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Gays behind the American Bandstand
By Sari Staver

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When The New York Post published a story that a new coffeetable book, Bandstand Diaries, revealed stories about the secret gay lives of some of the dancers, sales of the book went through the roof. Beginning at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, March 12, when the Post story by tell-all journalist Jerry Oppenheimer was published, "We could barely keep up with the flood of orders," said publisher Sharon Sultan Cutler, co-author of the 175-page book that includes more than 700 pictures from American Bandstand as well as interviews with many of the regulars.

"Who knew that the LGBT angle would be so powerful?" asked Cutler rhetorically in a telephone interview. Cutler, an ally, co-wrote the book with two LGBT Bandstand dancers, Arlene Sullivan and Ray Smith. While Sullivan, one of the most popular dancers on the show, and Smith, a longtime NBC-TV Today Show producer, had included information about their sexual orientation in the book, "We never intended to publicize it," said Cutler. But when the Post put the news in a headline, "We had the largest day in book sales."

The cover of Bandstand Diaries proclaims it's "the book you've waited over 50 years to read." For me, the hype was true. Like many adolescents growing up in the 1950s, I ran home from middle school every afternoon to tune into the ABC show hosted by Dick Clark, featuring rock-and-roll stars as well as the "regulars," dancers who became famous and were featured on teen magazine covers. I went overboard as a fan, writing to many dancers and launching a national fan-club for regular Barbara Levick, who was the best friend of co-author Sullivan.

So I adore the book, as I believe others would if they grew up watching the program. For LGBT people, reading about the show from the perspective of two LGBT dancers makes it even more fun. A chat with LGBT co-authors Sullivan and Smith offers some clues about why the program, which also launched the career of media mogul Dick Clark, was such a longstanding success.

"I never thought of myself as any sort of celebrity," said Sullivan, 75, modest and soft-spoken. Sullivan, who spent most of her adult life as a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City, has been an "out lesbian" since her late teens. "We were just ordinary middle-class kids in Philly," she said in a telephone interview. "Kids watching might've identified with us. I was totally shy and wasn't even a good dancer" when she first went on the show.

Sullivan, who received hundreds of fan letters every week and had fan-clubs formed in her honor, said the attention didn't phase her. "I was really just an ordinary kid," she said. She dated boys on the program, including her longtime dance partner Kenny Rossi ( "still to this day a very close friend" ) and Joe Wissert, who also turned out to be gay, and went on to become a successful Hollywood producer. But she "always knew I was a bit different," although she didn't act on any of her lesbian fantasies until she was 17 and had graduated from high school.

Smith, the third co-author, was an occasional dancer on the show, always in awe of the "regulars," he said in a phone interview. He went on to have a longtime career as a producer on NBC-TV's Today show.

In 1952, Bandstand went on the air locally in Philadelphia, backed by an advertising push. More than 1,000 kids lined up to get into the show. By 1956, with its audience growing, the producers hired good-looking Dick Clark to take over the show, renamed it American Bandstand and sold it to the network. The two-hour, five-day-a-week show got strong viewer ratings, and the brand took off.

Through the power of television, average teenagers from Philadelphia became "teen idols," said Smith, as recognizable as movie stars and with more fan mail than Hollywood celebrities. The program had a seven-year run until 1964, when Clark moved the program to Los Angeles, where it aired until 1989. In 2004, Clark announced plans to revive the show in time for the 2005 season, but this did not occur, due at least in part to Clark suffering a severe stroke.

Sullivan and Smith look back fondly on their years on Bandstand, and took the opportunity to revive their memories when publisher Cutler approached them about writing the book. Cutler put the book together because she was convinced there were "many untold stories" people her age would want to read. The book, updated for its third printing in time for the show's 60th anniversary celebration, continues to sell briskly, with a bump in sales every time it's featured online or in print. Asked whether she'd consider including a new LGBT section, Cutler said, "Yes, absolutely. What a great idea."

This review originally ran in the Bay Area Reporter.

Fans can order autographed copies of Bandstand Diaries .

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