The Bandstand studio at 46th and Market Streets was old, dreary, and dark — that is, until Dick Clark appeared. Then the lights punched on like a bolt of sunshine, and the gym-like bleacher seats were rolled out with businesslike authority. A certain buzz circulated among the teenagers: Bandstand was about to begin.
I went to the studio several times and, on one occasion, took part in one of Clark's famous spotlight dances with a girl I didn't even know. I was able to waltz past the guards at the entrance because I knew one of the regulars. The regulars didn't have to stand in a block-long line of hoping-to-get-in non-regulars, many of whom wouldn't.
Bandstand was a pop-cultural influence of the time, just like fast cars and rock-and-roll. Everybody loved cars, but not everybody loved rock-and-roll. Many parents, religious leaders, and politicians considered it a mutinous attack on all-American virtues.
After all, they had seen the paragon of rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley, smoldering, sneering, and titillating with sexual urgency as he swiveled his hips to "Hound Dog." To many adults, he exemplified the music's potential to corrupt their children.
This was supposed to be an age of innocence and conformity, although that was as much myth as reality. The beatniks and organizations like the Committee for Non-Violent Action were already setting in motion the political, social, and cultural winds now associated with the '60s.
But here were Dick Clark and Bandstand, serving to legitimize — even sanitize — rock-and-roll. Clark was a clean-cut, fresh-faced man who looked like a teenager himself, always in a suit and tie with carefully coiffed hair, hosting a show on which innocent-looking teenage boys and girls danced presentably together to rock-and-roll.
The Catholic girls wore their school uniforms, jumpers over blouses with Peter Pan collars; others wore sweaters with pleated skirts. The boys dressed neatly in coats and ties, with their hair slicked back or in Ivy League cuts.
It all projected a wholesome image, and it was presented on the relatively new medium of television, which had become a centerpiece of family life.
Clark also broadened acceptance of the music and styles of African American artists. Many appeared on Bandstand, including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Chubby Checker.
Sure, Clark profited handsomely — and perhaps not always properly. He was investigated, though not charged, on suspicion of pushing records he had a stake in. In any case, Bandstand helped create the capital Clark used to build a successful TV empire.
He always thought of himself as an entrepreneur more than some kind of revolutionary figure — even though that's what he was. Dick Clark's major contribution was bringing rock-and-roll into the mainstream.