You Can’t Stop the Beat: The Secret History of Hairspray as Live TV
Live TV has made a comeback — especially the musical. The spectacle of a live event where anything can happen has wooed us away from Hulu and back to our TV sets. Millions of Americans hoping for disaster have tuned in to see and tweet about whether Allison Williams’ Peter Pan would drop from her hoist, or if Carrie Underwood could hit her “do re mis” as Maria Von Trapp. The next live musical extravaganza that will have us tuned in is Hairspray Live, airing Wednesday, December 7, on NBC.
The inspiration for the movie, then musical, then musical-movie, and now live-TV event was a teen dance show broadcast in Baltimore, MD. The Buddy Deane Bandstand premiered in 1957, part of a rush by TV producers to corner the lucrative teen market. While American Bandstand would become the most famous, local teen dance shows aired around the country. Deane’s show quickly became the city’s most popular. Teens tuned in every afternoon to see kids like themselves dancing to what are now the classics of AM radio. Big musicians, such as Bill Haley and the Comets, stopped by the play their hits. The show’s regulars became local idols. It created a vision of what it meant to be a teenager.
The Buddy Deane Show (the name was changed) created what sociologist Craig Calhoun calls “social solidarity.” In a huge country like the United States, people don’t share a common religion, ethnicity, race, or language. We have to actively make ourselves into a nation or community. Culture is central to that process. “We hold in common a world we create in common,” Calhoun writes, “in part by the processes through which we imagine it.”
But Baltimore isn’t called America’s northernmost Southern city for nothing. Its television landscape, like many of its public spaces, was segregated. Only white teens became members of the elite Committee — the Buddy Deane equivalent of the Mouseketeers. Black teens were only allowed to dance on the show one day per month.
But black kids in 1960s Baltimore were becoming active in the civil rights movement. Students at Morgan State College were sitting in, testing boundaries, and getting arrested in droves at protests at the Northwood movie theater. Plus, they wanted to be there when their favorite black musicians performed on the show.
The liveness of live TV was their weapon. They would apply the tactics of the civil rights movement to gain access to a new right — to dance to their favorite performers with whomever they wanted to in the most public place in Baltimore.
In June 1962, the Civic Interest Group, a Morgan State–based civil rights organization, arrived at the TV studio on the day Ray Charles was set to perform appear. They held up signs reading, “Georgia on My Mind” a reference to Charles’ famous song and to the intense civil rights battles taking place in that state. Unfortunately, their protest failed to get Charles’s attention. He had prerecorded his performance days earlier.
Undaunted, local activists upped the ante the next year. Students from the integrated Baltimore Area Youth Opportunities Unlimited (BAYOU) group, part of the Northern Student Movement, decided the soundstage would become their lunch counter. They leveraged liveness to do the unthinkable — stage an interracial dance-in on TV.
Black teens wrote for tickets to a Special Guest Day. Whites involved in the movement joined them as their dates. Chartered buses took them the five miles from BAYOU’s office on Aisquith St. to the studio on Television Hill, at the edge of Druid Hill Park near the primarily white, blue-collar neighborhood of Woodberry.
According to Danny Schechter, one of the white participants who later became a TV producer, “The black students went into the studio first while the whites waited in the parking lot until the last minute. With two minutes to air time, we rushed into the studio for the live show. The ticket taker was confused, but let us in. The TV crew was equally perplexed. TV then was still black and white, but those two colors weren’t meant to be mixing in Bal’more, not then, not ever.”
Because it was a live program, the producers had no option other to continue filming. But they tried their best to not show what was happening.
Mary Curtis, a black viewer, described the studio’s response: “A white guy would grab a black girl, and the screen would dissolve into squiggles and squares — like the producers were trying to hide what was really happening.” Bill Henry, who also watched this very special episode, remembered the lights “got so dim the kids were silhouettes…but you could still tell it was white and black kids dancing together.” According to John Baker, a production department employee, the interracial couples “held hands and waited. After an awkward pause, Buddy introduced the next record.”
1963 was four years before Sidney Poitier came to dinner, and five years before TV’s first interracial kiss. A national civil rights law barring discrimination in public accommodations wouldn’t be passed till the next year. But in Baltimore black and white couples were dancing on TV. TV wasn’t just covering civil rights protests anymore: it was the site of one.
All guest organizations were invited to speak on camera, and representatives from BAYOU took the opportunity to, according to Schechter, make “political speeches, speaking out against segregation on the show, looking right into the stupid grin plastered on Buddy Dean’s (sic) face. He was beside himself. Seething. Fat Daddy chuckled.”
In the days after, bomb threats and angry letters poured into the studio. Rather than integrate, the show was cancelled in 1964, at the moment that our national TV culture was beginning to embrace integration. That same year, Philadelphia’s take on a teen-dancing show went national. It was called American Bandstand, and it showed black and white teens dancing together.
By the 1970s, media markets focused on ever-narrower audience niches. With the premiere of Soul Trainin 1971, African Americans had a dance show to call their own. The rise of cable and, later, the internet, accelerated this process. Rather than social solidarity, we have silos. Instead of a shared culture, we have echo chambers.
This is the irony of making Hairspray a live TV event. While it will be watched by millions, it will never have the same cultural power of the Buddy Deane Show.
Of course, the Buddy Deane Show should have become a footnote in TV history. Less than ten minutes of footage exists from the show’s seven-year run. Teen dance shows were simply not seen as important enough to preserve.
But one viewer was obsessed. This self-proclaimed crackpot tracked down former Committee members to interview them about their experiences. He asked them why the show couldn’t integrate — “this town just wasn’t ready for that,” one told him decades later. He had become famous for making x-rated films designed to shock audiences. What would be more shocking than for him to return to his teen years and make a PG rated family comedy about growing up in segregated Baltimore? Except in John Water’s version, the good guys (and gals) win.