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 yesterday.
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 Bandstand.
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 generation.
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 popular."
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 Elvis.
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 be here."
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 Dick Clark.
"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 Diane Keller.
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 months.
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 Eddie Kelly.
"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 this day?
"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 dprokop@phillynews.com
 

Home