Wink’s Dance Party
When I allow my mind a tender, nostalgic moment, I think of 1960! Remember the brilliant and descriptive movie slogan, “In everyone’s life, there is a Summer of ’42,” I might paraphrase that slogan to work for me, personally, in remembering the summer of ’60. I had experienced a dream of a year in 1959. So much had happened in a relatively brief period of time. My transfer from Memphis to California. My experience of recording a million selling record and performing it on a national television. The successful debuts of my radio and television shows. The birth of our third daughter, Laura, and finally my Memphis homecoming at Christmas time. Luckily, in many ways, 1960 mirrored the prior year. While a young and vibrant John F. Kennedy was waging the political battle of his life with Vice President Richard M. Nixon, my Dance Party from Pacific Ocean Park was dancing its way into the hearts of young people, creating excellent ratings for KHJ afternoons between four and five o’clock, and Saturday nights, 6:30 til 7:30.
Pacific Ocean Park was an amusement park bounded by the blue Pacific on the west and Santa Monica on the east. Having been in a run-down state for several years prior to being purchased in 1958 by CBS, the park had lost its luster in terms of popularity. The surrounding neighborhood had deteriorated greatly, causing attendance to drop dramatically. CBS instituted a renovation and cleanup of the facility, along with a promotion campaign that proved quite successful.
Popular Pricing Policy
But with CBS’ subsequent sale of POP to a private investment group led by entrepreneur Jack Morehart, the park was given a million dollar facelift, along with a brilliant pricing policy that turned this former white elephant into an overnight financial winner. The idea was to make the letters P.O.P. (Pacific Ocean Park), translate to Pay One Price. That is, a visitor to the park need only pay the low admission price of $1.55 to be allowed to stay as long as he wanted, and use all the rides and facilities of the park that day. Such a deal! Imagine that today!
The Wink Martindale Dance Party, along with an aggressive and expensive media advertising campaign, brought young people and their parents to the park in record numbers. The fact that the Santa Monica Freeway had not yet been constructed and the main traffic arteries, Olympic, Pico and Wilshire Boulevards, provided the only real access to the park from other areas of Los Angeles was another tribute to the park and what it had to offer in the eyes for the public. One of the features of Disneyland that always appealed to me was its cleanliness. Almost as soon as a piece of paper hit the ground, there was an attendant to pick it up! That cleanliness factor was in place at POP as well. The park was a real pleasure to visit. It was a a family paradise, in terms of cost and entertainment. For me, personally, once again I was in the right place at the right time to continue making a name for myself with the young people of Southern California. Pacific Ocean Park! The perfect place to spend a hot summer day close to the beach! Imagine the screams of frightened kids on the roller coaster with the aroma of fresh peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs and cotton candy. Then listen for more screams of delight and excitement as I would introduce the number one teen idol of that summer to a predominantly female audience of over 1,000 standing souls gathered in the Sea Circus Arena and several hundred more hanging over the surrounding fences: “And now here he is. The young man you’ve all been waiting in the hot summer sun to see in person! He grew up in Philadelphia, the same city that gave us Bobby Rydell (screams), James Darren (screams), Chubby Checker (screams), Fabian (louder screams), and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (screams) ! Welcome Francis Thomas Avallone. We know him as FRANKIE AVALON!”
SEA OF SCREAMING HUMANITY
As his recording of “Venus” began to reverberate through the giant speakers, the song could hardly be heard through the din of continuous screams. The moment was reminiscent of the Saturday Elvis walked into the Dance Party studio in Memphis. Sheer magic! As Frankie tried making his way down the isles through a sea of humanity while attempting to lip sync his biggest number one hit from a year earlier, I turned to my producer Al Burton, and asked in all seriousness, “Do you think he’s going to be all right out there?” Al, always the confident one, replied, “No problem!” Look at that. Can you imagine watching this at home on television?” Al, ever the producer, was seeing this as it was on TV. I was concerned for Frankie’s safety.
