It’s Got a Good Beat and You can Dance to It: ‘American Bandstand’ Collectibles

Dick Clark knew that teenagers of the late 1950s and early ’60s had disposable income and provided a stream of “American Bandstand” merchandise for them to buy. Now, that merchandise is a hot collectible for Baby Boomers.

Promotional merchandise has become such a part of American media marketing that many new movies launch simultaneously with a merchandising push. Disney is a master of such promotion, along with Lucasfilms and Pixar. Most of the merchandise comes and goes quickly, but dolls representing cultural and pop icons linger on year after year, moving from the bedrooms of adolescents to the shelves of collectors.

One such cultural icon is the Dick Clark doll, still making its appearance 45 years after its introduction. Yes, the American Bandstand host had his own doll—along with a host of other products. Dick Clark was a master of promotion, and a record business genius. From modest beginnings in Philadelphia in 1956, he built a music business empire around his American Bandstand franchise.

American Bandstand is the longest-running television show in U.S. broadcast history, airing continuously for 37 years (1952 to 1989). The original show premiered on Philadelphia’s WFIL-TV as Bandstand, and was hosted by WFIL-radio disc jockey Bob Horn. In the spring of 1956, Horn had some very public run-ins with the law and he was fired. Bandstand producer Tony Mammarella filled in as host until Clark was hired. In the spring of 1957, Clark pitched the show to the ABC television network; it was picked up nationally and the show’s name was changed to “American Bandstand.”

The show’s theme song was changed from Artie Shaw’s “High Society” to the now-famous “Bandstand Boogie” by Les Elgart’s Big band. The Bandstand theme was updated over the years as musical tastes changed, and the final version (in use from 1977-1989) added lyrics and vocals by Barry Manilow.

The production format for “American Bandstand” was simple: popular records of the day were played as middle-class teens danced. Later show features included live appearances by recording artists lip-synching their latest hits, casual chats with audience members and regular features such as “rate a record,” fan-mail drawings and dance contests judged by home viewers. Dancing was the primary draw for viewers: teens across America learned the newest dances by watching Bandstand. Clark’s introduction of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” in 1960 led to a tidal wave of new dance songs in the early 1960s, all perfect for the new dance show format: Bandstand introduced the dances the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, the Jerk, the Madison (or the Stroll), the Pony, the Watusi, the Hulley-Gulley, and on and on ad infinitum.

Clark’s relationship with Chubby Checker—and many of his early “Bandstand” guests—was more than just that of mentor. Clark had an ownership stake in 33 different record labels, distributors and manufacturers, all of which benefitted financially from Clark’s bully-pulpit on “American Bandstand.” In spite of his self-effacing public image, Clark was an astute businessman. Clark’s genius was apparent from an early age: his graduating class at Davis High School (NY) voted him “Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge.” Clark was a star maker who used his power to promote artists who would make him money. According to “Solid Gold: The Popular Record Industry,” by R. Serge Denisoff, more than 50 percent of the records available through Clark’s companies were played on “Bandstand.”

In the early 1960s, record producers churned out more than two hundred new records every week. There were more records available to be played on the radio than there were hours in the day for DJs to play them. Typical radio station programming allowed for play of the “top 40” records, plus fast-rising (on the Billboard charts) new releases. That meant that at most, stations were playing about 50 songs over and over during the week. Most songs stayed on a station’s playlist for about six weeks before dropping off. Extreme competition between record producers led to corruption: producers bribed DJs to play their records in a practice known as “payola,” Payola was so much a part of the record business that if producers didn’t pay, DJs wouldn’t play their records at all. 

Middle class teens from the Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs danced to the songs that Clark would pick for “American Bandstand,” often profiting personally in the process.

In this atmosphere, Clark was able to leverage his influence considerably. A millionaire in his twenties, Clark’s ability to make a star out of anyone he chose while simultaneously profiting from it attracted the attention of the House Committee on Legislative Oversight—the congressional committee investigating the payola scandal of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Clark followed the Congressional committee closely, and with the help of ABC he was able to divest himself of all his music-business ownership interests by the time he was called upon to testify. Clark so “wowed” the committee with his charm and straightforwardness that Representative Oren Harris (D-Arkansas), in concluding the hearings, said to Clark: “I don’t think you’re the inventor of the system, I think you’re the product.” Clark got a pass from Congress on the payola issue, which only strengthened his position within the industry and with the American public.

Though in his thirties, he was dubbed “The World’s Oldest Teenager.” Clark’s clean-cut image and the sanitized rock ’n’ roll he offered encouraged parents to allow their teens to gather to watch “Bandstand” in its after-school time slot each afternoon, and the show’s popularity skyrocketed. “American Bandstand” dominated its time slot, with an audience of more than 20 million viewers.

Teens of the sixties—for the first time in generations—had money to spend. Much of the world’s industry was still recovering from Second World War, while America was flush with jobs and a strong manufacturing base. The children of the prosperous middle class had an estimated $7 billion in those years to spend indulging their pastimes. Rock ’n’ roll led the way in determining where teens would spend their money: teen-focused movies (starring the day’s teen idols Frankie Avalon, Elvis and Annette Funicello, among others) transistor radios, 45 RPM records, portable hi-fi phonographs and promotional merchandise was being bought up as quickly as manufacturers could produce it. 

A Dick Clark doll. He looked like he had a much more successful future than Ken or G.I. Joe.

The “American Bandstand” 45 RPM record vault. Did you have one of these as a teen?

Dick Clark understood that money could be made from “American Bandstand” merchandising, so he ensured that there was a steady stream of “American Bandstand” themed products available to teen fans: T-shirts, dolls, autograph albums, record cases, trading cards, postcards, jewelry, P.F. Flyers canvas shoes, posters, and a never-ending supply of “American Bandstand” record collections (and later DVD collector sets). Baby Boomers who came of age watching “Bandstand” every day after school seek out these items and have become avid collectors.

“Bandstand” items currently offered for sale on eBay include the 1962 contract for Dion and the Belmonts appearance on “Bandstand,” an “American Bandstand” electric slot machine topper, various correspondence signed by Clark, photos, and autographs; There were 1,244 for-sale and 238 sold listings as of this writing. There is even a licensed Department 56 “American Bandstand” animated “snow village” collectible.

An official “American Bandstand” autograph album. It came in handy when artists would lip-synch their hits on the set.

An “American Bandstand” letterman’s sweater. There was a time then these were cool to wear.

There are hundreds of autographed photos and other “American Bandstand” memorabilia for sale on the Internet.

There is even a licensed Department 56 “American Bandstand” animated “snow village” collectible.

Clark died in April of 2012 but his legacy lives on. Dick Clark Productions is the world’s largest producer of televised events. DCP produces more than two dozen shows annually, including the American Music Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, and the Billboard Music Awards. They engage in artist management, creative development, digital distribution and licensing. And, (surprise) they still offer merchandising products for their various projects. One clear failure that can be traced to Dick Clark is his disappointing performance regarding his Davis High School prediction: as far as I know, the Brooklyn Bridge is still owned by the City of New York. Clark was never able to sell it.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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