With a college degree in advertising and an uncanny ability to speak to teenagers, Dick Clark was the perfect pitchman for sponsors whose products - from shampoo to acne medication to watches - were targeted at the adolescent market. In the late fifties, as the teenage market expanded and the number of teenagers jumped from seven million to twelve million, Clark shifted from local spokesman for Barr's, a popular Philadelphia jewelry store, to a national spokesperson doing endorsements for hair tonic, chewing gum and soda. He helped link up enough sponsors to make American Bandstand one television's most profitable daytime shows
One way to spotlight the songs, the dancers, and the dances on American Bandstand was to hold dance contests. Kids in the studio loved them, and the viewers did, too. The rules were simple. Contestants had to sign up to get a number, then once a week they pinned numbers on their backs, much like they did in the dance marathons in the thirties. During the contests, viewers cast ballots for their favorite dancers. Each contest lasted three or four weeks, after which winners were announced on the air. Several of the winners confessed that the voting was done more on popularity merit. Still, they took their prizes, which ranged from portable TVs to juke boxes.
Dance Contest Prize
As audiences for Bandstand grew, so did the stakes for the dance contest winners, who took hom prizes that ranged from record albums to brand new cars. Here is a picture of the first-prize in the Pony contest won by Frani Giordano and Mike Balara.
Dick Clark inherited the original set for American Bandstand from Bob Horn's Bandstand, the show Clark took over in 1956. The painted background was that of a record shop of the late forties or early fifties, when records were big, clunky 78 RPMs. Clark's high podium, like a bandstand, set him apart from the dancers. The podium was donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1981.
"Joanne seventeen South Philly," "Mark J, fourteen Bartram,' "Scott fifteen, North Catholic." Roll Call was a regular feature on American Bandstand and how the viewers at home got to know the kids on the show. When the show was only broadcast locally the kids gave the names of their schools, as well as names and ages. When the show went national in 1957, they gave their names, ages and their hometown.
Kids watching Bandstand at home were looking for any clues that signaled romance between kids on the show - who danced with whom, how closely they danced, and how slow they danced together. In the innocent fifties euphemisms for touching and sex abounded in the American culture, especially in television. Harmless games - where kids came into more innocent contact with each other - spiced up the Bandstand program. In this awkward moment, teens cooperated to eat up the string attached to a marshmallow. Of course, if both partners succeeded they came as close to kissing each other as was possible on a show that morally towed the line.
Johnny Mathis signs autographs at the autograph table during his October 15, 1957 debut on American Bandstand. For teens who grew up in the late fifties, Mathis was the unchallenged make-out king, whose silky smooth voice really filled a darkened room. When Mathis released two singles in 1957, "Wonderful, Wonderful" and "It's Not For Me To Say," teenagers had their Frank Sinatra. The following year he had seven hits, including the classic "Chances Are." His album, Johnny's Greatest Hits (1958), the first of the greatest hits albums, remained on the charts a record 490 weeks. Only Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1979) surpassed it.
"It's got a great beat and you can dance to it." Those immortal words came to represent the most popular feature of American Bandstand, Record Review. The formula was simple: three kids listened to three records and rated them between thirty-five and ninety-eight. A fourth teen calculated the average, often with the help of Dick Clark. The kids were usually right in their judgments, picking scores of songs that became top ten winners, demonstrating once again how their opinions counted.
For millions of American teens who could not get to Philadelphia to meet their favorite regulars in the American Bandstand studio the next best thing was voting for them in one of the shows many dance contests. The contests were a regular feature, giving viewer's a chance to see their favorite couples and the newest dances. Tens of thousands of fans sent their ballots to American Bandstand, PO Box 5, PA. In a normal week, the show received 45,000 letters. During the contests, 150,00 ballots and letters came in, prompting Clark to joke that all the mail bags in Philadelphia were being used to carry mail to show.
With five shows a week, fifty-two weeks a year the producers of American Bandstand had to come up with features to keep the show fresh, interesting, and fun. One way was to celebrate Christmas, New Year's, and Halloween. the Halloween shows were the most amusing since they incorporated games, mask, and special guest stars like the ghoulish Zacherle performing the novelty hit, "Dinner With Drac 1" (1958) One of the most popular games was musical chairs, where the masked teens rushed to find a seat when the music stopped, and others ended up on the studio floor. The thin line between childish and teenage behavior sometimes evaporated with party games that were silly but made for good fun and more importantly, better TV.
One of the most popular dances created by the Bandstand crowd was the Chalypso, a combination of two popular fifties dances., the Cha-Cha and the Calypso. The simple dance could be done to songs as different as the Shirelle's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (19570 and Gene Pitney's "Every Breathe I Take" (1958). When the Chalypso became popular, several songs were written specifically for it; the most successful was Billy and Lillie's "La Dee Dah" (1957). These two dancers demonstrate the steps to Dick Clark.