Arlene Sullivan: Dancing down ‘Bandstand’ memory lane

Arlene Sullivan: Dancing down ‘Bandstand’ memory lane

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Throughout October, PGN is celebrating LGBT History Month, so I thought I’d shed a little light on some history that’s recently come to light. “Bandstand Diaries: The Philadelphia Years” is a fun book filled with stories, facts and figures about the groundbreaking show. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the opening song, and our older readers will remember Dick Clark and the cast of regular dancers while millennials will at least know the host’s name from the New Year’s Eve celebration that still bears his name. What many won’t know is that the show had a definite queer bent even before the word was reclaimed.

The book does a good job of setting the stage of what it was like in August 1957, when “Bandstand” made its debut. It was a time when Sen. Strom Thurmond set the longest filibuster on record to try to keep the civil-rights bill from being passed. The average monthly rent was $90 and the average cost of a new car was under $3,000. First-class stamps were 3 cents and polio was still a concern. Double-A batteries were a new invention. When the show first aired, some feared it would corrupt the morals of minors and lead to social decline, but that didn’t stop “Bandstand” from becoming must-see afternoon TV.

We spoke to one of the book’s authors, Arlene Sullivan.

PGN: I understand that you were raised in a pretty typical home in the ’50s. In what ways was that true?

AS: Typical was that moms usually didn’t work outside of the house then and that was true in our case. In our little South Philly row home, our strict Italian mom did everything for us: all the cooking, all the cleaning, the wash, everything. She never let us do chores. We were spoiled that way, but it was how she showed her love. She was never affectionate, never gave us hugs or kisses, but she showed her love by all she did. Though I did have to watch my 10-month-old sister in the summer. Every day when I went out to play, I’d have to take her with me. There was not a single day without her, but that’s the way it was. We’d all take our siblings to the Cobbs Creek Park, where we’d go up to the top of the hill and take the babies out of the carriages. We’d sit them on the hill and we’d get in the carriages and race them down the hill. We made our own fun. In those days, you had one TV and one phone and one car, so when the phone rang in the living room, everyone knew who you were talking to, nothing was private. The whole family would watch the same programs together every night and there weren’t a lot of programs on so, after a certain hour, the TV would just show a test pattern. [Laughs] It used to piss me off!

PGN: What did you like to do?

AS: I would go to the movies any chance I could get, mostly Saturday and Sunday when my dad was home to watch my sister. He was a great guy, very nurturing and kind. He always told me I could be anything I wanted. Unfortunately, I never believed him.

PGN: What did he do?

AS: He had two jobs. He worked at the post office, 30th and Market, then he’d come home for dinner and then go to his other job and not get home until midnight.

PGN: I know your first celebrity encounter was with a mutual friend of ours.

AS: Yes, I used to watch “Bandstand” with my mother in 1952 when it was just local to Philadelphia. They already had regulars and we knew their names and all about them. One day a friend of mine and I ran into one of my favorites on the street, Jerry Blavat. He was a superstar to us. He was so sweet and kind and he’s still a friend to this day.

PGN: What made you want to be a part of the show?

AS: I wanted my mom to see me on TV. I wanted to impress her, to tell you the truth. As it happened, I went to a party in the neighborhood and one of the regulars, Justine, was there. I was really excited to meet her and I asked if she thought there was any way for me to get on the show. She said, “Sure, come down tomorrow and I’ll get you in.” So I took the subway there and waited in the line and she walked right past me before I could get her attention. I was so disappointed but I met another girl who also didn’t get in and we went over to Pop Singer’s drugstore where a lot of the regulars hung out after the show. After the show, one of the “stars,” Little Ro, came into the shop and hung out. Turned out, she lived in our neighborhood and was able to get us in the next day. She introduced me to all the popular kids in the “in” clique. Soon, the producer of the show gave me a membership card so I could come every day without waiting in line.

PGN: It seems you quickly became one of the most popular regulars. Were you a really great dancer? Was it because you were humble?

AS: Well, I wasn’t a great dancer, I wasn’t a fashion plate, I wasn’t the prettiest girl there. I don’t really know what it was. I was actually pretty taken aback when I first started getting fan mail. I even remember one of the other girls, supposedly a friend, asking, “Why are they writing to you?” and I apologetically responded, “I don’t know!” But the letters kept coming in and then Dick Clark was getting letters about me so he started to do interviews with me on the air, which allowed people to get to know me even better. Soon he was asked to do his first movie and, to generate buzz, he had a contest asking viewers which four girls should get to do a cameo in the movie and I was one of the four chosen. You see me on screen for about a half a second. But the contest got us a lot of attention and the good thing about it all was that it helped me come out of my shell. I was actually very shy and this forced me to learn how to make conversations with people when they came up to talk to me.

PGN: One of the things that I loved in the book was that people didn’t just come up to talk to you, they’d come to your house and your mother would let them in.

AS: Oh yeah, I’d come downstairs and there would be fans there having breakfast. I still run into people today who came to the house, even when I wasn’t there. On the book tour people would say, “We haven’t met but your mom let us in and gave us cake and cookies.” That was so her.

PGN: That’s great. When I had my 15 minutes of fame as cohost of “The Bozo Show,” I’d often go to lunch with different fans. It was so much fun to be able to give someone a memorable experience so easily.

AS: Definitely, it’s something they’ll always remember.

PGN: What were the best and worst parts for you?

