The same day Dick Clark died, I read yet another newspaper lament about the Facebook generation’s lack of genuine community. Reliance on a virtual community, rather than face-to-face engagement, is exacerbating young people’s loneliness, the article maintained. Had Dick Clark’s death not tossed me back to the reality check of memory, I might have joined in the fretting. Instead, I realized that nothing much has changed with regard to friendship and loneliness since my youth.
To be honest, American Bandstand was the baby boom generation’s social network, our virtual community, the place where we enjoyed, vicariously, the companionship of dancers we could only watch on our TV screens. Just how many of us, I wonder, raced home after school afraid we might miss the opening five or ten of those ninety precious minutes that assured us we belonged to the group “teenagers,” “the rock ‘n’roll generation?” Having left the comfort of an elementary school with a remarkably stable population–other working-class kids I had known since kindergarten, I counted on the vicarious friendship of those Italian kids in Philadelphia to help me negotiate new, real-life friendships in my larger, area-wide junior high. One commonality we could draw on in making friends was a shared attitude toward Bandstand. My friends were the kids who loved it, kids who were not ashamed to dance in their living rooms, even if it meant swinging around a chair or a door jamb. Some of those friends are still present in my life and indulging these memories.
The technology we relied on in building our social network was, of course, more primitive. TV was, after all, a one-way form of communication. We had to send our votes in by mail to help Kenny and Arlene or Justine and Bob win the periodic dance contests. I learned the watched-pot lesson by anticipating too eagerly the arrival of my Bandstand yearbook in the mailbox at the end of our driveway. It finally came on the one day I forgot to think about it. When my sister handed down her old manual typewriter, one of the first uses I put it to was creating a list of all the Bandstand regulars whose names I knew, in separate boy and girl columns. I checked the list with friends to see whose names I had omitted. No one found my familiarity with Bandstand regulars obsessive. I wrote fan letters to the dancers, and, to my amazement, they wrote back. Barbara Levick told me that the boy she danced with most often, Walt Grzelak, was indeed her boyfriend, and Carmen Jimenez revealed that she was only 13, still a year too young to appear on the show legitimately. One day those documents of my acceptance into a virtual community will turn up in a cluttered closet.
While Bandstand introduced us to the variety of the day’s popular music, Dick Clark did tend to promote the slick pop stuff with special enthusiasm. Today, if I play my old 45s of the Philadelphia sound–Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” Fabian’s “Turn Me Loose”–I can understand why my dad kept asking if they were singing into a tin can. Yet I also see how deeply Dick Clark understood teenage longings. Like so many other girls, I fell for those guys and heard them singing to only me. Later I would find both more sophistication and aesthetic satisfaction in the music of Levon Helm, for example, who died just a day after Dick Clark.
American Bandstand expanded the boundaries of our virtual community without ever announcing that it was doing so. One regular, Myrna Horowitz, danced with a limp, showing us that physical perfection was not a requirement for inclusion. To the many polio survivors in my age group, her presence was a vital affirmation of their teenage normality. I’ve read some commentary by Bandstand watchers of more “bourgeois” backgrounds that the working-class, urban Italian kids on the show offered them their first chance to feel fond and familiar with a dangerous “other.” The show was, for many of us rural Midwesterners, a first experience of racial integration. It featured Little Richard and Chuck Berry on the same terms as white performers, ignoring the public furor about white kids listening to “race music.” Gradually we saw black teenagers dancing across our TV screens–in token numbers, yes, but still it seemed bold. Without Bandstand‘s success, would our younger siblings and cousins have had Soul Train?
So ease up, baby boomers. Let the lonely, longing youth find community on Facebook. Imagine how much closer we could have felt to our favorite dancers and our fellow Bandstand fans if we’d had the capacity to post and like and tweet.
P.S. I got to thinking later that only one of the names of Bandstand regulars I mentioned is Italian. Barbara Levick said in her letter that she was Italian, whether one-half or three-fourths I don’t remember. Here are some other Bandstand names I recall and still pronounce with pleasure: Scaldiferri, Giordano, MonteCarlo, Molittieri, Gaeda, Russo, Beltrante, Carelli . . . In a town of Jensens and Knudsens and Bjerkes and Kvenvolds, these vowel-rich names were so alluring.