He was Washington's Dick Clark, a high-octane dance show host for the teenage flattops and crinoline skirts of the '50s. So hot was "The Milt Grant Show" on WTTG, Channel 5, from '56 to '61 that popular music's up-and-comers (as well as the biggies) considered it a must drop-by. Fabian, Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Nat King Cole -- they all came to the capital to lip-sync their tunes for live television. And Milt.
Well, Milt is 67 years old now. He's had a full and accomplished career running, buying and selling television stations since his dancin' D.C. days. But yesterday at the National Archives, nearly 30 years after the show's abrupt end, it was clear what truly mattered to this man -- not to mention to his former rockers. At least 50 of whom turned out to view the only known tape remaining from the show's entire five-year run and relive their days of innocence.
"It was a very important time of my life," said Grant, as dozens of aging teeny-boppers lined up to plant big kisses on his cheek. (The men shook his hand.) "We were part of the great new beginning of television and there was just so much energy. It made me fall in love with television and all its powers. And what's really amazing to me is how, 33 years later, it's still such a big part of everyone's lives."
Indeed, for the high school dancers now well into their forties, you could hear the magnitude of the moment in their voices.
Donna Moeller remembers it as if it were yesterday. "I did the dirty boogie with Jerry Lee Lewis," she told the several hundred who had gathered for the noon program at the Archives. "It's what you call regular dancing now, but back then it was scandalous. It's something I've done in my life that I'll never forget."
"I danced with Bobby Darin while he sang 'Mack the Knife,' " announced Patricia Denny Dews. "I talked about it for years."
Pat Fitzgerald had the honor of being a Milt Grant Miss Teen Queen, sort of the prom queen of dancers. "I went on to a modeling career," she said. "It was really a neat and exciting time."
"It was the only show I was allowed to watch every day," said Peggy Brown.
Milt, who had flown in from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the occasion, was truly touched. "I'm overwhelmed," he said several times to his followers. "You've all been such an inspiration to me.
"I often asked myself why the show did so well. And one of the reasons was that the show was fresh," he said. "And it was live. Today 'live' has really gone by the boards... . And we gave the teens a chance to make their own statement. We said you're important too."
But by 1961, WTTG didn't agree. The 5 p.m. show was abruptly canceled and replaced by reruns of "Robin Hood" and "Bold Journey." In 1966 Grant left the station to become president and part owner of the newly created WDCA, Channel 20. He left after 14 years and now owns a chain of Southern television stations.
Grant's appearance at the National Archives was part of "Washington: Behind the Monuments," an exhibition commemorating the 200th anniversary of the city. According to the Archives' Bill Blakefield, the rare 1957 footage shown yesterday belongs to an anonymous private collector. Given today's technology, it's startling to discover that it's the only known complete video of a show that appeared six times a week for five years.
Nonetheless, it's a winner. The highlights include several hokey sponsor promotions, in which Milt gushes over Pepsi, Motorola radios and Topps "Sir Loiners" from the now-defunct drive-in hamburger joint. The kids actually rock-and-roll while clutching filled Pepsi bottles.
In what's meant to be a moment of seriousness, Grant asks the boppers if they have any parental problems.
Dee speaks up.
"Well," asks the giggling blonde, "what happens when your mother doesn't trust you?"
"What do you mean, she doesn't trust you?" presses Grant.
Dee is flummoxed here. "Well, I don't know," she answers, shrugging and giggling some more.
"Doesn't trust you with what?" he pursues, undaunted.
Now she's lost it. "I don't know -- anything," she shrieks, giggling herself into oblivion.
As the film and program ended, folks seemed genuinely reluctant to leave Milt. They filed by to speak of their jobs, their children and what those long gone years meant to them.
"It's just so gratifying when it all comes out okay," said Milt. "This has been a great day."