It is 1957, the year I graduated from high school. At that time, some of you were gathered around your 13-inch, black-and-white Zenith television, perhaps watching one of that era’s popular cowboy shows, “Johnny Mack Brown” or the “Durango Kid,” on Frontier Playhouse that featured cowboy movies of the time. Maybe you were watching one of my favorites, the puppet Willie the Worm, who talked with viewers in-between the cartoons shown.
But the eyes of a number of teenagers were glued to the dancers, on a highly popular show for young people, as they danced to popular rock and roll and rhythm and blues recordings. You may recall the recordings by artists such as Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and many more. Some of you may also recall observing live appearances by artists such as Lee Andrews and the Hearts, Mary Wells, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Jackie Wilson. The venue for this television show was not at 46th and Market streets nor was the host Dick Clark. Thus, this show was not the infamous “Bandstand” that eventually became “American Bandstand.” I am referencing a television dance program that had a similar format with one major difference: the faces of the dancers on “American Bandstand” were primarily those of white teenagers while the faces of dancers on the televised dance program that I am referencing today were primarily those of Black teenagers. How many of you remember or even have knowledge of “The Mitch Thomas Show,” televised for just three years, from 1955 to 1958, back in the day?
If you grew up, back then, you might recall the controversy centered on Blacks and “American Bandstand.” Quite frankly, Blacks were consciously excluded from its audience. Bluntly stated, Blacks were not welcomed. It was done overtly by screening out participants based on addresses and tactical methods such as playing music on its show that we would refer to as “White music.”
In Dick Clark’s early days of hosting “American Bandstand,” the show did feature Black artists and eventually allowed Blacks as audience participants by very selective and controlled practices. So, while “American Bandstand” may have been off-limits for Black teenagers, for a period of time, we found enjoyment dancing at “The Mitch Thomas Show” live studio or watching it with fun and pride on WPFH television network. This was one of the few television shows that you probably watched on channel 12 here in Philadelphia and is the network known today as WHYY.
So, who was Mitch Thomas of the “The Mitch Thomas Show”? Many of us that were rhythm and blues fans and record “junkies” in the past know the names of Georgie Woods and Douglas “Jocko” Henderson, but Thomas is rather foreign to many. I know this to be a fact based on numerous folk I have talked with in preparing this column. Most knew nothing about Thomas and his show. Well, you should know that in 1955, Thomas was a disc jockey at WDAS in Philadelphia where he worked with Woods and Henderson. In the book “The Nicest Kids In Town,” by Matthew F. Delmont, some background information is provided regarding Thomas. He points out that “Mitch Thomas brought Black performers and teenage fans to television.” He moved to New Brunswick, N.J., from West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1922. Of particular interest to me is that both Thomas and I both graduated from the same college, now Delaware State University. Delmont’s book indicates that after college and military service, Thomas became the first Black disc jockey in Wilmington, Del., in 1949. Before moving on to WDAS, as mentioned earlier, Thomas became a disc jockey at WILM, a larger station that played records by rhythm and blues artists. He moved on to the television opportunity at WPFH from WDAS when it became available in his own backyard, Wilmington, Del.
The reason why Thomas received this opportunity rather than better-known disc jockeys Georgie Woods or Jocko Henderson, with whom he worked, is worthy of speculation, but I have no answers. Before going further, I had concluded that WPFH was more concerned with economics: wanting to compete with “American Bandstand” rather than having concerns for racial equality. My findings in various books and articles, confirms that economics was definitely the objective for the introduction of “The Mitch Thomas Show.” But, the station suffered significant financial problems due to its inability to attract advertisers and “The Mitch Thomas Show” was among the first victims of the station’s financial difficulties.
Low ratings were also cited as another reason for the cancellation of this show. This was the case in spite of strategies to make the show viable, including the employment of white disc jockeys for afternoon shows, developing an audience that included white teenagers, a change in the station’s call letters and the attempt to move the show closer to Philadelphia. My friend Barbara White told me that she religiously watched the show on television and will remembers being surprised seeing Bobby Darin, a white performer on a Black show. Yes, there were white recording artists performing on the show as well as whites that attended the show as audience participants. They mainly participated to see the artists and to learn the dances of the Black participants. This was acknowledged by Thomas in a 1986 interview with the Wilmington News Journal. In spite of its efforts to make the show viable, “The Mitch Thomas Show” was one of the first programs on WPFH that was cancelled. The cancellation occurred in June of 1958.
