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April 19, 2017

Dick Clark’s secret: ‘Bandstand’ dancers were having a gay old time

Closeted 'American Bandstand' duos danced their way into our hearts

The late Dick Clark’s reign as a show business monarch could have ended just as it commenced thanks to a secret he was able to keep from both his sponsors and the public.

That at least is the word from a former “American Bandstand” dancer who claims in a recently published book that Clark knew that a significant number of the teens who appeared on his Philly-based afternoon dance-party program--known nationwide as the “Regulars”--were gay. And, reports Arlene Sullivan, he culled his show’s ranks of those kids in order to save his squeaky-clean image and the brand that would make him one of the entertainment world’s most famous and influential figures.

“He did know,” insisted Sullivan, a Southwest Philadelphia native and lead author of Bandstand Diaries: The Philadelphia Years 1956-1963 (Coney Island Press). She danced on the show when it was broadcast from the old WFIL-TV (now 6ABC) studios at 46th and Market streets.

“Dick Clark knew. But the sponsors, of course, didn’t know. They came to [Clark] because they wanted to use these kids because [they] were so popular. They wanted to use these kids for commercials and things.”

As such, she continued, it was imperative that Clark keep the facts away from his advertisers and the public at large, which, overall, was nowhere near as accepting of alternative lifestyles as it is today (back then, homosexuals in many locales faced arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, not to mention officially sanctioned harassment).

“You have to understand. He had to protect his own image and his own brand,” she reasoned. 

“[The knowledge about the dancers] would have destroyed him—and the show. There was no way in the ‘50s someone was gonna understand about homosexuality.”

Clark’s response, she noted, was to rid the show of those he knew to be gay. Sullivan, who came out decades ago, spoke of one particular young man, now deceased, who was a victim of Clark’s campaign.

[The knowledge about the dancers] would have destroyed him—and the show. There was no way in the ‘50s someone was gonna understand about homosexuality.”

Because she “wasn’t in the room” with him and Clark, she admitted she doesn’t know exactly what transpired when the ultra-wholesome TV personality confronted the teen. However, she said the boy subsequently told her that Clark told him of a new rule setting the age limit for dancers at 17, which affected many, if not all, of those on his hit list.

At the time this was happening, Sullivan still considered herself straight, although she sensed she had an unidentifiable “problem.” Nonetheless, she described an acceptance of the gay kids that contravenes much of what we believe to be true about societal mores of the late 1950s.

“It’s like we fell into this and we accepted them, and we didn’t care,” she said. “We all went out together, we partied together, we hung [at Rittenhouse Square] together on weekends.

“I remember saying to this one girl, ‘I have a crush on this guy.’ She said, ‘He doesn’t like girls.’ I looked at her like…this is the strangest thing I ever heard. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I didn’t know. I was so innocent. And she said, ‘He likes boys.’

“I had question after question after question. Then I said, ‘I still like this guy.’ For some reason, I didn’t care. It didn’t make a difference to me.”


Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), 104.9 FM, WWDBAM.com, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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