For many Americans Dick Clark is the guy who rocks in the New Year and obsesses over “bloopers.” For many others, he is the former host of Los Angeles-based “American Bandstand,” a Zelig-like survivor adapting to whatever music and fashion the culture can churn out. Still others see a septuagenarian teenager affably pitching “oldies” music.
And then there are those — speaking of “oldies” — for whom Dick Clark will always be a human time capsule. Forever encased with Clearasil, 45-rpm records, letter sweaters, transistor radios and slide rules.
Especially if you grew up in Philly, the birthplace of Bandstand (which relocated to L.A. in 1964). Especially if you actually appeared on Bandstand. And actually danced.
It all came flashing back two Sundays ago when I looked in on “American Dreams,” NBC’s new family drama set in Philadelphia in 1963. The main character, played convincingly and winsomely by Tampa actress Brittany Snow, is a 15 year old who becomes a “regular” on “American Bandstand.”
So there I was, barely an hour removed from watching the Bucs-Bengals blowout, mentally transported back to a cramped studio of Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate, WFIL. I was there with a couple of buddies. We were practically high school freshmen (eighth graders at St. Timothy’s Catholic School) and had one of those teacher-conference days off. We put on dress clothes, caught a bus and took the cross-town elevated train from Northeast to West Philly.
We lined up outside the studio, a nondescript building in a hardscrabble neighborhood, and hoped to look 14 — and make the cut. The regulars didn’t have to suffer such an indignity; they were ushered right in.
We all made it in and were directed to the bleacher seats. Along the way, there were hand-written signs cautioning the uninitiated: proper dress required; ID might be checked; gum-chewing, loud talking and camera hogging prohibited.
Some associate producer sort came out to reinforce the signage for the benefit of rookies and stressed the proper response to flashing applause signs. The regulars talked among themselves.
This guy’s message was clear: “Millions of kids across the country are tuning in — but not to watch you. They want to see Justine Carelli, Bob Clayton, Pat Moliteri, Carmen Jimenez, Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan. If you must dance, stay with the flow and don’t look, let alone wave, at the camera. Try to look cool, even though you aren’t. Central Casting didn’t send you to us, but we still let you in; don’t make us throw you out. And welcome.”
I can still see Dick Clark as a Brillcremed 30-something standing, Oz-like, on a fruit crate behind that iconic Bandstand dais. For some reason I didn’t fathom someone that famous that short.
He seemed polite off camera and smooth on air. Introducing Bobby Freeman, lipsinging “Betty Lou’s Got A New Pair Of Shoes.” Giving the intro for a Clearasil commercial. Announcing a “Ladies’ Choice”: “A Million To One” by Little Jimmy Charles. Segueing into the “rate-a-record” segment where the litmus test of beat and dance-ability awaited new releases. Teasing Kenny and Arlene about their fan mail. Hyping the upcoming dance contest — the last vestiges of jitterbugging — to Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘n Roll Music.”
For all of our usual hormonal bravado, truth be told, we just sat there — mesmerized by Justine and Arlene and all that you couldn’t see on a 12-inch Philco. How come nobody tripped on all those wires and cables? Didn’t those sets look cheesy in person? Wouldn’t you like to muss up Dick Clark’s hair? How come no one ever started a fight? Happens all the time at dances. Imagine that on live TV! Wow!
Then came the day’s second — and last — “Ladies’ Choice.” An assertive tap on the shoulder.
Who me? The almost ninth-grader with the impressive pompadour who was living a lie? The kid who would be clapping erasers tomorrow for Sister Charles Mary?
But, yo. Of course, me. Why wouldn’t she — and maybe Justine and Arlene as well — think I was quite the catch? Validation at almost 14.
She did most of the talking. She was from out of state and didn’t want to return to wherever that was without having at least danced once on Bandstand. But she was too nervous and plain looking, she felt, to ask a regular. But I looked “nice,” she said, which I interpreted as looking comparably nervous and plain-looking. That dance, to the strains of Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game,” lasted, it seemed, about an hour. We were each other’s rite-of-passage props. And I had to go to the bathroom.
Once in high school, however, we learned the truth about Bandstand. Pat Moliteri penned a piece in “Teen Magazine” that described how the “regulars” were despised by classmates for being “stuck up.” She said the show was known as “Fruit Stand.”
Soon after, we learned that the really cool DJs were on the radio, where they played Little Caesar and the Romans (“Those Oldies But Goodies”) and the Tuneweavers (“Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby”) — and never Pat Boone or Brenda Lee. Unlike Dick Clark, they could acknowledge that there was such a thing as “make-out” music and that a great place to hear continuous loops of doo-wop was down by the Delaware River, watching the “submarine races.”
Now I think back. There will always be that Bandstand moment. And Tommy Edwards was right. “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game.”