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.”

Boomers Loved Their Teen Angels

The passing last week of Davy Jones, frontman for The Monkees, prompted Mister Boomer to recall an era of teen idols. Teen idols were not new or exclusive to the boomer era; some say this phenomenon began in the 20th century as celebrity fandom appeared along with silent movies. The quintessential male star of silent movies in the early 1910s and 1920s was Rudolph Valentino. The silent film star gathered his share of teenage fans for his confident, suave, romantic and passionate roles. The writer H.L. Mencken wrote of Valentino shortly after his death that he was “catnip to women.”

The next really huge teen idol was Frank Sinatra. In the 1940s, his appearances caused near riots as legions of teenage female fans — known as “bobby-soxers” because of the type of socks they wore, rolled-down to the ankle — stormed theaters and concert halls. Many people point to this pre-war era as the beginning of Youth Culture.

The two — one a film star, the other first known for his singing before he entered the movies — displayed some basic characteristics of the teen idols that were to follow: first, their celebrity was gained through their talent in acting or music; secondly, young women found them irresistible to the point of obsession; and third, they had to reciprocate by graciously accepting the adulation while remaining humble, yet “dreamy.”

Boomer teen idols continued that pattern. Most teen idols were the object of desire for teenage girls rather than boys, and were often men twice their age. The prime age of teen idol worshippers was 11 through 17, after which tastes tended to change. The 1950s produced a slew of teen idols from movies, TV and music. Among them were “older” men such as Rock Hudson and Pat Boone, to the “younger” stars like Elvis, Troy Donahue, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Ricky Nelson. On rare occasions, women crossed over into teen idol territory, the most famous being Annette Funicello. Her appearances as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club TV show gave her instant fan recognition from both boys and girls when she made the transition from child actor to adult in a series of pop-historically significant “Beach” movies.

Into this mix of actors and solitary singing sensations, whole bands entered the teen idol world, most notably The Beach Boys and The Beatles. By the mid-sixties, girls everywhere had chosen their favorites in The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits and The Monkees. Naturally, one star rose above the others in each band to become the most-loved teen idol. In The Monkees, that teen idol was Davy Jones. Shows like American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, Shindig! and The Ed Sullivan Show only fueled the fires of teen idolatry.

The teen idol world got two additional big boosts in the 1960s: a proliferation of a sub-genre of pop music that was called bubblegum pop (also known as teenybopper music) and the introduction of made-for-teen magazines called 16 Magazine (which actually first appeared in 1956) and Tiger Beat (launched in 1964). Bubblegum music appealed directly to teenage girls, who liked the danceable beats, love-laced lyrics and the stars who sang them. The fanzines did for 1960s teen idols what the Hollywood movie magazines had done for stars of the 1940s and ’50s: maintained and expanded the celebrity of the stars through constant exposure.

Mister Boomer’s sister joined in on the teen idol explosion in the mid-1960s. She bought 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat on occasion and in the late ’60s, became infatuated with Bobby Sherman. Sherman was a recording artist at an early age and a regular on Shindig!, but didn’t attain teen idol status until he landed a role in the TV series, Here Come the Brides (1968-70). By then millions of boomer girls had posters of Sherman, with his trademark hair and teen idol smile, on their bedroom walls. Mister B’s sister did not have posters of Sherman, or the other big teenybopper idol of her decade, David Cassidy, but her magazines sure plastered their pictures on pages. Nonetheless, she felt compelled to buy her idol’s 45 RPM records.

16 Magazine May 1964 issue
Mister B's sister bought this May 1964 copy of 16 Magazine. The cover reads like a Who's Who of teen idols in the early 1960s: Paul Petersen, Bobby Rydell, Elvis, James Franciscus, Richard Chamberlain (a Boomer Sister fave!), Elvis and of course, The Beatles. Also listed is "Lesley & Connie," which refer to Lesley Gore and Connie Francis. Patty Duke is also pictured on the cover.

Perhaps the pre-war 1940s marked the first teen generation that would break from the tastes of their parents to explore a subculture of their own. But World War II interrupted their progress, and that left it up to the Boomer Generation to embrace the tide of Youth Culture, of which teen idols were a part. What memories of teen idols do you have, boomers?