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.”

How Boomers Kept Their Bread

As far back as there have been permanent human settlements, and the earliest breads, there has been a need to store bread to keep it fresh. The human solution for storing all types of things has always been to create a container of some kind — and so it was with bread. Somewhere down the line somebody came up with the idea to make a box that bread could be placed in; the box needed to be enclosed to keep out pests, yet contain enough air circulation that condensation would not form and, therefore, the bread could resist mold.

Breadboxes in the 1700s were made of pottery or wood. In the early part of this country’s history, wood became the choice of materials for the boxes. New materials such as aluminum, stamped steel and the first plastics started arriving in the 1920s and ’30s, so by the time the Boomer Age arrived after World War II, breadboxes had experienced a long history with nary a change in its basic configuration other than its manufacturing material.

Looking back, one might imagine the post-war 1950s and ’60s — prime-time boomer years — as the culmination of the breadbox’s heyday. Every home had at least one, since it was considered as necessary as it was a couple of centuries earlier. Kitchen counter space, a luxury-added feature of the 1950s (before then the kitchen table served as counter space and work surface), now sported must-haves of the decade in the latest designs: toaster, blender, flour and sugar canisters, and a breadbox. Some of the more modern households added an electric coffee pot, too. “Bigger than a breadbox” became a well-known phrase of comparison measurement since it was common knowledge that a breadbox would be slightly larger than a loaf of bread.

Yet two things had changed when it came to the use of the breadbox for the parents of boomers: First, consistent, shelf-stable bread was able to be purchased from a grocery store instead of only at a bakery. Preservatives extended the viability of the product more than the few days’ lifespan of fresh bakery bread as far back as the 1920s and ’30s, but still the breadbox became the family repository for the baked staple. The War also had its effect on bread — and breadboxes. Since all metal was being rationed, breadbox manufacturers had little choice but to experiment with plastics or use traditional wood materials to make their products. Through it all, the breadbox survived.

The second change in the use of the breadbox is closely tied to the first. That is, since a majority of bread now came pre-packaged in stores, the question arose as to whether to remove the bread from the package before placing it into the bread box. Since most store-bought bread came sliced, it may have been more practical to leave it in the package, or it may have been the “modern age” mind-set of our boomer parents that separated their generation from that of their parents. In Mister Boomer’s house, the bread was always left in the package when stored inside the breadbox.

Every home in Mister B’s neighborhood had a breadbox on the kitchen counter. The homes of every school friend also possessed breadboxes. Some were made of wood with the word “bread” painted on the front, while others were plastic and sported decals of flowers or symmetrical designs. Still others were chrome or painted metal.

Mister B recalls two bread boxes in his boomer youth. The first was probably a hand-me-down from his grandmother. It was a sleek, stamped, chromed-metal rectangular box with rounded corners and a black, hard plastic base. The front of the box was a door that had a hinge on the bottom to allow it to open to the maximum space for loaf transfer. It was kept in its upright and locked position by a tear-drop shaped black plastic lever in the center of the front panel near the top, held in place by a single screw. On either side of the lever was an embossed decoration consisting of three or four vertical, rounded linear shapes that extended from the top about two inches down. A series of four small louvres were shaped out of the sides for ventilation. Inside, a smooth sheet of metal covered the plastic base, while the sides were unpolished gun-metal gray that revealed the spot welds that connected the side panels to the rear panel. For years this breadbox, taller than a loaf of Wonder bread by about half the height, sat to the right of the sink, next to a beige plastic clock radio. Then one day Mister B noticed it had surreptitiously been moved to a secondary, smaller counter, next to the flour and sugar canisters. There it remained from then on.

Mister Boomer cannot recall what happened to that Art Deco breadbox of his early youth. It could have been another instance of “out with the old, in with the new” when his parents replaced it with a stamped metal breadbox, painted white with a red front door. The metal was thin and dented easily, so through time, it exhibited chips, scratches and bent edges that would need adjusting every now and then just to close the door. Somewhere in the early days of the 1970s, the breadbox disappeared from the counter, never to return.

Ask a kid today what a breadbox is, and many will not know the answer. Though they are still being sold, breadboxes are no longer considered a mandatory accessory in the kitchen. How about it, boomers? Do you still keep your bread in a breadbox on a kitchen counter, and if so, did you purchase or inherit it?