Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dressed to the nines, dozens of area teens headed to the Northeast studios of WOOK-TV for the final taping of “Teenarama,” a popular local afternoon dance show and flagship of the station’s programming that left the air nearly 40 years ago.

In April, more than 300 moviegoers gathered to remember this symbol of another era in the District’s cultural history, packing a small theater in Chinatown for the premiere of filmmaker Beverly Lindsay-Johnson’s “Dance Party: The Teenarama Story.” This insightful look back at the dance show — seen live six days a week (1963-1970) on WOOK-TV — debuted as part of the annual Filmfest DC, the Washington, DC International Film Festival. The screening sold out within days, making it the fastest-selling ticket in the festival’s 20-year history, according to founder and executive director Tony Gittens.

Others can see the film Sunday evening at 8 during its broadcast debut on WHUT-TV (Channel 32), the Howard University PBS affiliate.

During the April screening, the crowd sat in rapt attention, cheering wildly at such familiar faces as Mishy Proctor, better known as Pearl, the Miles Long Sandwich Girl. The audience stayed after the film to sing in unison with Motown star (and narrator of the 56-minute documentary) Martha Reeves as the still-glamorous singer led spirited renditions of two of her biggest hits, “Dancing in the Street” and “Jimmy Mack.”

“I wasn’t surprised,” Mr. Gittens says of the reaction. “It was a Washington story, and the community that’s reflected is a large part of Washington. What the folks who made this film did was very important. They captured a moment in Washington history that most people would have ignored.”

Of course, most Washingtonians older than 45 are familiar with “Teenarama,” a mainstay on Channel 14 (on the old UHF band) often described in news accounts of the day as “the nation’s first all Negro television station.” The dance show was a forerunner of Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train” and the black counterpart to the segregated show hosted by Milt Grant on WTTG-Channel 5.

Eventually, blacks were allowed to appear one day a week (known as “Black Tuesday”) on Mr. Grant’s show, which left the air in the late 1950s. However, blacks and whites were seldom seen together on the program, says Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson, a native New Yorker, “except on Saturdays, when there was a ‘dance-off’ between both groups, but the black kids never won.”

Teen dance shows, she points out, were a “popular but unequal phenomenon” of the 1950s and ‘60s. In Philadelphia, Dick Clark would integrate his “American Bandstand,” but in Baltimore, the refusal of Buddy Dean to allow blacks to appear on his popular dance show would lead to its demise. (Charm City auteur John Waters based his “Hairspray” around that history.)

Coupled with the onset of integration and the R&B pulsating from such local venues as the Howard Theatre, Turner’s Arena, the old WUST Music Hall (now the 9:30 Club) and doo-wop singing groups all over town, 1960s Washington seemed primed for “Teenarama.” Sponsored by the late, lamented Miles Long Sandwich Shops and hosted by popular WOOK radio (1340-AM) personality Bob King, the show was an instant smash, attracting local teens and celebrities alike.

Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Jerry “the Iceman” Butler were just a few of the stars who, when they were performing in town, made the trek to WOOK’s studio near Riggs Road to hobnob with fans. (Mr. Butler and Mr. Brown, along with Miss Reeves, vividly recall their “Teenarama” days in the film.)

“You sometimes think these things will last forever, and you don’t realize the value,” says Lawrence Berry, a native Washingtonian, band manager and nationally recognized authority on doo-wop music. “People loved ‘Teenarama’ and have always talked about it. Sure, there are people here who could have made a film. Beverly’s not from here, and sometimes it takes someone from the outside to stir things up.”

Eight years in the making, “Dance Party: The Teenarama Story” grew out of another Lindsay-Johnson project, “Swing, Bop & Hand Dance,” Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson’s Emmy-nominated documentary from 1997. “I came to Washington to get material for that,” she says, “and I kept hearing about something called ‘Teenarama.’ ” “Swing, Bop” included a 10-minute segment on “Teenarama,” but the filmmaker soon realized there was a bigger story to tell.

