Tommy Sternfeld was an Albany native who danced in vaudeville and Broadway shows. A local dance instructor in 1946, Sternfeld auditioned 3,000 boys and girls for a show called ‘Here’s To Youth.” It was staged at the Strand theatre to raise money to send underprivileged children to camp. The show had a cast of over 300.
A year later, Mr. Sternfeld created a radio show using some of this same talent. It was called “Backyard Follies,” held every Saturday morning at the Strand and broadcast over WABY. It was joined briefly by a subsequent half-hour quiz show called “Whata-Ya-Know,” also starring children and held at the Strand movie theatre on North Pearl.
“Backyard Follies” ended up winning a Billboard Award for children’s programming. The next year the show moved to Schenectady and WGY. “Backyard Follies” ran for a total of two years.
As more affordable models of sets became available to the public, television exploded into the American consciousness in 1949. Sternfeld seized the opportunity, and sold WRGB two different local TV talent shows based on his “Backyard Follies” finds. Recycling the name of a 1939-1940 radio show, Sternfeld herded the younger performers into a half-hour Saturday afternoon “Juvenile Jamboree.” At the same time, the older teens were to be featured in an evening broadcast, called ‘Teen Age Barn.”
“Teen Age Barn” debuted on April 4, 1949, when there were only 17,000 television sets in the area. While “Juvenile Jamboree” vanished quietly in 1953, “Teen Age Barn” became a big success, moving into a prime time Friday night time slot (1954 also saw a short-lived “Tommy Sternfeld Show”). By 1959, “Teen Age Barn” was the oldest locally-produced variety show in the nation.
The show even took to the road via Channel 6’s mobile truck; one Friday in 1960, the “Teenage Barn “show was broadcast live from inside the new Albany Savings Bank at Western and West Lawrence (now a Citizen’s Bank).
Troupes of “Teen Age Barn” alumni were formed to perform live shows at local auditoriums as far flung as Kingston, Plattsburgh and Pittsfield, and fairs, in support of community service organizations like the Kiwanis. In 1962 the program was expanded from 30 minutes to a full hour. The show was renamed “The Barn” in 1963.
Kids with talent from all over the Capital District and beyond clamored to perform on the show. In 1961, there was a contest called “Search for the Stars” and over 200 kids entered. A friend of ours was selected; she was 11 and played “Lady of Spain” on the organ. Our organ player continued on the show until it was cancelled about 5 years later.
As far as we can tell the most famous alumnae from “Teenage Barn” are Steve Katz, who became a guitarist with the “Blood, Sweat and Tears” rock band, and Arlene Fontana, a singer from Amsterdam, who appeared on national variety shows, some Broadway musical road shows, cut a couple of singles, and performed in a Las Vegas club act. And there was Ronnie Tober.
Ronnie was originally from Holland; his family moved to Albany shortly after the end of World War II. After multiple appearances on “Teenage Barn” he was a fan favorite. Tober, still in his teens, played local clubs, won a national contest and toured with a national band (he even appeared in an episode of “Route 66”). Ultimately Tober returned to Holland where, in his early twenties, he became a super star.*
Come 1966, in a major programming realignment, WRGB announced plans to drop “Teen Age Barn.” Sternfeld held out hopes WRGB would change its mind about the cancellation, adding, “I’d like to see the show continue. Our only chance is if we can get our audience to react.” No reaction was forthcoming, and after 17 years the Barn doors closed for good on January 29, 1966.
There were so many episodes of “Teen Age Barn” that almost every local with a teaspoon of talent appeared on the show, and most everyone who didn’t was either related to or knew someone who did. It was “must see TV” for a while. Sometimes it was performed before a live audience (taped and played later) – Girl Scout and Boy Scout Troops, a Sunday School group. It was a “wholesome” show.
Some kids went on to careers in entertainment or teaching. “Teen Age Barn” performers opened a number of dance studios that lasted decades and taught generations of students. Some packed up their tap shoes and batons. Others continued with a career in entertainment. Our “Lady of Spain” organ player friend started playing professionally when she was 14, and continues to this day as a member of several local bands, and as an officer in the Albany local of the Musician’s Union.
For many “Teen Age Barn” was the highlight of their life. Obituaries of locals are peppered with mentions of “Teen Age Barn” appearances.
Tommy Sternfeld used the cachet of his TV experience to reinvigorate his dance instruction studio. He augmented his income by selling houses for Picotte Realty. He died in 1974 at the age of 65. The Sternfeld Dance Studio, passed on to his students, still exists in Hudson, NY.
Tom Sternfeld is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Section 123, Lot 366.
• On 27 December 2003, during his 40th year in show business, Tober was made a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Tober’s name is also inscribed on the Wall of Fame at the Zuiderkerk (“southern church”) in Amsterdam. Ronnie is in his 70’s today and is still much beloved in his native Holland.
From Al Quaglieri’s blog “Doc Circe Died for Sins’https://alcue.wordpress.com/ . Take a look at his blog if you want to learn more about Tommy Sternfeld (he and Bob Fosse teamed up and put on troop shows in the South Pacific in World War II) or Ronnie Tober.