Most important, American Bandstand defined what teenagers looked like for a generation of viewers. And the image Clark presented in those early years was exclusively white. Viewers would have had little idea that African Americans made up nearly 30 percent of Philadelphia’s population in this era or that black teens developed many of the dances that American Bandstand popularized nationally.
When I started research six years ago for a book on American Bandstand, I believed, as Clark claimed, that the show’s studio audience was fully integrated by the late 1950s. In his 1997 history of American Bandstand, for example, Clark contends, “I don’t think of myself as a hero or civil rights activist for integrating the show; it was simply the right thing to do.” More recently, when asked about the racial policies of Bandstand in a 2011 New York Times interview, he answered simply: “As soon as I became the host, we integrated.” Most of his obituary writers have repeated some version of this claim.
But Clark’s recollections differ from archival materials, newspaper accounts, video and photographic evidence and the memories of people who were regulars on American Bandstand or who were excluded from the show.
Archived reports of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations show that Bandstand was initially segregated in the early 1950s, when it was a locally broadcast show hosted by Bob Horn. The show’s producers implemented racially discriminatory admissions policies because they feared that racial tensions around the studio in West Philadelphia would alienate advertisers.
Rather than a strict whites-only policy (like at Baltimore’s Buddy Deane Show, made famous in John Waters’ Hairspray), Bandstand used other means to block black teens from the studio. In addition to a dress code, Clark’s show required visitors to write in advance to request tickets, and these applications were screened by name and address. Black teenagers undermined this ticket plan on at least one occasion. “I engineered a plan to get membership applications,” Walter Palmer told me, “and gave them Irish, Polish and Italian last names. They mailed the forms back to our homes, and once we had the cards, we were able to get in that day.”