“The Mitch Thomas Show,” with a format similar to “American Bandstand,” debuted on WPFH, an unaffiliated television station, with viewers in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley on Aug. 13, 1955. It was televised from Wilmington, Del., and was seen every Saturday. “The Mitch Thomas Show” was the talk of the high school lunch rooms and the neighborhood hangouts. Blacks loved the show! The Philadelphia Tribune frequently featured the show in its “Teen-Talk” and “Teen Events Crickets’ Corner” publications. Having access to The Tribune’s archive system, I read several of these articles and agree with reports that appeared on the internet that these teen writers kept tabs on activities with both the musical artists and the teenage dancers that appeared on this show. I had limited success in a search for individuals that actually danced on this show. In hindsight, this was understandable, given the time frame in which the show was televised. Those that appeared on the show back in 1955 through 1958 were young teenagers at the time. Thus, many are no longer with us.
A number of my friends told me that they recall watching the show on television but travel to Wilmington, Del., was out of the question; it was quite a trip. Few had train or bus fare for such a trip and access to automobiles were limited. Also, there was no Interstate 95, back then, so an automobile ride involved a long drive through the heart of Chester, Pa., to reach the show.
In Delmont’s book, he shared an interview he had with Otis Givens, who lived in South Philadelphia and attended Ben Franklin High School. Givens, he reported, watched “The Mitch Thomas Show” every weekend for a year before he finally made the trip to Wilmington and danced on the show. One of my colleagues at The Philadelphia Tribune, Cliff Leatherberry, told me that he appeared on the “The Mitch Thomas Show,” one time. Once his aunt, who lived in Wilmington, secured an admission ticket for him, his mother drove him to Wilmington. At that time, he was about 14 years of age. While this occurred more than 60 years ago, he was so impressed with the show until he still remembers dancing his favorite dances such as the stroll, slop and cha-cha. He had great fun on the show, spent the night with his aunt and returned home full of pride knowing that his friends saw him on television.
With some “stick-to-it-ness,” luck, assistance from former Philadelphia disc jockey Carl Helm and Wilmington resident, college friend and fraternity brother Major Hairston, I was fortunate to be put in touch with Michael Thomas, the son of Mitch Thomas. In a telephone conversation, Michael told me that he was around 2 years of age at the time of his father’s show so had no detailed information. He mentioned that his mother spoke of him going to their television during the airing of his father’s show and sticking his finger in his father’s eye as he pushed against the television screen. Michael also told me that his father often spoke about his favorite dancer on the show that he only recalls by her nickname “Pony Tail.” Robert Smith, who drove for Thomas and was positively influenced by Thomas when Mitch Thomas eventually became a counselor in a gang prevention program. Smith told me how Thomas always had a sharp Cadillac; pink being the color he remembers most. So, where is Mitch Thomas today? Well, unfortunately, he passed on Feb. 10, 1999. Those of us that watched “The Mitch Thomas Show” would sit in front of our televisions with pride as we saw friends from our schools and neighborhoods demonstrating their unique dances and dancing techniques. After all, you must know, being on television and being Black was a big deal, back in the day.
Those of us that grew up back in the mid-50s will undoubtedly smile with the mention of ice skating at the 46th and Market streets arena. You will also smile with the mention of house parties in the basements of homes; shows at the Uptown Theatre; dances at the Imperial Ballroom; weenie roasts in Fairmount Park; outings by Omega by the Sea in Atlantic City; and movies at the State and Nixon theaters on North 52nd Street. But, for those that visited “The Mitch Thomas Show” or watched it on television, even with faint memories that have come from its limited three years of air-time, you must long for this experience again, but it is gone. So, the teenage dance experiences on “The Mitch Thomas Show” have been forgotten, if not buried, back in the day.