Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Shall we dance?
Some of you will recognize these couples instantly. Some of you won’t have a clue who they are. I am in the former group. On the right are Bob and Justine, and the couple below are Kenny and Arlene. Ring any bells?
So now you know Who. But what about Where? And When? And perhaps most importantly, Why???
I will tell you.
Where is a television studio somewhere in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When is 1957, 1958, 1959.
Why is two words:
I was there in the summer of 1958, visiting relatives in suburban Philadelphia all the way from Texas. I was seventeen years old. Going to American Bandstand was a pilgrimage more to be desired than the one that resulted in Chaucer’s writing The Canterbury Tales.
I boarded an early southbound commuter train in Jenkintown and made my way past Elkins Park, Melrose Park, Cheltenham, past City Line where Old York Road becomes Broad Street, past Allegheny, Lehigh, Girard, and Spring, all the way down Broad Street to City Center where William Penn’s statue stands atop City Hall. There I switched to the east-west line and, still searching for the Holy Grail, headed out West Market Street. At 46th Street I got off the train and there it was: On one side of the street were brick tenements with people’s laundry drying on the fire escapes. But on the other side of the street was the Holy of Holies: WFIL-TV, Channel 6, home of the one and only American Bandstand, the Magna Carta of teenage dance programs.
I stood in line for at least six hours, hoping to be admitted with the other pilgrims when the doors opened. Men with pushcarts came by selling pretzels with mustard, a Philadelphia staple, and hot dogs to fend off our hunger pangs. No one was about to leave the line to do an unimportant thing like eating. And because I had made sure to arrive early, I was near enough to the front of the line that I saw the regulars arrive and when the doors finally opened to the rest of us I made it in.
All the regulars were there. Bob and Justine, and Kenny and Arlene, and Pat, and Fran, and others whose faces I recognized but whose names I didn’t know. Dick Clark was there, of course, looking all of 18 even though he was 28 years old at the time. We all were there, dancing to Bobby Day’s hit, “Rockin’ Robin (Tweet, Tweet, Tweedly-Deet)” and Bobby Darin’s hit, “Splish, Splash, I Was Takin’ A Bath” and “Heavenly shades of night are falling; it’s twilight time” by The Platters and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers, Phil and Don, and saying such profound things to Dick Clark as “It has a good beat; I give it a 90” on national television!
I went for three days in a row.
Two months later, back in Texas, I stopped by my old high school after classes had resumed and before I went away to college. I was treated like a celebrity because everybody had been watching American Bandstand five afternoons a week for over a year. (Actually, there wasn’t that much to do in small towns in Texas in the fifties. If you saw The Last Picture Show or Places In The Heart, you will know exactly what I mean.) It wasn’t that I was great personally, but I had been in the presence of greatness.
Any other acclaim I might have received since then has been pure gravy. My fifteen minutes of fame happened early, when it could be properly appreciated by the only people who mattered, the new crop of high school seniors.
Photo by Dick Clark Productions, Inc.
Later on, American Bandstand was televised in color. It moved to California and became a once-a-week show, broadcast only on Saturday afternoon. It was slicker, and over-produced, and lasted until 1989, but it was never as good as the original, more innocent, five-afternoons-a-week, black-and-white version from Philadelphia. It may have still had Dick Clark, but it didn’t have Pat. It didn’t have Fran. And it certainly didn’t have Bob and Justine, or Kenny and Arlene. The kids today know nothing about American idols. Ours were not Fats Domino and Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Ours didn’t even have to sing.
Dick Clark became “America’s Oldest Teenager” and Ryan Seacrest is trying hard to succeed him. Saint Paul, who said a lot of things, probably said it best. To the Corinthians he said, “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” And to the Colossians he said, “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.”
That will be a real celebration. There may even be dancing in the streets.