October 4, 2002
American Bandstand is back!


American Bandstand is hot again!

More than 17 years after the show last appeared on network TV and nearly 40 years after it moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Dick Clark's dance show seems to be everywhere.

Earlier this year, an anniversary show got good network ratings. The hottest new hit on Broadway - "Hairspray" - is called a Bandstand-like show. The newest drama on NBC - "American Dreams" - spotlights a teenage girl in 1960s Philadelphia who becomes a regular dancer on Bandstand. And, if that isn't enough, a new American Bandstand slot machine is taking in quarters in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

For more than 20 years of its network existence, Bandstand was a taped weekly show from Los Angeles, complete with the outlandish costumes and dance moves you would expect to find in Hollywood. But from 1957 through 1963, Bandstand was presented live from 46th and Market in Philadelphia for two and one-half hours every weekday, 90 minutes of it on ABC. That was when Bandstand was truly Bandstand.

Actually, the show began in 1952 with Bob Horn as the host. When Horn had problems with the law, producers looked for as clean cut a replacement as they could find. Enter Dick Clark.

But, if Horn and his dancers had not been successful, the show probably would have been cancelled, instead of casting a new host. Mary Ann Colella danced on that early version from 1952 through 1956.

"We had record hops all over the place," she remembered, "and they were always packed. All of us dancers would travel to Dorney Park, Allentown and to the Chalfonte Haddon Hall in Atlantic City. It was when we'd get out and meet the kids who watched the show that we realized how popular it was."

Arlene Sullivan was one of the most popular dancers in the show's history. Now living in Ventnor and dealing black jack at the Taj Mahal, Sullivan remembered watching the show before she became a dancer.

"I watched it with my mother and really became interested," she said. "I tried to get on a few times but didn't make it. Then I met Justine Carelli at a party - she was one of the most popular dancers on the show - and she helped me get in."

A few years later, Sullivan and her dance partner, Kenny Rossi, were at the Yeadon Swim Club, attracting a throng of screaming teenagers. Watching this scene was 13-year old Kathleen "Bunny" Gibson.

"I asked my girlfriend who they were," Gibson said, "and she was amazed that I didn't watch Bandstand. I started watching right away and practiced the jitterbug with my refrigerator door. When I was good enough, I got all dressed up and managed to get in, despite the fact that I was not yet 14, the minimum age. I picked that first day because Bobby Rydell was going to be on the show."

Gibson, who is now an actress and model living in Los Angeles, became part of a popular Bandstand dance team with Ed Kelly. "The guys had to wear a jacket and tie," said Kelly, who lives in North Jersey and works at a New York City law firm. "It was very important to Dick Clark that we look respectable and behave accordingly."

That paid off. Music historians credit the reluctant acceptance of rock and roll by the older generation to Bandstand, with its clean-cut host and well-dressed dancers, and to Ricky Nelson, the cute little boy who grew up on TV's Ozzie and Harriet and then became a big rock star himself.

Bandstand was so popular in the Philly years that the photos of the dancers were often seen on the front page of the top teen magazines next to Elvis, Frankie and Annette. "I still have a lot of those magazines," said Sullivan. "It was really amazing."

Once, when Annette appeared on Bandstand and was at the autograph table, Sullivan approached her for an autograph. "I should be getting your autograph, Arlene," the recording and movie star said. It was the beginning of a friendship between the two.

"I just found out a few years ago," said Kelly, "that an average of eight million people would tune in each day. We never realized it was that popular. We never thought about that."

But dancing on the show was not always fun and games.

"I usually ate lunch by myself in school," said Gibson, "and I actually had to transfer out of St. Hubert's because of threats made against me."

"Many of us were not treated well," Kelly added. "There were kids out to hurt us and, occasionally, they succeeded. Some just thought it wasn't cool to be a dancer, others were probably jealous of the attention we got. Many times I would sneak home through back streets, trying not to be seen."

And some of the dancers went through a lot just to get to the show. It turns out, while most red-blooded teenage boys were rushing home from school on the bus to watch the beautiful Bunny Gibson dance, she was also rushing on a bus, with one twist.

"We had moved to New Jersey and I attended Holy Cross High School," Gibson said. "That put me nearly 90 minutes away from Bandstand. So, I'd catch a bus out on Route 130 and change from my oxfords and gray school uniform into my Bandstand clothes right in the back of the bus."

Sound familiar. Well, in the first episode of NBC's American Dreams last Sunday night, you saw two girls doing just that. "That show brought back a lot of memories," said Sullivan. "For instance, my father didn't like the idea of me dancing on Bandstand, just like the girl in the show. And, when that girl got all excited about being in the studio the first time - that was me! I reacted just like that."

If you missed the first episode of American Dreams, it will be re-shown Sunday night at 7, right before the second episode at the series' regular time of 8 p.m.

The original regulars of Bandstand also spent a lot of time among us here at the Jersey Shore. Kelly would vacation in Wildwood and, with his family, visit Lucy the Elephant in Margate. He and Gibson also came down to Ed Hurst's summertime dance show on the Steel Pier.

"We'd get mobbed by fans who recognized us," said Gibson. "I'm not sure the dancers on the Steel Pier show liked that very much," said Kelly. "They gave us a hard time."

Sullivan, who still demonstrates her moves at Jerry Blavat's dances at the Marina, remembers going to Wildwood with Rossi and visiting the Atlantic City boardwalk, especially at Easter. Wherever they went, they drew big crowds of admirers. "I remember seeing Bobby Darin for the very first time in Wildwood," she said.

"There were also parties in Sea Isle City at Frani's house," said Gibson. "We had a lot of fun there." Frani is Frani Giordano, another of the show's most popular dancers, whose family owns a produce business in Philadelphia and once had a large vacation home on the bay in Sea Isle, which has since burned down.

"We had such great times in Wildwood," said Colella, now Mary Ann Baker. "We'd come down and get a room for $3 a night. But there is one night that sticks out.

"I can't remember the name of the pier we visited but it was toward the Crest and it has since burned down. We saw a sign advertising 'Free Spaghetti Tomorrow'. Since my friends and I had little money with us, we came back the next day and asked for the free spaghetti. The guy asked us what the sign said. We read it to him and he started singing 'There's no tomorrow'. The whole thing was just a come-on. We laugh about it now but it was embarrassing then."

The original dancers from Philadelphia and South Jersey were what made American Bandstand the hit that it was. Oh, you could say that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. After all, there weren't nationwide auditions for dancers. But you could say the same thing about Dick Clark. He took his opportunity and turned it in to mega-millions.

The dancers made the most of their time in the spotlight, as well, by creating amazing memories. If you grew up watching the show, you'll know most of them by their first names. In addition to Arlene, Kenny, Justine, Frani, Mary Ann, Bunny and Ed, there was Carmen, Ivette, Ro, Carole, Pat, Geri, Lorraine, Mike, Joyce, Charlie, Myra, Doris, Janet, Bill, Jimmy and the Beltrante sisters.

These were kids who liked to dance and did it well. But it was more. The charm, style and personality that they brought into homes across America every afternoon has never been equaled. There were no magazine stories about the dancers from Los Angeles, after the show was moved. It was the Philly kids whom America loved.

The Philly Bandstand regulars have gone on to do many different things with their lives. Some have died. But, in those 10 or 12 years that they danced in that hot, cramped studio at 46th and Market, they became a permanent part of America's pop culture in the 20th century.

And now, as American Bandstand memories comes alive again during the 21st century, their influence is still being felt.