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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author
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Bob Horn's Bandstand

From its debut, Bandstand’s producers looked beyond Philadelphia to the potential profits available from advertisers and record companies eager to reach the largest possible television audience. In doing so they carved out a new position for a local television program in relation to the radio and record industries at a time when all three industries were undergoing significant changes.  in a pivotal year in television’s development into a national medium. Between 1948 and 1952, the number of television sets increased from 1.2 million to 15 million, and the percentage of homes with television increased from 0.4 percent to 34 percent.[i] More important, in April 1952 the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) lifted its freeze on television licenses, ending a four-year block on new licenses and making more frequency assignments available to a larger number of metropolitan areas. Over the next three years, the number of television stations in operation increased from 108 in 1952 to 458 in 1955. By 1955, the most populous cities each had between three and seven stations and the FCC believed that 90 percent of the nation’s population lived in the broadcast range of at least two stations.[ii]

Media consolidation increased as the FCC allocated new television licenses. Newspapers owned 69 percent of TV licenses in 1953, up from 33 percent when the freeze started in 1948. Multiple ownership also became much more common in television than in radio, where newspapers owned 20 percent and 32 percent of AM and FM radio stations, respectively, in 1953.[iii] The FCC’s decision to allow newspaper-television cross-ownership helped to ensure that television, like radio before it, would follow the commercial advertising model. With an increased number of potential viewers and a limited number of new licenses, VHF TV stations were extremely valuable. Lobbying FCC commissioners became commonplace, and newspapers were among the applicants most capable of assuring favorable licensing decisions.[iv] Triangle Publications, owned by Walter Annenberg, who had inherited the Philadelphia Inquirer from his father in 1942 and had purchased WFIL radio in 1945, was among the media conglomerates to add a television station in 1948. Annenberg described the reasoning that pushed him into television to his biographer in 1996:
I was willing to gamble that [WFIL-TV] wouldn’t lose that much money. And it didn’t cost me much. It operated in the red for only six months. But my instinct told me this was an opportunity. How could it fail? WFIL had authorization for television [grandfathered in by the FCC] and I knew Philadelphia was going to be entitled to three stations. I would have one of three in an area that served more than five million people. I knew the advertising potential. It had to be a bonanza![v]
As Annenberg liked to say, acquiring a television station only cost him a “three-cent stamp” to mail the license application, so the ratio of risk to reward was decidedly in his favor.[vi] Annenberg expanded his investment in television by acquiring television magazines in several major cities and starting TV Guide in 1953. TV Guide combined television listings tailored to specific local markets with a wraparound national edition promoting television shows and personalities.[vii] By 1959, Annenberg’s Triangle Publications also owned television stations in Binghamton, New York; Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Hartford-New Haven, Conneticut; Lancaster-Lebanon, Pennsylvania; and Fresno, California.[viii] For Bandstand, Annenberg’s media empire provided advertising connections and expertise that helped to launch the show.

Through the early and mid-1950s, the increase in the number of channels expanded the total amount of airtime that stations needed to fill and left stations looking for profitable shows to broadcast in the daytime hours when networks supplied affiliates with little if any programming. Like many other stations in the early 1950s, Philadelphia’s WFIL filled its afternoon schedule with old movies since ABC offered its affiliates no daytime programming and Hollywood leased only outdated movies to the perceived rival medium. These movies flopped, leaving WFIL with an afternoon slot to fill. Roger Clipp, the station’s general manager, asked disc jockey Bob Horn to host an interview show, interspersed with filmed music shorts that had been collecting dust in WFIL’s archives.[ix] Horn already hosted a radio Bandstand program at WFIL; although his radio program was successful, like a number of prominent national radio personalities, he wanted to move from radio to television.[x] Radio comedians like Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Sid Caesar, and Bob Hope all moved to television in the early-1950s. Television networks viewed these radio personalities as established talent that would help the fledgling medium attract large national audiences and lucrative sponsors. In many cases, popular variety shows and sitcom programs were simply picked up from radio and reworked for television.[xi] Like the national networks that signed these radio stars, WFIL viewed Horn as a dependable radio personality, and like these more widely known comedians, Horn viewed television as an exciting and potentially profitable endeavor.

The first televised version of Horn’s Bandstand debuted in September 1952. Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, a friend of Horn’s who happened to be in town, was the guest. Horn chatted with Gillespie for a few minutes about his current recordings and tour. Horn then turned to the camera to announce a film of Peggy Lee singing “Mañana.” Subsequent shows continued in the same way, moving between Horn’s interviews with whatever guests he could find and the films.[xii] Despite Horn’s talents as a disc jockey, this format proved unsuccessful. Determined to hold his television slot, Horn met with Clipp and station manager George Koehler and proposed to bring in a studio audience of teenagers and make their dancing the focal point of the program. Horn looked to Philadelphia’s 950 Club (1946-1955), where radio hosts Joe Grady and Ed Hurst invited local high school students to come to the show’s center city studio and dance to the records they broadcast on their program.[xiii] Horn combined this successful format with the name of his own successful radio show, Bandstand. WFIL’s Clipp and Koehler gave Bandstand a second chance because the station wanted to add a show with low production costs that would attract teenagers, and the advertisers eager to reach teens, to WFIL’s afternoon television lineup.[xiv]

