The post-war years of the 1950s saw the rise of the American teen as the economical barometer of the times. The younger generation was going out and getting after school jobs to finance growing record collections and burgeoning social lives. At the same time, Rock n’ Roll burst forth as the voice of teen angst and rebellion, channeled through radio airwaves and the new medium of television. When forged, these forces created one of the most influential cultural empires of the 20th century: American Bandstand.
ABs beginnings were humble enough, formed in a local Philadelphia television studio in 1952. WFIL-TV brought Bob Horn into the living rooms of Philly teens, every afternoon from 3-4:30pm. Originally showing mostly short musical films, the format was changed to a dance party, with local teens coming into the studio and dancing to the latest records, on October 7, 1952. The teen stars who made them popular would come on and lip-sync to the recorded version, while the locals twirled around with the latest dance moves. Originally titled Bandstand, the show had an impressive run from 1952-1989.
As 1956 rolled around, the network made significant changes to the show. Bob Horn was fired for being caught driving under the influence, on July 9, being permanently replaced by Dick Clark. WFIL had been participating in an anti-drunk driving campaign and decided it was best to find a new host. By 1957, the show was picked up by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), being aired nationally for 90 minutes every afternoon. This was done to fill program gaps between the soap operas and evening programming. It was the perfect way to tap into America’s emerging teen demographic, coming on just as the kids were getting home from school, and ending just as dinner was being placed on the table. It gave boys and girls across the country access to all their favorite stars, and acted as a vehicle to propel record sales, thus boosting revenues for the labels. The first national broadcast featured a young Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, while other episodes included, Francis, Chubby Checker and so on. All this being said, it became necessary to change the name of the show to fit its new home on ABC. American Bandstand was christened and set sail on August 5, 1957.
Throughout the early 60s, programming began changing. Beginning in 1961, the show was cut down to 60 minutes; by 1962 it was 30 minutes. 1963 saw the 5 episodes for each week filmed on Saturday, to be broadcast the following week. By September of 1963 they dropped air time down to Saturday afternoons only, which is how it stayed until the final episode in 1989. Alongside the programming changes came geographical changes; the show moved to Los Angeles in 1964.With the advent of psychedelic rock in the late 60s, AB‘s focus shifted from the rock n’ roll dance tunes to the newer form of disco.This was because the show was based around dancing; kids didn’t dance to The Who or The Grateful Dead, but they could groove on the Bee Gees. Despite a backlash from teens weaned on rock music, the show continued to have popularity and sell the sounds of the day.
The end became apparent in 1987, when AB was moved to the USA Network, in syndication. Gone were the glory days of prime time, major network appeal. Dick Clark had stepped aside as host, taking on the executive producer role exclusively. By 1989, it was all over. The music ended, the dancers went home and the lights were turned off for the last time. America had let the good times role for 37 years, but with the advent of MTV and other exclusively music channels, American Bandstand became passe. The longest running show in American history went off the air for good.
What began as an offshoot to a local radio program, became a monolith of the entertainment industry, not only predicting, but guiding the forces of popular culture. Stars were born beneath Dick Clark’s watchful eye and teens across the country had an outlet to express excitement and come into their own. Thanks to Dick, Bob Horn and everyone else at WFIL, we now have 24 hour music channels that show nothing but music videos and showcase artists. Just one more example of how music is taking over the world.