April 310, 1997
We're Goin' Hoppin'
As American Bandstand celebrates its 40th anniversary of going national, Philly Bandstanders remember its roots.
By Margit Detweiler
On a wintry day in 1960, 14-year-old Ron Caldora traveled from Yonkers to visit relatives in South Philly. For years he'd dreamt of being on the national dance show American Bandstand, filmed live from Philadelphia. This year he was old enough to go on. He'd watched the show on his black-and-white TV every day loved the live rock and roll and the dancing and had a bit of a crush on one of the Bandstand "regulars" a bubbly blonde from South Philadelphia named Franny Giordano.
He and his cousin Louie made the trek to WFIL studios at 46th and Market and stood in line with all of the other teens waiting to be Bandstanders. Some of the regulars had cards they showed the doorman which gave them instant access. But when Ron got to the short, burly doorman affectionately called "Bob The Cop," he was immediately turned away. Ron didn't have the proper neckwear. No tie, no Bandstand.
Luckily, cousin Louie had a tie in his glove compartment. Caldora put it on and got right in. That moment, he says, was like walking into a Technicolor dream.
"It was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the movie changes from black and white to color," says Caldora. "I'd only seen the show on TV. And there was Franny, in full color! Dick with an orange face! And the big bright lights! And the studio, which seemed so big on TV, was no bigger than my apartment."
And when he went back to New York, says Caldora, "They treated me like a celebrity."
Early Bandstanders do the "Bunny Hop." Harvey Sheldon and "Dimples" are the last two on the far right.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of American Bandstand hitting the national airwaves. Dick Clark and Co. brought Philadelphia's neighborhood dance show into America's living rooms on August 5, 1957. It was also a time when Philadelphia teens who danced on air were at the forefront of trends dance steps, hairstyles and clothes.
Commemorating the anniversary is a new book, Dick Clark's American Bandstand (due out this month from HarperCollins), a PBS documentary and a dedication of the original Bandstand site at the WFIL studios, 4548 Market St., on Aug. 5.
But the history of Bandstand really goes back further than that. Bandstand first started in 1952 as Bob Horn's Bandstand a local radio show hosted on WFIL by DJ Bob Horn. According to Dick Clark's American Bandstand which skimps on the pre-Clark history Horn was asked to host an afternoon television program featuring short filmed clips from popular singers of the era like Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and George Shearing.
Eventually the format changed to a daily, hour-and-a-half dance show that brought local kids in to dance to the latest hit records not quite rock and roll. The kids would foxtrot or jitterbug to artists like Margaret Whiting, Al Martino, Tony Bennett and The Four Aces. Horn's success triggered other Bandstand-style shows across the country.
"At that time everybody was trying to copy Bob Horn," says Harvey Sheldon, who danced on the first show in 1952.
As an old-time Bandstander, Sheldon finds the focus on the Dick Clark years "disturbing."
"Just as Martin Block was the first disc jockey, Bob Horn was unequivocally the first person to put kids dancing on TV," says Sheldon. "It would be like forgetting George Washington to forget Bob Horn."
Sheldon's story reads the same as most of the Philly Bandstanders'. From Lincoln High, he would jump on the El and head to West Philly.
"I made sure my last class of the day was study hall. I told the teacher, 'Look I'm going to be in show business someday, lemme go a little early to Bandstand?' And he'd let me!"
At the time, Sheldon was an Ivy League-ish-looking 15-year-old who wore flat-front pants, a button-down shirt, a tie and a vest.
"I wanted to emulate Bob Horn he dressed that way. I was probably the most overdressed kid on Bandstand. Most of the kids were from South Philly but there were kids from North Philly, the Main Line everyone had a different look."
Sheldon and his dance partner "Dimples" won a bit of fame from the show as the co-creators (along with Horn and bandleader Ray Anthony) of the bunny hop. The show needed a signature dance number, says Sheldon, so they co-wrote the song, "The Bunny Hop," and created the goofy dance.
Then music started to change. Teens began losing interest in mellow music and the Big Band sound
"We wanted something more exciting. We listened to black [Philadelphia] DJs like Georgie Woods, radio station WDAS, Jocko... At that time we were slow dancing you had your hands around the girl, it was romantic. Then dancing took a radical change. All of a sudden rock music came in and nobody was dancing with each other anymore."
In July 1956, Dick Clark was brought in as the new, permanent host for the daily dance show. At the time Clark was an afternoon radio jock at WFIL. Clark writes in his book, "The studio was besieged by an angry crowd of students with picket signs. They were mad because I was replacing [Horn]. I understood their rage, but I had nothing to do with Horn leaving the show."
The reasons why Bob Horn left Bandstand have been hotly debated. There have been rumors that a druken driving charge and an alleged relationship with a minor were cause for dismissal, however the latter charge was dropped. According to Stan Blitz, author of the forthcoming Bandstand: The Untold Story, Blitz says the show was looking for a more youthful host who could represent the new rock and roll sound (Horn was in his late 30s).
