Boomer Proms: A White Sport Coat and A Pink Carnation

The list of things that are different between our boomer years and today’s youth is long and growing all the time. A case in point is that age-old rite of passage, the prom. It’s that season again, and it got Mister Boomer thinking about the contrasts between the generations.

For starters, more often than not, boomers drove themselves to the dance. Two or three couples would travel together. Either one of the guys had their own car by then, or a parental vehicle was procured. In a worst case scenario, the parent of one of the troupe would act as chauffeur. Today’s kids? While they still travel in groups, they prefer riding in limousines.

Our mode of dress also exhibited contrasts. For most of us, the prom was our introduction to formal wear. Boys wore tuxedos while the girls could either take a page out of the fashionably stylish looks of Peggy Sue Got Married or the traditional excess of Gone With the Wind. Today it seems practically anything goes. The ultra-casual manner of daily school dress is supplanted by “dressier” styles for the prom, but guys often wear suits instead of formal wear, with regular shirts and ties. In some ways, girls embrace the late sixties in that skin is in and practically no style is verboten, as long as it passes school rules.

Prom fashions from advertising in 1961.

Music was another category that illustrates our differences. Depending on how prohibitive the school district was in our respective region, the music played at our proms could be everything from “grown-up” orchestral arrangements to rock ‘n roll. No matter what it was, however, it would be played by a live band. Unlike sock-hops, though, proms were occasions when boys looked forward to the slow numbers, so they had a reason to dance close. Then it was time to break out the Twist, Pony or Frug. Today’s kids have DJs playing the stuff they listen to. Despite the fidelity advances of today’s sound systems, they are missing the experience of live music. And it is unclear to Mister B how boys and girls can dance to rap at all, let alone get close.

Marty Robbins had a hit with A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation in 1957.

Mister Boomer went to two proms: the first one he was asked to attend by a friend. (How’s that for the beginnings of Women’s Liberation?) The second was his own school’s prom. For both proms, Mister B borrowed his father’s car and drove with his date.

For prom number one, Mister B’s date told him about the yellow dress her mother was making for her, so suggested a brown color. He picked up a sporty double-breasted, dark chocolate tux and paired it with a ruffled yellow shirt and bow tie. The couple had an era-appropriate Polynesian dinner before the dance — complete with drinks in pineapples (non-alcoholic, of course), and all in all, shared a good evening.

A few weeks later, he attended his own prom. This time his date wore light blue, so Mister B opted for a white brocade tuxedo jacket with black lapels, black tux pants, a light blue ruffled shirt and black bow tie. Unfortunately, color rules dictated that he had to settle for a white carnation instead of pink.

What was your prom experience like, boomers? Did you make your children come back to your house with their respective dates so you could photograph them in their sartorial splendor? Have they seen your prom pictures?

Dick Clark Made Boomer History

A huge chapter in the annals of boomer history came to a close this past week with the passing of Dick Clark. Is there a boomer alive in the United States today who does not know Dick Clark, and does not have a memory of watching his TV shows?

As TV broadcasts became regularly scheduled after the War, the need for content was ever-expanding as the sales of TVs grew, along with the population, into the 1950s. By the mid-’50s, the first wave of the boomer generation were reaching their teens, and presented an irresistible target demographic for marketers of everything from breakfast cereals to toys, clothing to colognes. TV networks were scrambling for shows that teens would watch, and so it was that a local show was pitched to the ABC network in hopes of gaining a national audience.

Dick Clark had taken over as host of the Philadelphia-based Bob Horn’s Bandstand in 1956, after the host was arrested for drunk driving and allegations of being involved with a prostitution ring. Like big band swing bandstand venues of the previous decade, Bandstand played music for young people to dance to, but now included rock ‘n roll, a new genre that many in the country were campaigning against as “the devil’s music.” The show’s name was changed to American Bandstand, and soon after, Mr. Clark proposed that it be broadcast to a national audience. ABC picked up the program, and it premiered across the nation on August 5, 1957.

Mr. Clark tinkered with the formula he inherited, keeping the live group of kids to dance to the music, but adding a more formal dress code of skirts or dresses for the female dancers, and jackets and ties for the males. He also added appearances by guest artists who would lip-synch their hits in the live broadcast, and introduced interviews with rising stars like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Perhaps the most-known feature Dick Clark added to Bandstand was “Rate-a-Record,” which allowed teens to rate a record — newly released 45s — on a scale of 35 to 98. We have Dick Clark’s “Rate-a-Record” to thank for the phrase, “It has a nice beat and you can dance to it.”

In an age when segregation still remained the practice across the country, Mr. Clark welcomed African-American artists on Bandstand, which broke the tradition of the show’s earlier incarnation. Nonetheless, it was Dick Clark’s ambition that rock ‘n roll be made more socially acceptable (through his dress code and clean dancing requirements), so he — and especially his broadcast network — didn’t want to anger any part of the population that could bear pressure on the show. Consequently, contrary to TV legend, in the early days of American Bandstand there were no black teens dancing on the program. Mr. Clark changed that policy when the show moved to Los Angeles in 1964, when both black and white kids were welcome to dance in the studio (though not with each other).

The show aired five days a week, in the after-school time slot of 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. Mister Boomer recalls coming home from school and his brother would switch on the family’s Sylvania TV to watch Bandstand. Mr. B was a pre-teen, so would have preferred cartoons to the music show. Some boomers remember the show on Monday nights, while others recall Saturday afternoons. All are correct memories at some point of the show’s history. The show ran live five days a week in its earlier days; at first it was 90 minutes long, then 60 and finally ran in a half-hour format. In 1963, the weekly shows were all recorded at the same time on Saturdays for broadcast.

Mr. Clark was a consummate TV production professional, going on to produce many shows in the following decades, from the $10,000 Pyramid game show to a series of blooper shows (co-hosted with Ed McMahon), to the more recent So You Think You Can Dance. But if there is a boomer who doesn’t remember Dick Clark for American Bandstand, he is remembered for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Every boomer will tell you that New Year’s Eve TV shows were a lot like Henry Ford’s famous line about the color of his Model T: it came in any color you wanted, as long as that was black. The only “color” New Year’s Eve TV came in was in the form of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. He had a lock on the nation’s TV sets for years, so boomers welcomed a change from the stodgy “old people’s” New Year’s Eve programming when Dick Clark’s show debuted in 1972. Dick Clark showed rock ‘n roll acts of the day, which were infinitely closer to what boomers wanted to see and hear than people playing accordions and clarinets.

Mister B recalls that first New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1972. He had been invited to a house party — only the second of his waning teen years for New Year’s Eve. Music would be played, refreshments would be served, and yes, there would be girls. Plus, the host had his own TV in his basement with which to tune in the program for the countdown. To make a long story short, the “party” didn’t quite happen as advertised. Mister B and two of his other friends showed up. Refreshments were there, but no girls, or anyone else. Instead, four guys shared a pizza and watched New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in the basement while the host’s parents tuned in Guy Lombardo in the living room.

If you are a part of the baby boomer generation, no matter what year you were born, Dick Clark has played a part in your memories. For that reason, we have to say, Dick, “so long for now.”