Tony Mammarella, a talented producer at WFIL, joined Horn in readying Bandstand for its debut. As Bandstand’s producer, Mammarella prepared the set, managed the admission of the studio audience, acted as a liaison between sponsors and Horn, and served as an occasional cameraman and stand-in host. Working with a modest budget, Mammarella devised a set that looked like the inside of a record store using a painted canvas backdrop and a mock-up sales counter. Banners from neighborhood high schools hung on a canvas next to the record store set, and Mammarella installed wood bleachers at one side of the studio for seating. With a studio designed to resemble two teenage spaces—the record shop and the high school gymnasium—Horn’s television Bandstand premiered on October 6, 1952 as a daily program broadcast in the Philadelphia area from 3:30 to 4:45 P.M.[xv]

Thanks to a three-week promotional campaign, and the proximity of three high schools—West Catholic High for Girls, West Catholic High for Boys, and West Philadelphia High—Bandstand had no trouble filling the studio to its two-hundred-person capacity. Only two blocks from the studio, the predominately Irish and Italian teenage girls who attended West Catholic High for Girls became the most consistent visitors to Bandstand. Teenage boys from West Catholic High for Boys were nearly as close, as were boys and girls from West Philadelphia High School, a public school that enrolled mostly Jewish and black students. Teens from other schools and neighborhoods also visited Bandstand shortly after its debut, and teens from South and Southwest Philadelphia became some of the most visible stars of the program.

The production format Horn and Mammarella established in Bandstand’s first days remained largely unchanged during Bandstand’s local years. During the broadcasts, Horn introduced records and the cameras focused on the teenagers dancing. At the midway point in the show, Horn yelled “We’ve got company,” and introduced that day’s musical guest, who would lip-synch his or her latest record.[xvi] On its first day, as it would in its first two years, Bandstand featured music primarily from white pop singers, such as Joni James, Georgia Gibbs, Frankie Laine, Connie Boswell, and Helen O’Connell. In an era before black rhythm and blues crossed over to mainstream white audiences, and "rock and roll" was not yet a household term, this selection of artists reflected what most radio stations played. Jerry Blavat, who became a regular on Bandstand and went on to become an R&B deejay in the Philadelphia area, remembers being exposed to both white pop music and black R&B as a teenager in an Italian section of South Philadelphia:
When I was a kid at 12 or 13 years old, I lived in a neighborhood where there was always music. And I would hear my aunts and my uncles playing the Four Aces, the Four Lads, Frankie Laine, and Rosemary Clooney. And then all of the sudden I turned on a television show in 1952 and I see kids dancing to this music. But I also hear rhythm and blues. “Sh-Boom” by the Chords and “Little Darling” by in those days the Gladiolas, before “Little Darling” was remade by the Crew Cuts. And this music hit my ear even though I was listening to my aunts and uncles play the pop music of the day.[xvii]
While hip teenagers like Blavat were becoming familiar with R&B through jukeboxes and records, Bandstand’s white pop songs proved popular with many of the city’s young people. By the show’s first anniversary, Bandstand fan club membership neared ten thousand local teenagers, and the Philadelphia edition of TV Guide praised the show as “the people’s choice” (both Bandstand and TV Guide, of course, were part of Annenberg’s Triangle Publications).[xviii] In outlying neighborhoods where young people could not make it to the show’s studio, Bandstand annexes were set up in firehouses and other public buildings where teenagers gathered to watch the show on TV and dance. By the start of 1955, the show was the top-rated local program in its time slot, and tens of thousands of teenagers had attended a Bandstand show at WFIL’s studio.[xix]

The teenagers who visited Bandstand came not only from Philadelphia, but also from across the wider “WFIL-adelphia” area. Pennants along the studio wall featuring the names of high schools and towns outside of Philadelphia reminded television viewers (and advertisers) of Bandstand’s geographic scope, as did a daily roll call during which teens in the studio audience gave their names and high schools. The show also featured a character called Major Max Power (a man dressed in a dark colored military-styled uniform with a large MP on his chest) who appeared weekly to tell host Bob Horn (and the studio and television audiences) about new viewers seeing the program.[xx] With each of these features, Bandstand made reference to the “WFIL-adelphia” market and to the show’s ability to deliver a large regional viewing audience to advertisers.

