When Union City’s Ed Kelly waited in a line outside a Philadelphia television studio on a sunny day back in 1959, he had no idea that he would soon become an icon to legions of teenagers. Kelly was about to be catapulted to fame by becoming a featured dancer on the hugely influential television show "American Bandstand."
Kelly’s undeniable good looks and smooth moves on the dance floor made young girls across the country swoon.
Kelly currently keeps a scrapbook full of memorabilia from his days on the show. Drawings, pictures and magazine covers festooned with the names and faces of the teen icons of the time fill the book and constitute a fairly accurate depiction of what life was like in the early ’60s.
And though the dynamics of teen fame can prove to be fleeting (see: New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, etc), Kelly’s status as a ’60s star remains to this day.
To that end, Kelly and his dancing partner of those long-gone days, Bunny Gibson, recently made a cameo appearance on the hit NBC drama series, "American Dreams."
Kelly, who was profiled in a May 5, 2002 Reporter article, never understood exactly why he achieved star status, and he was never really comfortable with it. Said Kelly in that article, "I saw myself once on television and I decided that I never wanted to watch myself again. I don’t know how anyone could have written to me."
But write they did. According to Kelly’s calculations, he received anywhere from 200 to 500 fan letters a week. Dick Clark, the host of the show, received 15-20,000 fan letters per week. Said Kelly recently, "In the beginning, I would answer a lot of the mail myself. But after a little while, it just became impossible to answer it all myself."
Kelly and the other featured dancers would make personal appearances all over Philadelphia. They would, according to Kelly, dance on stage and then sign autographs and chat with their fans afterward.
Said Kelly, "The people made us. People would see us on television and write to us." It was a very innocent time, Kelly said, and the fans saw the dancers on American Bandstand as versions of themselves, a living embodiment of the fantasy that each held of being on television. Quipped Kelly, "To be a celebrity, you have to have talent. We didn’t have any talent. We just danced the way teenagers danced in Philadelphia at the time."
The recent explosive popularity of "reality television," though, has proven Kelly’s statement to be somewhat false. Many people who participate in shows like "Survivor," "The Real World," "Joe Millionaire" and "The Mole" don’t possess any inherent talent, but simply want to taste "fame" for better or for worse. Interestingly, Kelly sees American Bandstand in much the same light.
"American Bandstand was definitely an early version of reality television," Kelly said. "It was the first reality TV show."
‘It never dies’
When Kelly was featured in a recent daily newspaper article that mentioned the building in Union City he lives in, Kelly received three fan letters almost immediately.
Said Kelly, "It seems like it never dies."
Kelly and his cohorts have been mentioned in countless newspaper articles and in Rolling Stone and participate in American Bandstand reunions, held whenever Dick Clark decides to have them, the last one being the 50th Anniversary show held in May, 2002.
Kelly’s American Bandstand odyssey continued recently when he and his longtime dance partner Bunny Gibson (who now resides in Los Angeles) made a cameo appearance on the NBC television series "American Dreams," which takes place in Philadelphia in the 1960s. Kelly appeared in a scene depicting the American Bandstand set as it looked in the early ’60s. R&B singer Monica, who starred as singer Mary Wells ("Bye Bye Baby"), was featured in the episode. Kelly and Gibson appear in a scene in which they are in the control room of American Bandstand.
Also, Kelly and Gibson were on hand to judge a "dance-off" involving the cast members of the show.
Said Kelly of the experience, "A certain generation of folks love to watch the show, but [the producers are] smart in that they have newer artists representing older performers, so it draws younger viewers as well as older viewers."
Added Kelly, "When I was on the set, it was like 40 minutes had gone by, not 40 years. It moved me right back in time, like it was yesterday."
The episode of "American Dreams" featuring Ed Kelly will air on Sunday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m.