Through appeals on WPFW-FM’s (89.3) Captain Fly Show, Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson sought out anyone with firsthand knowledge about the dance show. The response was overwhelming. More than 800 fans turned out for a “Teenarama” picnic in Fort Lincoln Park, and “I got so many phone calls I had to put a second line in my home,” says Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson, a senior producer at WHUT.

When a lack of funding slowed production, Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson appealed to guests attending an oldies music event at the Chateau, a hall in Northeast. “They began to pass the hat,” she says, “and within minutes, they raised $500.”

More funding gradually trickled in. Spurred by grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities; the Humanities Council of Washington, DC; the Anacostia Museum for African American History and Culture; plus a commitment from Miss Reeves (who flew in from Detroit to record the film’s narration at XM Satellite Radio in Northeast), Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson began piecing together the story.

Though thousands of still photographs were available, no original footage of “Teenarama’s” 1,800 shows remains. “Back then, they felt lucky just to fire up the transmitter and get the station on the air,” Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson says. “They used Kinescope cameras and 2-inch video reels, which were very expensive at the time, and they taped over a lot of shows. … When they closed the station in the early ‘70s, they did not take their library. They just weren’t interested in building an archive.”

With no archival footage of “Teenarama’s” dancers, Herb Grimes, the film’s co-producer and director, oversaw the re-creation of the show’s colorful set as teen dancers (selected by audition for the documentary) donned beehive hairdos, dickies, sling-back shoes and other fashions of the day.

“I’m glad it took me eight years,” Mrs. Lindsay-Johnson says upon reflection. “I continued to meet people and learn more and more. ‘Teenarama’ was something they just loved. You could see it in the look on their faces.”

• • •

If a small film about “Teenarama,” a long-gone local dance show, could stir so much interest, what other ghostly landmarks from the city’s entertainment past, we wondered, merit rediscovery? Consider:

Marshall Hall Amusement Park (Charles County, Md.): For more than three decades, thousands of Washingtonians boarded the SS Mount Vernon on the District’s Southwest waterfront to reach the 19th-century amusement park 25 miles down the Potomac, directly across from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Operated by the Wilson Line, the boat often featured live entertainment, including a 1956 performance by Elvis Presley. Once the boat docked, passengers rushed down the ramp to Marshall Hall, a former tobacco plantation and home to one of Maryland’s wealthiest families. It closed in 1980, and its remains are part of Piscataway Park, operated by the National Park Service.

Knickerbocker Theater (18th Street and Columbia Road Northwest): On Jan. 28, 1922, a crowd of 300 formally attired moviegoers braved a 28-inch snowstorm for a screening of the silent comedy “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford” at the ornate movie house (complete with a balcony tearoom, marble floors, crystal chandeliers and a $4,000 organ), now the site of a SunTrust Bank. However, the happy evening turned tragic when the theater’s roof collapsed under the snow’s weight. Ninety-eight persons died, and scores more were injured, making it the worst disaster in the city’s history. Despondent over the tragedy, the theater’s architect, Reginald W. Geare, committed suicide in 1927, author James M. Goode noted in his book “Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings.”

Uline Arena (1140 Third St. NE): After its founding in 1941, the loaf-shaped complex near Union Station hosted them all — from crusades led by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad and his one-time disciple Malcolm X to annual performances of the Ice Capades and even the Washington Caps ABA franchise for its single season here. Renamed the Washington Coliseum in 1959, the venue holds the distinction of being the site of the Beatles’ first American concert, where 8,000 screaming fans packed the hall to see the Fab Four in February 1964. Events continued at the arena until 1986, when it was leased by the Christian Faith Center. It was converted into a trash facility in 1994 and placed on the D.C. Preservation League’s list of “most endangered places” in 2003.

Sources:, and the Washington History Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, DC

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