Surprise: A Lot of the Teens On American Bandstand Were Gay

Image via Getty.
Image via Getty.

A show where well-dressed teens gently bop around to the big hits while maintaining an appropriate distance apart hardly seems like it would be a hot bed of sexual experimentation, but American Bandstand apparently featured a crew of Philadelphia kids who had more than dancing in common.

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In their new self-published memoirs Bandstand Diaries, series regulars Arlene Sullivan, Ray Smith, and Sharon Sultan Cutler reveal that though fans loved to gossip and fantasize about the show’s heterosexual pairings, many of their favorites were young gay men and women putting on a show for the cameras.

Image via AP.
Image via AP.

The show, hosted by Dick Clark, sounds like it was both a community of welcome amongst the teens and a repressive construct from higher ups. In an interview with the New York Post, Sullivan says that she and many of the gay male dancers would congregate in the “Gayborhood,” Rittenhouse Square, and there were rumors that Clark sent producers to spy on them. On the other hand, they had each other.

“In other parts of the country, if you were a gay kid growing up, you were probably the only one in town who was gay,” Sullivan said. “But . . . we were like a little family together, and we all had something in common, and we all stuck together, and that made it easier for us.”

In 2014, the National Enquirer interviewed Frank Brancaccio and Eddie Kelly, other series regulars. Kelly said he avoided Rittenhouse Square, knowing if he were seen there, they’d be banished, but it was an open secret that most of the boys on the show were gay. Brancaccio says that’s what attracted him to it.

“I went to ‘Bandstand’ because I was gay and I was a misfit in my neighborhood. I lived in very tough South Philadelphia,” he says. “I’d see these kids dancing and instinctively I knew I could fit in with them.

“I went to coffee shops, but I also hung out in Rittenhouse Square and so did many of the dancers. It was no secret.

“When I used to walk down the streets of Philadelphia and be recognized, I’d be called a ‘Bandstand f*****.’”

Image via Getty.
Image via Getty.

Sullivan was most frequently paired with a boy named Kenny Rossi, who was straight, but still subject to attacks for appearing on the show:

“One time, Kenny and I went to visit one of the other regulars up in North Philadelphia, and we were leaving her apartment and were headed to the El, and I heard car doors slamming, and I looked back, and all these guys were coming up the steps, and they started beating up on Kenny,” Sullivan says. “I was trying to hit them over their heads with my pocketbook, but they just wouldn’t give up. Finally, we got away and jumped over the turnstile. They were hurting him. It was horrible.”

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She also mentions a gay dancer who was pushed in the train tracks, and another who was dangled over an elevator shaft.

Dick Clark’s tight control on the sexual expression of his cast extended to a denial years after the show had ended. Ray Smith says he was upset when Dick Clark claimed only one of the dancers had died from AIDS when asked about it in an interview. “That really annoyed me,” said Smith, “Because quite a few of the Philadelphia dancers on ‘Bandstand’ died of AIDS.”

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According to Brancaccio, Clark didn’t want racial integration on his show either. While occasionally black teens were allowed into the studio, they were generally boys. Interracial couples were not allowed on camera, so they sat on the sidelines. “Clark was out for Clark,” says Brancaccio. “He was a brilliant man. BUT he was out for Clark.”

Sullivan claims there were four other popular girl dancers on the show whom she knew to be lesbians, and they hung out together. She says she never had a crush on a straight dancer, and was close friends with celebrity guest Annette Funicello. “We were like sisters. I never had a crush on her. We’d stay up all night talking about boys,” said Sullivan. At 74, Sullivan still dances once a week at a party thrown by another Bandstand dancer. She calls it her “one night out.”

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin

DISCUSSION

deborahbw
Marmellata

I’m incredibly old, and I remember well that my friends and I watched American Bandstand religiously (mostly on my best friend’s TV, which was a huge, clumsy, black-and-white cabinet set, an RCA if I’m remembering correctly—this was back in the day, when TV stations signed off late at night and came back on with the farm report or whatever, at dawn: God, that sounds old).

I’m not even sure why we loved it so much, but we did: we’d all get together and dance while we watched, lip-synching the songs, trying to imitate the moves of the kids on TV.

Dick Clark was like the coolest babysitter ever—he was the adult in the room, but he wasn’t telling us to pipe down and do our chores, he was telling everybody to go crazy and dance.

The kids were exotic because they were, to our small town, small time, Middle Western eyes, East Coast “greaser” kids (“greaser,” in our circle at least, was slightly pejorative but totally non-racist: it was a reference to a certain tough, proletarian edge and to the abundant use of product on the hair, and not to ethnic origin). The kids on the Bandstand were ballsy and urban.

The girls seemed brassy, totally sure of themselves. They weren’t demure. They had cornered the market on eye shadow and hairspray. We were all supposed to be demure, and they weren’t demure. The boys—unlike most of the boys we went to dances with—could actually dance. They were free and creative, they had incredible moves.

All those kids had that Philadelphia hair, and (it must be impossible for someone who’s young now to understand this) they made us feel free. It’s incredibly moving to discover decades later that these terrific, liberating, goofy, deeply cool dancing fools were in a kind of cultural prison all the while.