AS: Meeting Annette Funicello and the other guest stars who came to the show was the best part. Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker, I kept in touch with a lot of them and Annette and I became really good friends. Whenever she was on the East Coast, we would hang out. My mother would put me on the train to New York or D.C. and her parents would send a car for me. One of my favorite experiences was going to see The Rockettes with her. Annette was performing and we got to hang out backstage all weekend. To my surprise, The Rockettes knew who I was, which was really thrilling. We just weren’t aware back in Philly of how many people watched the show across the country. Even a lot of the big stars like Frank Sinatra, etc., all had kids who used to watch, so they knew our names too. Barry Manilow was a fan, even Bette Midler used to watch. I went to see her at the Academy of Music when Barry was her piano player and from on stage she started talking about how she used to come home from school to see if Kenny and Arlene were dancing together and what I was wearing. It was surreal to hear her say my name! The worst part was people staring at you wherever you went, shopping, eating … I’d often leave places because it made me uncomfortable. I was always very self-conscious.

PGN: What was the weirdest gift you ever received?

AS: Nothing really weird, but kids would send jewelry, charm bracelets and heart lockets, clothes, watches, you name it. And stuffed animals; I had so many you couldn’t even see the furniture in my room! We finally donated them to CHOP. I felt bad, but it was getting out of control. We were on the air every day and every day they’d give us these big packages filled with our mail to bring home.

PGN: Get any marriage proposals?

AS: Oh yes, pretty funny looking back.

PGN: When did you first realize that you were gay?

AS: I always knew I was different. Maybe that was why I was so self-conscious. I used to go to the movies and sometimes I’d fantasize about being the leading lady and sometimes the leading man. It was very confusing and there was no one to talk with about it. I had crushes, of course, but I kept it to myself. But when I went to the show, things changed. I remember saying to one of the regulars one time, “Wow, I really like Billy,” and she said, “Billy? He doesn’t like girls.” I didn’t understand what she was talking about; I was very naïve and didn’t know anything about homosexuality. It just wasn’t talked about. There was no Oprah, there wasn’t even a Phil Donahue yet. Then someone told me that there were two girls on the show who were together and I was like, “You’re kidding me?” I was fascinated by them; they were really nice kids but they kind of stuck to themselves. I didn’t get to know them until much later when we reconnected in our 20s at the bars.

PGN: So how did you end up coming out?

AS: So the boys used to hang in Rittenhouse Square to meet up. It was the gay meeting spot. We’d go hang out together and I started meeting some lesbians who would come to the park as well. It was easy for us in the show because we had each other to hang out with and we were one big happy family. The boys didn’t really care who knew. We didn’t advertise it, but we weren’t overly cautious either. It was an exciting time. Then when I was 18, I went to my first gay club in New York; that was the age to get in back then.

PGN: What age were you on “Bandstand”?

AS: I started when I was about 13 and left at 17.

PGN: Something I found interesting was the number of your fans who later turned out to be gay. There was a girl from Cleveland who ran away from home to come see you and another from Brooklyn who you later got involved with. How did they know?

AS: I think girls back then who had those feelings would watch the show like everyone else, but they’d secretly have their favorite girl. I remember there was one young girl who came to the show and when she met me she was shaking … shaking. She was from Staten Island and had her father drive her all the way to Philly to meet me. She told him if he didn’t do it she was going to run away. She was obviously gay and had such a crush; it’s the first time I began to understand it. After I came out, I met up with her and a lot of other gay fans in P-Town and other places over the years. Several even showed up the other night at our big reunion night!

PGN: I guess it was just early gaydar, which is really funny since you were on the show as part of one of the “it” couples with a boy named Kenny.

AS: Yeah, it was puppy love with Kenny. He was a very sweet boy and we were together from ages 14-16. Then he made a record and went on the road and we lost touch. But by the time I was 16, I pretty much knew about myself.

PGN: And after the show, I understand you started a whole new career.

AS: Yes, I was a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City for 31 years. It was fun. I was also a supervisor in the casinos until I had some heart problems that sidelined me off and on. I opened up Harrah’s and then went over to the Trump Marina to supervise when that opened up. That was a nightmare. I can’t stand that man. He’d come in about once a month and walk through with his entourage and would never, ever acknowledge an employee on the floor. Never, not once. He’d walk through with his nose up wearing a big overcoat, even if it was warm out; hiding his fat, I guess. His wife, was the one who actually ran things and she was a bitch, another one who never acknowledged the employees. She’d stalk around and never deign to look at anyone beneath her.

PGN: What’s the most anyone lost at your table?

AS: It was $114,000 in three hours. Can you imagine? I’ll never forget that amount because it was the exact amount of a house I’d seen on the market that I wished I could buy. I kept thinking, What a waste.

PGN: You’re a movie and music buff. What’s your favorite film theme song?

AS: I love “Pure Imagination” from “Willie Wonka,” even though I’ve never seen the movie!

PGN: What? That’s criminal. [Laughs] On that note, I’m ending this conversation.

Writer’s note: Do yourself a favor and get “Bandstand Diaries: The Philadelphia Years.” There were so many stories, I didn’t have room to ask about them all — stories about Arlene and Judy Hill, who went on to sue Martina Navratilova for palimony, her friend Steve Brandt, who served as best man at Sharon Tate’s wedding, hooking up with former “Bandstand” crushes and many more ...

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