Monday, April 16, 2012

American Bandstand, Teens and Fifties TV

It’s a law of physics. You know. Like apples falling on Newton’s head. The more I really want something, the more I can count on getting it -- exactly when I don’t want it.

Susie from down the road pulls the elastic from her pony tail and shakes loose her honey blond curls. “Hey, Sophie. I’m going over to Polly’s to watch American Bandstand. Wanna come?”

Her invitation is for me, but her eyes are on my older brother. Like a cowboy in one of those Westerns he watches, Marek hooks his thumbs into the pockets of his chinos and leans against Dad’s wood-paneled station wagon. He’s trying to look cool, but he’s lapping up Susie’s adoration as avidly as our dog licks the trickle of ice cream from a melting cone.

A longing spreads across my chest with a hunger worse than three months of starvation hiding from the Polish Policja. After a year in the US, I still don’t have many friends.

Of course, Susie’s invitation comes at exactly the wrong time. I foolishly spent the morning clothes-pinning playing cards to the fat wheels of my little sister Viola’s red Schwinn bike, which she’s rolling back and forth. The tsking click accelerates like a Geiger counter measuring her worry.

As if I’d forget.

So starts an early version of my YA Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty.  In my last blog post I talked about using childhood memories to add texture to a novel.  This week's post is how it looks in action.

First, it's a way to clearly set the time and place -- in this case, a Long Island suburb in the 1950's. 
Dick Clark's TV show American Bandstand, which ran from 1952 to 1989 (!!!) in various versions, was a teen icon.  Top teen pop stars appeared live on the show, singing their latest hits.  The show also introduced the concept of the Top 40, which has survived to today.

The show's original name was Bandstand, which is what it was called in 1956, but since most people knew it asAmerican Bandstand , I used that name.  It ran in the afternoons, and rolling back the rug and dancing along with the music was almost an obsession among teens in the fifties and early sixties.  So when Sophie is invited to watch it with friends, its a way into the "in" crowd at her new school.

I can't believe how big tv was back then, as big as it is now.  By the mid 1950's most homes had a black and white tv and kids talked about the shows and the plots like they do today.  American Bandstand came on around 4 or 4:30 -- scheduled to catch the teen audience -- and kids rushed home to catch it on tv. 

Color started coming in in the early 1960's, but people made attempts to colorize their tv screens before that.  I remember being really excited about one product and bugging my partents to buy a thick sheet of clear plastic that stuck to your screen through static electricity and promised to add color to the program.  When light hit the plastic, some kind of coating on it would add hues of mostly red and green to the image.  But the color came from the coated spots on the plastic, not from the image on the screen, so there was no coordination between the real color of an object and what you saw.  You can imagine my disappointment at a green face or a red glass of milk.  Needless to say, that fad didn't last long.

Rolling back the rug was another feature of the fifties.  Back in those days, wall to wall carpeting was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Most people had homes with wooden floors (linoleum in the kitchen).  Area rugs covered the center of the room.  When exposed, the wooden planking made a great dance floor.

My parents (and many families) had two sets of rugs -- gray wool ones for winter, and gray straw mats for summer.  The rugs were fairly large and covered most of the floor, leaving about two feet around the edge of the room.  It was a big annual project to shift furniture and change rugs.  I can't remember where the kept the set that wasn't being used.  Changing rugs made them last longer, though.  My parents, when they built a retirement home out on eastern Long Island in the late 60's, actually brought the wool rugs, still in great condition, with them.  By that time the rugs were 20 years old.

To be continued next week...

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