Although Bandstand was not always on the cutting-edge of new music, Philadelphia was a “breakout” city where producers would test records before distributing them nationally. Producers looked to Philadelphia because of its proximity to New York, where many of the record companies were located, and because it was the third largest city in the United States in the early 1950s with more residents than St. Louis and Boston combined. Philadelphia’s racial and ethnic make-up also made the city a productive place to test new music and find musical talent. The city’s black and Italian residents lived in close proximity in many neighborhoods, and despite significant tensions over housing and education, musical styles and tastes often overlapped. These interracial music exchanges made Philadelphia a thriving market in which to test new R&B and rock and roll music.[xxi]

From its earliest days, Bandstand’s producers viewed the show as a regional program with the potential, given Philadelphia’s clout as a test market, to influence the music played on pop radio stations across the country. The decentralization of the recording and radio industries made the show even more valuable as a platform for artists and record labels to reach larger audiences. Through the 1950s, a number of small record labels and local radio stations emerged to challenge the major record firm oligopolies and national radio networks. This decentralization occurred for four reasons. First, in 1947 the FCC approved a large backlog of applications for new radio stations. As a result, many independent stations emerged, doubling the number of radio stations in most markets. Second, the advent of smaller, lighter, and more durable 45 rpm records (as opposed to delicate 78s) made it possible for smaller companies to ship records across the country. Third, after television took much of the entertainment talent and national advertising spending away from radio, radio stations focused on local markets and turned to records as inexpensive forms of programming. And finally, these smaller record firms and radio stations thrived by marketing to distinct segments of the audience, including the teenage market that grew in size, had more access to music through cheap and compact transistor radios, and gained recognition among marketers through the 1950s.[xxii]

Taken together, these changes profoundly affected the range of music available to consumers via records and radio. For example, the four largest record firms—RCA, Columbia (CBS), Capitol, and American Decca (MCA)—held an 81 percent market share of hit records in 1948, but by 1959 this share declined to 34 percent. The four radio networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Mutual Broadcasting System) that vied for a share of the total national radio audience in 1948 gave way to more than one hundred autonomous local markets by the end of the 1950s.[xxiii] Many of these radio stations followed the network standard and programmed news alongside vocal and orchestral popular music. A smaller number of stations looked for attention-catching records that would attract teenage listeners. These radio stations turned to the recently founded companies that recorded R&B rather than the big band swing and crooners still favored by the major labels. These stations first emerged in cities with sizable black populations, like Philadelphia’s black-oriented WHAT-AM, and there were at least fifty other R&B stations across the country by 1960.[xxiv]

Compared to these radio stations, Bandstand was conservative in its musical selection. While Bandstand sampled watered-down covers of black R&B records by white artists in the early-1950s, radio shows in other cities introduced teenagers to a variety of original R&B records. While these radio R&B shows caused some controversy, radio continued to have more freedom than television to play new music by black artists because the stations broadcast later at night and did not feature visual images. Foremost among these radio outlets, Memphis’s WDIA, the first radio station programmed by blacks for a black audience, and Alan Freed’s popular Moondog radio show in Cleveland and later New York, played original R&B songs produced by small independent record companies.[xxv] Audiences for these radio shows varied based on the demographics of the areas in which they broadcast, but most attracted young people across racial, class, and spatial lines.[xxvi]

Bandstand was among the first television programs to join these radio broadcasters and record producers as an important promotional platform for music. For example, the Three Chuckles, a white Detroit-based group, drove all the way to Philadelphia to perform on Bandstand in 1953. The group performed “Runaround,” which at the time was a local hit released on Boulevard, a small Detroit label. Fueled by sales of the song in Philadelphia, major label RCA Victor released “Runaround” nationally and it became a hit in 1954.[xxvii] On television’s power as a promotional tool in this era, jazz trumpeter and trombonist Kirby Stone told Down Beat magazine, “We could have knocked around in clubs for 10 years and never have been seen by the number of people who have seen us on television. One night on TV is worth weeks at the Paramount.”[xxviii] Even though Bandstand was not yet broadcast nationally, it offered recording artists exposure far beyond the show’s point of origin in West Philadelphia.

With its regional and national influence, Bandstand was at the leading edge of the emerging relationship among television, radio, and the music industry. Bandstand was not the only local television show to create a niche in this changing media landscape, and by 1956 nearly fifty markets had television dance shows similar to Bandstand.[xxix] However, with a broadcast signal that reached parts of four states, positive publicity from Walter Annenberg’s media properties such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and TV Guide, and daily musical guests, Bandstand was the most influential of these locally televised music shows. Before Alan Freed brought his popular radio shows and concerts to television in 1956, and before Ed Sullivan broadcast Bo Diddley in 1955 and later Elvis Presley in 1956, Bob Horn’s Bandstand had grown into a local show with national influence, making it the most important television venue in this era for artists and producers looking to reach a large audience. This success, however, came at a price for the black teenagers in the West Philadelphia neighborhood around Bandstand’s studio. While the program started playing black R&B by 1954, the show also implemented admissions policies that had the effect of excluding black teens. While the producers’ racial attitudes may have contributed to these policies, their desire to create a noncontroversial advertiser-friendly show did more to encourage the policies. For Bandstand, reaching teenage consumers across “WFIL-adelphia” took priority over providing a space that would be open to all teens in its backyard of West Philadelphia.

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