Working with producer Tony Mamarella, Clark says he had to take a crash course in rock and roll he was used to playing artists like Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney on his radio program. But eventually Clark got the knack and the show became extremely successful.
In his book, Clark says he convinced parent corporation ABC to give the show a four-week trial on national TV, and the name would change to American Bandstand. The show premiered on Aug. 5, 1957, with the Jerry Lee Lewis song, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
That same show also featured Billy Williams, an R? singer, and The Chordettes, a white female pop group famous for "Mr. Sandman."
Over the Philadelphia-based years, the show presented just about every popular act.
"If your song hit Bandstand it was in the top 10," says Caldora. "Anyone who was a star then was on the show. Neil Sedaka, Connie Francis, Connie Stevens, Ike and Tina Turner, Ann-Margret, Gladys Knight, Chubby Checker. I met everyone except Elvis and Ricky Nelson."
Many local Philadelphia acts had the opportunity to be on Bandstand Bobby Rydell, Danny and the Juniors, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, The Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp. Clark says since the show was booking about 15 artists a week, he'd often use the Philadelphia acts as pinch-hitters.
"Often someone would cancel at the last minute," writes Clark. "All we had to do was pick up the phone and call someone from South Philadelphia and they were at the studio..."
Philadelphia was also home to several record labels Essex Records, Cameo-Parkway, Swan, and Singular Records, some of which Clark had interests in (which he eventually gave up after being questioned by a House subcommittee investigating commercial bribery. He was never charged with any wrongdoing but ABC asked him to choose between his TV show and his shares in music-related firms).
One famous story, as chronicled in The Twist by Jim Dawson, talks about the famous dance song originally written and recorded by Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, which Clark thought too "black" for Bandstand. Clark wanted Swan Records' Freddie Cannon to re-record the song, but Cannon wasn't interested. To make a very long story short, Philadelphia rocker Ernest Evans recorded it as Chubby Checker on Cameo Records (a label in the same building as Swan 1405 Locust St.). Checker, who had a gift for imitating other artists, did a version so faithful to the original that Dawson claims Ballard wasn't even sure who was singing.
The dancers on American Bandstand followed the steps and spawned a craze. Checker explained, "Pretend you're wiping your bottom with a towel as you get out of the shower and putting out a cigarette with both feet."
In the book Rock, Roll and Remember, Clark wrote, "Most of the country saw it first done on American Bandstand. All you had to do was tune in between 3:30 and 5:00 to see it live from Philadelphia. The Twist was the rage and we had the patent on it."
Reaching some 40 million viewers, these Philadelphia dancers were at the forefront of trends and America loved them.
Well, most of America.
Ron Caldora and one of his fan club presidents.
Ron Caldora today.
Arlene and Kenny. Bunny and Eddie. Ronnie and Joanna.
Bandstand regulars known by their first names and their dance partners were teen idols in the late '50s and early '60s. One popular mag feature had the reader rate their favorite stars, mixing Bandstanders with the likes of Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson and Annette Funicello. "Pick your top ten!"
Sitting on his couch in Queen Village with his fluffy white cat Pepsi, surrounded by a roomful of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, 52-year-old Ron Caldora pours through old teen magazines. He flips through an issue of Movie Screen Teen and laughs at a two-page article from 1961 titled, "Introducing Ronnie Caldora: Our Regular of the Month." Today Ron's decked in a Metallica T-shirt, red suspenders and clogs but there's still a hint of the boy in the pompadour and skinny tie pictured in the article.
A year after Caldora's first appearance on Bandstand, he and his mother moved to South Philadelphia and Caldora began going regularly to the show. Gregarious, good-looking and a great dancer, Caldora said he fit in with the "Committee" right away. The Committee was the group of regulars who were invited to appear regularly on the show and were given special cards to show Bob the Cop.
The regular Bandstanders had hundreds of fan clubs. They'd receive big sacks of mail in care of the show sometimes 4,000 letters a month.
These were the kids, most from South Philadelphia or West Catholic high schools, who invented dance crazes: the Slop, the Continental, the Fly, the Twist, the Stroll, Cha-lypso, the Hitchhike, the South Street.
"You name it, we invented it," says Caldora. "Dick would go home and tell us to make up a dance and present it on Monday like homework. Go create the Locomotion. We actually started dance sensations."
But there were rules when you danced strict rules. You couldn't be a camera hog. "Dick had this studio mike that would call you out," says Caldora. "Hall get back!" You couldn't dance too close. You couldn't bump and grind. And you certainly couldn't dance with someone who wasn't your color.
"One time I danced with this beautiful black girl, and I don't know if it was Dick or Bob the Cop who said, 'Do that again and you're off the show for two weeks.'"
"Dick was a bastard. A tyrant. But that's probably why he became so successful."
Thumbing through the book American Bandstand, which is filled with old snapshots of the "kids," Caldora points out some of the regulars he remembers.
"Oh, it's Bunny and that beehive!" says Ron.
"We all hung out together all the time. We were like family," says Kathleen "Bunny" Gibson. Gibson grew up in Darby, PA, practicing her dance moves with the refrigerator door or the banister before she finally made her way to Bandstand at age 13.
