Those were the days
for American Bandstand
By Diane Prokop
Times Staff Writer
Fifty years later, the love and enthusiasm for the friendships, the musical
icons, and, most of all, for the music still thrives, almost as if it were
Bunny Gibson, Eddie Kelly, Justine Carelli and Carmen Jimenez were among the
dancers who hugged and kissed, and even stomped and strolled, when they
returned last week to their old after-school hangout — the former WFIL
studios at 46th and Market streets, the home of American Bandstand
during the heyday of the teen dance show.
The older but still nimble dancers came to town to help celebrate the 50th
anniversary of the first national broadcast of American Bandstand at
its Philly birthplace.
American Bandstand with Dick Clark debuted across the country on Aug.
5, 1957. Its roots, however, were in a radio teen dance party hosted by
popular WFIL disc jockey Bob Horn. In September 1952, Horn moved the program
to television and cultivated a strong local audience who’d tune in to
Bandstand each day on WFIL, Channel 6.
But the dance party ended for Horn in 1956 when he was arrested for driving
while intoxicated — an incident that occurred in the midst of an
anti-drunken driving campaign hosted by the station — and Horn was canned as
host of the popular show.
Another DJ at WFIL radio, Dick Clark, replaced him.
"A lot of people were upset when Bob Horn stepped down from hosting
Bandstand," said Lew Klein, who was executive producer of the radio and
TV versions during the Philly years.
However, as popular as Horn was, Clark enjoyed an even larger profile with
the Philly show throughout the late 1950s and well into the ’60s — and then,
in 1964, broke some hearts around here when he moved American Bandstand
to sunny California. The show continued to ride a wave until 1987, when an
era of changing programming philosophy brought its cancellation, 30 years
after its first national telecast.
Clark said farewell to his loyal audience on Sept. 5, 1987. And Laura
Branigan’s Shattered Glass would become the answer to a trivia
question as the final song played on American Bandstand.
Clark, now 77, is still undergoing therapy to overcome the effects of a 2004
stroke and was unable to attend the anniversary celebration. But Klein read
an account written by the popular host of that first day as the new face of
Clark wrote that he’d barely gotten over the shock of his promotion when the
WFIL studio was besieged by an angry crowd of teens who toted picket signs
that protested Horn’s ouster.
Clark recalled that the protest leader was a kid named Jerry Blavat — who
eventually gained local fame himself as a DJ, the "Geator With the Heater."
Blavat, who danced on the old Bandstand show, served as emcee of last
week’s 50th anniversary bash.
And what a party it was.
• • •
From the time Kathleen "Bunny" Gibson walked through the doors of her old
Bandstand home last week, the familiar smile never left her face.
And even now, at 61, she vividly recalls how the dance show brought meaning
— and happiness — to her life.
"My home life was difficult," said Gibson, a teen bride who graduated from
Northeast High School in 1963. "I always dreamed there was more."
From 1959 to 1962, Gibson found it at 46th and Market streets. Almost 50
years have passed since a 13-year-old Gibson sneaked 50 cents from her
mother’s purse, padded her bra, overdid the makeup — Bandstand
dancers had to be at least 14 — and boarded a bus to the WFIL studios.
"It was a defining, incredible moment," Gibson said.
These days Gibson, who lives in Marina Del Rey, Calif., and pursues the
acting life, has come to appreciate the cultural impact of American
Bandstand. The show’s inclusion in The Century, the book and TV
documentary prepared a decade ago by late ABC newsman Peter Jennings and
producer Todd Brewster, who looked back on watershed moments that shaped
life in our nation, introduced Gibson and her colleagues to a new
In fact, students undertaking research of the 1950s and ’60s often track
down Gibson for their school reports. She likes to explain the Bandstand
phenomenon in ways they can relate to.
"Imagine going to dance five days a week and seeing your favorite performers
like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera perform," she’ll tell them.
"You get to meet them, become friends with them, and become just as
While those after-school hours spent dancing were a blast for Gibson, her
time in school brought a lot of unhappiness, especially because many
classmates resented the good fortunes of the dancing queen.
"It was torturous," Gibson said. "Kids would make fun of me. I ate alone."
At the time, she was attending St. Hubert High School. Some of the kids
taunted her for dancing to rock ’n’ roll. Death threats, she claims, led her
to leave St. Hubert.
Eddie Kelly, who was Gibson’s dance partner on Bandstand, recalls
being ostracized in similar ways. Kelly, who grew up at C & Allegheny, often
ducked down back streets on his way home to avoid harassment and was
transferred out of Northeast Catholic High School because of his desire to
keep dancing on the show, he said. His father enrolled him in a business
school, Kelly added.
But the perks of being a Bandstand regular made it easier to put up
with the grief from neighborhood toughs. Regulars like Gibson and Kelly had
fan clubs and appeared in teen magazines, sometimes on the same pages as
For Bunny Gibson, those Bandstand days ended abruptly in 1962 — and
not by her choice. When an ex-boyfriend started an argument with Gibson
outside the WFIL building — to show his new flame that Bunny was past tense
— a minor melee led to her dismissal from the show.