Frankie, Fabian … Fabulous
Another similar day was when Frankie’s friend and labelmate on Chanecellor Records, Fabian, stopped by! He was another good looking hunk with five pounds of hair that Bob Marcucci had created, in the image of Frankie Avalon. The big difference however was that Frankie could really sing. It was another case of utter pandemonium when I introduced Fabian singing his big hit “Tiger,” and later “Turn Me Loose.” Again, one handsome face in a sea of females! I remember asking him one of the dumbest questions I could ever ask a teen idol. “When you were out there among all those screaming admirers, was it fun?” Fabian answered rhetorically, “What do you think?” I took that to mean it sure beat working for a living!
In addition to producer Al Burton and dozens of recording superstars, the POP Dance Party introduced me to several lifelong friends, without whom the show would never have been as successful as it was. Larry Sloane was “the man in charge.” He ran the park and was instrumental in seeing to it that our show became a fixture that first summer. Larry, Al, Producers Bart Ross and Frank Danzig all recognized how important television exposure was in reaching the teen demographic needed to put Pacific Ocean Park over the top. It was their vision that prevailed over early cost concerns of the owners. Incidentally, years later Larry Sloane would realize enormous success as a partner in the Price-Stern-Sloane publishing empire.
Arnold Shapiro, Emmy and Academy Award winning producer of the Scared Straight documentary and executive producer of the long-running series Rescue 911 for CBS, was the glue that held the POP Dance Party together. He worked harder behind the scenes than any of us did in front of the camera. Arnold had known Al, his mentor, for several years and worked for Al on two or three local shows. So it was only fitting that Arnold be invited to join our team when the KHJ POP Dance Party began the prior year. Arnold had the innate ability to get the job done, whatever that called for, while at the same time keeping his cool no matter what. Obviously that has served him well in later years. And I must say Arnold thoroughly enjoyed working alongside the lovely lades of Dance Party! He used to say “That goes with the territory!” Linda Mintz was another of the unsung heroes who was totally devoted to ensuring a top-flight show day in and day out. There were so many other important persons behind the scenes. Suffice it to say, as in any creative endeavor, without each doing his or her task, the successful end result would have been impossible to achieve.
Unlike Dick Clark’s American Bandstand on the ABC Network, which could make a new record a hit almost overnight, the POP Dance Party was strictly a local show, seen only in the Los Angeles area, albeit a very large area. So an Avalon, or a Fabian, or a Mathis, or a Pat Boone, or a Connie Francis, or a Duane Eddy, was doing a bigger favor for me than I was for them. Although that went unsaid, I sure it was a recognized fact among artists and their promotion people.
Percy Faith “Captured” that Summer
Without question, 1960 was the most memorable of all my years as a deejay on radio and television. And the number one recording of that year, oddly enough, was not “Venus,” “Chain Gang,””El Paso,” “Stuck on You,” “Everybody is Somebody’s Fool,” “I’m Sorry,” or “Cathy’s Clown,” all smash hits by Frankie Avalon, Sam Cooke, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers, respectively. Billboard Magazine’s biggest single hit of the year was an instrumental, from Max Steiner’s score for a 1959 film starring Dorothy Malone, Richard Egan, Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue and Arthur Kennedy, “A Summer Place.” Percy Faith had enjoyed success in 1953 with another popular film theme, “The Song From Moulin Rouge,” the best-selling single of that year. Then he duplicated that feat with “Theme from a Summer Place” eight years later. Though not an immediate hit, it enjoyed a run of nine weeks at the top of the charts, and was truly the “love theme” of the year!
On a much lesser scale of importance, I was making an indelible print on my memory, my second year as a transplanted Tennesseean . And it all happened at Pacific Ocean Park. When the park finally gave way to the wrecking ball in favor of high rise condominiums in the mid Seventies, a dear friend from KMPC was aware of how much POP had meant to me. On the first day demolition began, Jane Hassler drove to Santa Monica and picked from the rubble a decorative circular metal piece that was part of the park’s entrance way, had it painted and fitted with a glass top, and gave it to me as a small cocktail table, which I still have to this day. Who knows, perhaps “in everyone’s life, there is a summer of ’60.