The show -- which was broadcast from Philadelphia until 1964 -- became a weekday-afternoon hit, its success intertwined with that of rock music and its youthful, telegenic stars, including a huge Philly contingent: Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Chubby Checker. By the time I started tuning in Bandstand in the 1970s, its popularity had peaked; it aired only on Saturday afternoons after the cartoons. No one in my high school admitted watching it, but we certainly took our fashion cues from Bandstand's nattily dressed dancers, who all sported the latest blow-dried hairstyles, platform shoes and polyester clothes.
And as always, the driving force behind the increasingly anachronistic grooveathon was the show's silken-voiced host, Dick Clark. Clark's show was unabashedly dumb, but he, at least, seemed genuinely enthusiastic about pop music through every change of style and fashion, from Connie Francis to Madonna and Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello. Clark was -- and remains -- a savvy businessman, investing in a variety of music-publishing, concert-promotion and TV-production enterprises that have reportedly made him a multimillionaire.
As American Bandstand was winding down (Clark and ABC parted in 1987; the show was syndicated until 1989), Clark must have seen the Hard Rock Café empire, founded by Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton, expanding over the globe. Since he had his own massive collection of rock-and-roll memorabilia, Clark decided to start a restaurant concept of his own. In 1992, the first Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill opened in Overland Park, lured by the city's upscale demographics and, of course, baby boomers galore.
The Hard Rock Café, it isn't. Sure, Clark has expanded his minichain to seven namesake restaurant/dance clubs that, like the Hard Rocks, have retail gift shops and display assorted pop star memorabilia. But Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill has never enjoyed much of a hipness quotient, and its lame exhibition of rock and roll history barely evokes a yawn from the suburban diners who squeeze into its booths and around its tables.
On two of my visits, I wandered around the dining area checking out the collection: a fringed jacket worn by Janis Joplin in 1969, a lacy gown worn by Tricia Yearwood, a hideous embroidered jacket ostensibly worn -- and sensibly discarded -- by Mariah Carey and a Stevie Nicks-autographed Royals jersey in a display case by the entrance. There, the hostess, who seemed to have completed a stint in the military, barked out greetings, picked up stacks of vinyl-coated menus and marched customers to their tables with such brisk efficiency that it was easy to miss a glimpse of Michael Jackson's belt or Ricky Nelson's poly-blend shirt.
"It's Denny's with tchotchkes," my friend Jeanne said acidly.
She had a point. After nine years of long-playing action, this restaurant is looking as worn as an old 45. The framed photographs and icons hanging above our booth -- including a Prince gold record -- are splattered with dried grease and bits of food. The custom-made carpeting, woven with the American Bandstand logo, is dirty. Frankly, the entire joint could use a damp cloth and pail of bleach.
But the menu has been tuned up with several new dishes, and the food is reasonably priced and moderately creative. The youthful servers (all between the ages of 18 and 22) are unfailingly friendly and attentive -- and wildly informative. On my visit with Jeanne, our lanky, spiky-haired waiter gave us the 411 on what happens after 8 p.m., when the adjoining "dance club" opens its doors.
"It attracts three kinds of people," he said. "Middle-aged businesspeople who stay in the hotels around here and get bored; middle-aged couples who want to hang out with people, you know, like them; and divorced or single people who are, uh, you know, over 35 who want to meet somebody."
Jeanne winked at me as she sliced into what turned out to be a remarkably soft and juicy prime rib. I knew what she meant. At our age, we'd fit right into that scene. I shuddered at the thought, then took a bite of my tomato-slathered hunk of chicken with three-cheese Romano (a fancy title for a standard-issue chicken parmesan). It had a nice beat, I guess, but wasn't anything to dance about.
We'd already had one disappointment, the so-called herb-cheese-stuffed shrimp appetizer, which turned out to be five puny, heavily-breaded fried shrimp with barely a hint of melted cheese (the word "stuffed" was hyperbole, to say the least). They were tossed on a plate with a tiny lemon wedge, a wilted kale leaf and a gluey dollop of yellowed tartar sauce.
But Jeanne loved her slab of beef and the accompanying salt-coated baked potato loaded with cheese, sour cream and bacon. Her teenage daughter, who was born too late to appreciate American Bandstand's nostalgia trip, raved over the chicken fingers crusted with smashed corn flakes and ground almonds. But she watched the video clips from ancient Bandstand shows (which play erratically on TVs scattered around the dining room) with amazement. This member of the MTV generation found Dick Clark's quaint dance show to be totally bizarre.
In retrospect, it is. At an earlier dinner with my friend Bob, I had ordered one of the new items, a "homestyle" meatloaf that arrived not "barbecue glazed," as described, but exactly like the grayish stuff from my high school cafeteria, with the same pool of quivering, rubbery gravy and a mound of slightly warm mashed potatoes. In a déjà vu moment, I looked up at the TV and saw some geeky kid wearing the same goofball outfit I once wore proudly to an impeach-Nixon rally. I almost choked on my sautéed zucchini.
That dinner had started out happily enough, with a beautifully arrayed plate of Southwestern egg rolls filled with chopped chicken, vegetables and black beans. But then came the mediocre meatloaf and Bob's dinner, a combination platter of grilled top sirloin, chicken breast and those bogus "stuffed" shrimp. Bob liked it all well enough, although I thought it scored zero for presentation and laughed when Bob spent a good three minutes biting into one shrimp after another looking for the elusive cheese.
"It kind of melts away," giggled the waitress, a fresh-faced college student and champion tap dancer who tried to win points by suggesting we try a bowl of "Ooey Gooey Chocolate Brownie Orgy." But despite giant wedges of brownie, the big mound of ice cream came dribbled with the stingiest amount of hot fudge. Orgy? Not nearly decadent enough.
Equally disappointing was the strawberry shortcake, dappled with a few spoonfuls of strawberry puree that tasted as if it had been just defrosted. I do give raves, though, to the heaping bowl of bread pudding, a fluffy creation of warm, custard-soaked bread cubes, raisins, caramel sauce and whipped cream.
The place isn't fancy, but Dick Clark didn't become a mogul by overestimating American tastes. His signature restaurant is always bustling, often with young families who probably barely remember the TV show that inspired the theme and décor. And why should they care? Patty Duke's hit single from 1965 is long forgotten, but a patty melt will last forever.