically from neighborhood and school segregation in Philadelphia, the commercial pressures of national television, and deeply held beliefs about the dangers of racial mixing. Integrating “American Bandstand’s” studio audience in the 1950s would have been a bold move and a powerful symbol. Broadcasting daily evidence of Philadelphia’s vibrant interracial teenage culture would have offered viewers images of black and white teens interacting as peers at a time when such images were extremely rare.
Clark and “American Bandstand” did not choose this path. We don’t need to exaggerate the integration of “American Bandstand” to appreciate all that Clark did to shape American popular culture.
Matthew F. Delmont is an assistant professor of American studies at Scripps College in in Claremont, Calif., and the author of “The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia.”
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