By Jeffrey Barg
The feet lie.
As they massage and knead the painted wood floor with flawless renditions of the Cha-Cha, the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the dancing shoes don’t give the slightest hint that the bodies they’re attached to shouldn’t, biologically speaking, still have moves this solid.
But five decades ago, these dancers were underage celebrities whose steps earned them giant sacks of fan mail, and they’ve returned here to the room that made them famous: the original Philadelphia studio of American Bandstand, at its time the most popular teenage TV show that had ever existed on this or any other planet. In the 1950s and ‘60s, they started a revolution from 46th and Market.
“We helped spread rock ‘n’ roll around the country,” says Bunny Gibson, one of the original Bandstand dancers who still to this day gets recognized on the street by fans of the show. “We were the first revolution of teenagers in this country where we had buying power—we could buy records and dance to the music. Shake our booty on television.”
Gibson and about 40 other Bandstand alums gathered last week at the Enterprise Center, which 50 years ago was the original home of American Bandstand where Dick Clark (and before him, Bob Horn) broadcasted the styles, moves and sounds of young Philadelphians out to the world. The event was designed as a fundraiser to restore the Bandstand floor, but the evening was mostly a celebration of the music that came out of the era and the role that the building played in that history.
“American Bandstand in the 1950s and ‘60s was the MTV of its generation,” says Oldies 98 radio host Tommy McCarthy, who emceed the evening. “Kids would rush home from school at the end of the day, and every teenager was glued to the TV.” McCarthy says he got the chance to dance on the show only once: for his 14th birthday in 1960. “The best birthday I’ve had,” he remembers. “There’s so much history in this building, it’s hard to measure by today’s standards.”
Most of the fundraiser attendees hesitate to give their ages. But you had to be between 14 and 18 to be a dancer on the show, and Bandstand filmed in Philly from ’52 to ’64, so, well, you do the math. With an abacus.
“It takes me back to when I was a teenager,” says dancer Jim Hudson of being back in the old studio. “ I feel very young again.” Hudson, whose fancy footwork is complemented by a deliberate, swinging torso, wins the evening’s Jitterbug contest. “It’s a lot of memories,” he says, “a lot of wonderful memories.”
Over the years, though, the Studio B floor (which isn’t the original battleship gray the dancers trod back in the day anyway) has fallen into disrepair. West Philadelphia’s old Mill Creek runs under the building, and condensation has crept up through the floor, causing its deterioration. With the help of last week’s fundraiser, the Enterprise Center hopes to not just fix the floor, but to use it to evoke the building’s history.
“The idea is to not just restore the floor,” says Enterprise Center president Della Clark, “but to pick an interpretation of where things were: where the bleachers were, where the podium used to be.” The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit which champions minority entrepreneurship, purchased the historic building 14 years ago, and has since then been a steward for the Bandstand history living within it. “It adds an exciting element to our programming in the building,” Clark says. “Everyone wants to come and see that studio. This is an icon for Philadelphia.”
As dancer Bunny Gibson says, “That floor’s held a lot of good dancing feet and made a lot of people happy.”
The way music historians tell it, that building allowed local, individual artists to become major national stars. Back in the day, long before fans placed such a premium on artists writing their own music, major labels had in-house hit-making musicians who would pick up any good song that came out of Philly, New York or anywhere else.
“Every time there would be a regional hit, the majors would cover it with their artists,” explains Jerry “the Geator” Blavat, the legendary DJ and entertainer who got his start as a dancer on Bandstand. “When Dick Clark comes along, he plays these obscure artists. That then gets played nationally, so Dick Clark was a major force in changing the record-buying public.”
“It’s like you live in a little town and you have Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Madonna, Prince, everybody coming to where you live to perform at your little dance studio,” says Gibson. “That’s what it was like. You were at the hub of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Clark made mega-celebrities out of 16-year-old Southwest Philly kids like Joe Terry of Danny and the Juniors, who was a guest at last week’s fundraiser.
“In 1957 we had just cut our first record: ‘Do the Bop,’” says Terry, who now lives in Jersey. “ Dick heard it and said, ‘That’s nice, but the Bop will be out of style by the time the record comes out.’ So he suggested we change the title to ‘At the Hop.’”
With hits like “At the Hop” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay,” Danny and the Juniors played Bandstand more than 100 times—more than any other artist. As he talks, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” begins playing over the speakers in the corner, and Terry gets a little misty-eyed.
“The song is very special,” he says. “It kind of became the anthem of rock ‘n’ roll, basically. It gave us 52 years of a career. How special is that?”
And while all the attendees remember the room’s history, few would suggest that history is past.
“You still feel the energy from all the stars who were here before they were big stars—the Temptations, Bobby Rydell—it’s like they’re still here,” says Diane Brown, a West Philly native who tried for years to get into the show, and finally succeeded in getting backstage when her friend knew Jackie Wilson, who was scheduled to be a performer one afternoon. “It’ll never go away. It’s here forever.”
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