"I played hooky from school, stole 50 cents out of my mother's pocketbook and found my way from Darby to 46th Street. You had to be 14 to get on the show so I put on lots of makeup. But once I walked through the doors, I literally became a regular from 1959-1961."
"Queen. Queen. Queen," Caldora sneers, pointing to pictures of the dancers he knew were gay. Caldora, bisexual himself, says it was unheard of to discuss sexual orientation or sex at all for that matter.
Caldora continues. "That one we called 'Pumpkinhead' because of her squash-shaped doo. That guy they called 'Winky.' He was always winking at the camera. He got beat up a lot."
It wasn't all fame and fun Bunny Gibson changed schools five times because of the threats and abuse she'd get from other school kids. Being on the cover of national magazines might have seemed glamorous to kids across the country, but in Philadelphia, peers were jealous and resentful.
"School was disastrous for me," says Gibson. "I had death threats. I had to eat lunch by myself. It was an amazing dichotomy. We were household names across the country. We were the leaders of hair trends, fashion trends and dance steps, but locally people hated us. I dared to go and dance and shake around and enjoy myself."
Often there were tensions on the show itself. Dance contests were held regularly on the show, and as Bandstand grew in popularity, so did the stakes. The "Pony" Contest winner would receive a Red Ford Galaxy. Caldora recalls a fistfight in the parking lot between Franny Giordano and Arlene DiPietro over who could do a better "Pony."
"Frannie won the fist fight, but Arlene was by far the better dancer," says Caldora.
Gibson, too, got involved in a fistfight an argument in the parking lot with an ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend and it got her kicked off the show. At least that's why producer Tony Mamarella claims she was let go, but Gibson and Caldora think differently.
"There had been a scandal over some of the kids getting paid for touring with [Bandstand] sock hops across the country," says Caldora. "I was part of that group but I didn't get caught. We'd take limousines to places like Wilkes-Barre and get $500 for dancing at these things."
Many of the regulars were involved in the scandal, and most of them were kicked off the show.
"When I got banned from the show," says Gibson, "I pretty much hit rock bottom. I cried every day for six weeks."
In 1963, the show changed from a daily broadcast to a Saturday afternoon slot. The regulars who were still on the show went from major to moderate stardom, their fan clubs diminished and their press attention waned.
Writes Clark: "With the new schedule, my voracious appetite for work wasn't being satisfied, and I knew I needed to be in either New York or California."
Clark says the music scene was more interesting in California with the Beach Boys, producer Phil Spector and record labels like A?.
"I decided not to call attention to relocating Bandstand because I didn't want it to seem like we were making such a jarring change."
But for the Philadelphia stars, it was the end of an era.
Bunny Gibson on Bandstand.
Bunny Gibson today.
On Aug. 5, the former WFIL Studios will be dedicated as the former site of American Bandstand. Entrepreneur Della Clark (no relation to Dick), formerly from Texas, bought the property to expand her West Philadelphia Enterprise Center, which offers small businesses low-cost office space and training. The $3 million project is part of Clark's plan to renovate the twelve-block area from 40th to 52nd and Market Streets.
"When I put in for the application, I didn't know the history behind the building. But to a certain extent I'd like to keep the Bandstand '50s tradition."
Dick Clark is expected back for the celebration, says Clark, and although plans are tentative, Bunny Gibson would like to have a sock hop.
Says Gibson, "Whether they decide to do it or not, I'm getting my poodle skirt out!" These days she spends her time as an actress in Los Angeles and says she still dances on Sundays on Venice Beach.
For his part, Dick Clark can be seen weekly on his VH1 retro Bandstand show (which focuses almost entirely on the California years). He has also been opening American Bandstand Grilles around the country and plans to open one in King of Prussia sometime this summer. A permanent exhibition at the State Museum in Harrisburg will include Bandstand novelty items, videos and other memorabilia. This summer, Bandstand Days will also be released a one-hour documentary on "The Regulars" produced by Teleduction Associates out of Wilmington, DE.
That show isn't likely to include early "regular" Harvey Sheldon, who says the old-schoolers rarely get credit.
"All of us are totally omitted in books by Dick Clark. I have never been invited to any Bandstand reunions."
After Bandstand, Sheldon went on to become a DJ at the first FM radio station to program rock and roll KLFM in Los Angeles (now KNAC). Now "60 and a half," Sheldon spends his time out in Orange County, CA, as the host of a hard rock video show called "Monster Rock."
"I told my wife when she married me she was marrying a teenager. I'll never grow up. I'm still into rock and roll."
He's still seeking his dance partner Dimples, and hosts on-air contests to see if anyone can track her down.
"Her name is Dimples. She went to Lincoln High School. That's all I know. I never knew her real name!"
Ron Caldora, retired, devotes his time to volunteering for MANNA and ActionAIDS.
Putting his yellowing magazines back in a plastic bag, Caldora sighs, "Bandstand was fun, no doubt about that. We were stars."