He was a good-looking bespectacled teenager with a full head of shiny brown hair. I’ll call him Lowell M. He helped out after school at Atlas Drugs, the corner drugstore near the small apartment where I lived with my widowed mother and older sister during my high school years.
I grew to hate that cramped apartment and would often plead with my mother to move somewhere else, but she never would. I eventually escaped when I went off to live on the campus of the great university 300 miles away that enabled me to make my escape by giving me what’s now called a “free ride.”
Back to Lowell M.: When I exited from the crowded Peterson Avenue bus I took home from high school every day, Lowell was usually working at the front counter of Atlas Drugs, just across Washtenaw Avenue from the bus stop’s drop-off corner. While the drugstore’s owner-pharmacist was busy dispensing meds in the back of the store, Lowell would dispense the kind of clever pleasantries expected of us, two of the best and brightest our high school had to offer. He was in the class ahead of mine, and we happily chatted about school and a whole host of other topics while I would select a package of Wrigley chewing gum or some blonde bobby pins (which didn’t really match my bright red hair) or whatever else had brought me into Atlas Drugs that day.
Lowell must have taken a liking to me because one afternoon, out of the blue, he asked me to accompany him to Chicago TV’s “Bandstand.” This was shockingly, astoundingly, incredibly fantastic, and I could barely believe it. Somehow Lowell had secured two tickets to Chicago’s version of “American Bandstand,” an after-school TV show broadcast on WGN-TV. I haven’t been able to track down anything about that show on the internet, so I don’t think it stayed on the air for very long. But I’ve stored some vivid memories of it in my nearly overflowing memory-bank.
It was the late-’50s, and my mother had switched from reading the Chicago Tribune to the Chicago Sun-Times after my father died and we left our temporary home in LA to return to Chicago. (I’ll save the story of that move for another day.) But my father had been a faithful reader of the Tribune before he died, and I can still see the Tribune’s front page, proclaiming that it was the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Its far-right-wing publisher, tycoon Col. Robert R. McCormick, came up with that phrase, and its initials—WGN—became the call letters of the Tribune’s radio station and later its TV channel.
During the semester I’d spent in LA, I watched its local TV’s version of “American Bandstand” when I’d get home from school. Hosting high school kids from all over LA to dance on TV, it featured the exciting new pop music that was emerging all over the country.
Now I was about to attend a TV program just like that one.
Why did Lowell ask me to join him? I was never really sure. Maybe, just seeing me at the drug store that day, he asked me on a whim. But no matter. I accepted Lowell’s invitation with alacrity and rushed home to tell my sister and mother about my upcoming appearance on local TV. Dancing to the latest pop music, no less.
My sister kindly (and somewhat uncharacteristically) offered to lend me her smashing new top, a black-and-cream-colored number with tiny horizontal stripes (much more flattering than wide ones). She was always more interested in fashion trends than I was, and for once I was grateful that she was.
Somehow Lowell and I met up at the appropriate time and made our way downtown to the Tribune buildings located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. We probably took the Peterson bus and transferred to the bus that ran along Michigan Avenue, but to be truthful, my memory’s a bit foggy on that score. Eventually we entered the radio-TV broadcasting building, built ten years after the Tribune Tower itself, and we entered one of the 14 new studios added in 1950, probably one of the four designated for TV.
Ushered into the large studio, filled with other teenagers from all over “Chicagoland” (a term invented by the Tribune), we soon were dancing to the musical hits of the day. My still-enduring favorites include “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley, “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes, and “Sh-boom” by the Crew Cuts.
TV cameras whirled around the studio, capturing Lowell and me in our own version of “Saturday Night Fever,” two decades before that film appeared.
I recall having a fabulous time, dancing with abandon to my musical favorites, and I thought that Lowell did, too. But I was disappointed when Lowell never asked me to do anything else with him, like go to a movie (a favored pastime of my friends and me). So it’s possible that he may not have had the truly memorable time I had.
Did I continue to see Lowell behind the counter of Atlas Drugs? Maybe. At least for a while. But my guess is that he eventually moved on to other after-school jobs that were more in keeping with his burgeoning interest in the business world.
As he approached graduation a year before I did, Lowell began dating a friend of mine who was in his graduating class, and the two of them later married. Lowell went on to college, earned an MBA, and built a successful business career.
I went in a different direction. Fascinated by the world of politics, I pursued two degrees in political science and landed finally in law school, aiming for the kind of career I wanted to follow as a lawyer and a writer.
But the memories of my exhilarating afternoon at Chicago’s version of “American Bandstand” have stayed firmly lodged in my memory-bank. I will be forever grateful to Lowell M, who—perhaps on a whim—opened the door to those dazzling memories so many years ago.