By Molly Eichel
Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)
PHILADELPHIA — Professor Matthew Delmont set out to write about how the '50s dance show "American Bandstand" was an integrated bastion of pop culture, where Philadelphia's black and white teens mixed and mingled on television even though the rest of the country was bitterly divided by race.
Then he discovered his entire premise was dead-wrong.
In the resulting book, "The Nicest Kids in Town," this assistant professor of American studies at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., details how "American Bandstand" kept African-American teens off the show, despite host Dick Clark's later claims to the contrary.
Delmont initially became interested in "American Bandstand" because his mom was a huge fan. When he was in graduate school, Delmont wanted to write a book about how segregation differed in the North from the South, where tactics were more overt.
Indeed, there was nothing overt about racism on "Bandstand." The show didn't hang a shingle outside of its 46th and Market studio barring African-Americans from the premises. "What they did was use what could only be described as underhanded tactics," Delmont said in a phone interview last week. "They would have a dress code and black teens would just so happen not have the right clothes on."
"Bandstand" used a core group of 10 to 20 dancers ("Very nice people," Delmont said. "I interviewed them for the book."). If other teens wanted to get on the show, they had to write in for passes. Producers would screen the ticket applications for classically ethnic names, picking out kids with Polish, Irish and Italian names who they assumed were white.
In the book, Delmont talks with Walter Palmer, who lived in West Philly during "Bandstand's" heyday. "'Bandstand' was segregated," Palmer told Delmont. "There were white kids from all of the Catholic schools, but no black kids. West Catholic was on 46th, and they were always there; our school (West Philadelphia High School) was on 47th (and we could not go)."
Palmer and his friends waged a protest. "(His group) wrote in with different last names, with Polish, Italian and Irish last names, so they were able to get passes for that day," Delmont said.
Palmer was inspired to continue to fight for civil rights for African-Americans after his "Bandstand" experience. And he wasn't the only one.
Iona Stroman and her friends also launched a "Bandstand" protest.
As Delmont tells it: "There was a singer named Bobby Brooks, an African-American teen singer from South Philadelphia who was their favorite singer. They were the Bobby Brooks fan club. He was going to be on 'Bandstand' and they wanted to go see him.
"They protested and they were actually able to get in because a reporter from the Philadelphia Tribune was there and he threatened to blow up the story. What she told me was they didn't set out to make history, but it was her way of protesting something that mattered to her."
What's ironic about the show's exclusionary practices is that West Philadelphia at the time was a relatively integrated neighborhood. "All of the pictures from West Philadelphia High School testify to this integrated neighborhood that was only five or six blocks away (from where 'Bandstand' was filmed). You can see the spire of West Philadelphia High School from the studio. They couldn't have been closer, but their racial composition couldn't have been more different," Delmont said. "West Philadelphia was a mixed neighborhood at that point, but 'Bandstand' didn't want to broadcast that real Philadelphia to the region."
As recently as last March, when he was interviewed by the New York Times, Dick Clark contended that "Bandstand" became integrated when he took over as host in 1957. But Delmont's research proves otherwise.
Clark isn't quoted in Delmont's book. Clark's publicist, Paul Shefrin, said that Clark was never asked.
"I contacted Dick Clark Productions via phone in spring of 2007 and they connected me to his publicist, Paul Shefrin," Delmont said. "I called Mr. Shefrin and he, on behalf of Mr. Clark, declined to comment on the evidence that I had found at that point."
Delmont said one of his main complaints about the way Clark has handled the legacy of "Bandstand" is that he refuses to acknowledge that the show was not fully integrated.
"If he had just said, 'In Philadelphia, there was a lot of racism there and there was a lot of racism in television and they couldn't integrate.' That would be factually true," Delmont said.
According to Delmont, Clark didn't start asserting that "Bandstand" was integrated until it was financially convenient.
"It wasn't until Don Cornelius created 'Soul Train' and offered up a competitor for 'American Bandstand' in the '70s that Clark tried to say 'Bandstand' was down with black music and down with civil rights from the get-go," Delmont said. "From 1957 when the show was supposedly integrated through the '70s, he never mentions the integration of 'Bandstand.' It wasn't until 'Soul Train' started drawing advertisers and viewers away that he wants to offer up this memory."
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