"My whole world collapsed," she said.
That’s when Don Travarelli tried to rebuild it. Travarelli, who was 20 and
handsome, had watched her day after day on American Bandstand and was
determined to meet her. Bunny Gibson was 16 when they married. The union
didn’t last, but it blessed her with two daughters — Angel in 1964, then
Maria the following year — to dote on.
Last week, Maria Weiss, along with her own daughter Nicole, 14, and a
friend, accompanied her mother to the Philadelphia event.
"If dad was watching another channel," Weiss said with a laugh, "we wouldn’t
She was happy to share the day with her mother.
"I never realized how happy it made her," Weiss said.
• • •
Bunny Gibson grabbed the wrist of an old Bandstand buddy and
whispered, "Connie Francis is here," as if Who’s Sorry Now?
was topping the charts and she was seeing the legendary performer for the
very first time.
It was Jan. 1, 1958 when Dick Clark played Francis’ Who’s Sorry Now?
on American Bandstand. In 10 seconds flat, the young singer’s life
changed. By mid-year, more than1 million copies of the ballad had been sold,
catapulting Francis to stardom as one of the top vocalists of the era.
Connie Francis, who showed up for the anniversary celebration, hasn’t
forgotten what the show did for her.
"That’s the kind of difference it made," Francis said.
Bandstand regular Justine Carelli snapped onstage photos of Francis,
Jerry Blavat and Twist king Chubby Checker, who’s 65 but looked fabulous
while twisting in his black-and-gray-checked boots.
Checker revolutionized dancing when he sang The Twist on Bandstand.
For the first time, young jitterbuggers danced apart to the beat. The
singer, who was promoting his Knock Down the Walls CD at last week’s
event, considers the old WFIL studio and American Bandstand as the
most important place for music in the 20th century.
"This is the mecca of the music business. To be singing on such a show or to
be a teenager in the fifities and sixties — you were the kings and queens of
the world," Checker said."
Danny and the Juniors, the Dovells and the legendary Charlie Gracie — who
inspired rock artists like Van Morrison, George Harrison and Paul McCartney
— still had the old gang dancing. Gracie’s hits, including Fabulous,
Ninety-Nine Ways, Wanderin’ Eyes, and I Love You So Much it Hurts,
helped to put Philadelphia’s Cameo Records on the map.
Gracie still remembers his first American Bandstand appearance with
"I did the original Bandstand with Bob Horn. In 1957, with Dick
Clark, I did the first colorcast of the show. My godfather in San Francisco
saw me," Gracie said.
• • •
Gracie, Checker and Francis, along with Dick Clark, Bob Horn and the
Bandstand regulars, were immortalized on an 11-foot-by-30-foot mural
dedicated in the same room where the show aired all those years ago.
The Enterprise Center, which rescued the old studio from the wrecking ball
and for 10 years has offered minority-business initiatives at the site,
restored the WFIL building and successfully lobbied to have it listed on the
National Register of Historic Places.
The business agency commissioned the indoor Bandstand mural from the
Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. It was designed and installed by artist
Jane Golden, director of the arts program, said the Bandstand mural
brings the city’s total to 2,765. For Keller, the project was a challenge
that required speed — the mural went from concept to completion in about two
Charles William Amann III, who is writing a book about the Bandstand
regulars, called The Princes and Princesses of Dance,
forwarded photos to aid Keller’s work. While the pictures served as
inspiration, they also created challenges.
"They were tiny little pictures, and when blown up, they were blurry. Nobody
had feet," Keller said.
Carmen Jimenez came to the mural dedication with her niece. The Bandstand
scene freezes her in time as a teenager, dancing by herself, with her
head and streaked coif tilted back. Talk about attitude.
"I love it," said Jimenez, who still lives in Philadelphia.
Gibson was likewise impressed with the mural and the artist’s rendering of a
young woman, smiling and seemingly so carefree, while dancing the Pony with
"She got my hairstyle, the way I wore it, just right. Long after I’m gone,
that’s how I want to be remembered," Gibson said.
It was a day of reunions with old friends, such as Dancin’ On Air
producer Michael Nise and fellow Bandstand dancers from Northeast
Philadelphia, Jimmy Peatross and Pearl Polto, who lives in Somerton.
"Every time there’s an event, I come out. Seeing all the icons — I’m a part
of it now," said Polto, who’s a consumer advocate these days.
As the day came to an end, it was time to pack away the memories, and Bunny
Gibson took in the scene one last time. In that true Bandstand
tradition when the kids would be asked to rate new songs, how would she rate
"Off the charts," Gibson said. ••
Gibson maintains a Web site at www.bunnygibson.com
Reporter Diane Prokop can be reached at 215-354-3036 or firstname.lastname@example.org