BUNNY & EDDIE 'AMERICAN BANDSTAND' REGULARS RELIVE THE UPS AND DOWNS OF DANCING UNDER TV'S SPOTLIGHT.
THE COUPLE in the back booth at Mel's Diner in West Hollywood earlier this week - Ed Kelly, a manager at a New York law office, and Kathleen Gibson, an actress who lives in Marina Del Rey - felt right at home amid the vintage photos and the jukebox loaded with oldies.
Ed is 60 and looking toward a Southern California retirement, and Kathleen is still bubbly at 58. But there's a part of them that is forever Eddie & Bunny - or Bunny & Eddie, depending on whom you ask - their unified identity as popular regular dancers on TV's ``American Bandstand'' from 1959 to 1961.
They took time out to talk about their Thursday night gig at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, an event the school describes rather plainly as a concert and lecture but which Bunny prefers to call a sock hop on stage. It will be a talk about the history of rock 'n' roll, a Q&A with the then-famous dance duo and a showcase by Eddie, Bunny and dance students of steps from ``Bandstand's'' heyday, when records by Chubby Checker, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis had everybody hopping.
``I've been going up every weekend to work with the Pierce College dancers, teaching them the jitterbug,'' Bunny said. ``I have them cha-cha-ing and mashed-potatoing and ponying and things they've never seen before. The Bristol stomp - a whole new world for them.''
Both are still in great shape for their years, but they're more than willing to let the school's 13 dancers, ranging in age from 20 to 40, do the heavy lifting.
``We don't want to huff and puff,'' Bunny said.
Step by step
Hearing Bunny mention the mashed potato, Ed said he needs a refresher. Bunny bounced from her seat in the booth and shuffled smoothly on the balls of her feet, her leather-soled high heels gliding on the linoleum. Ed's rubber-soled shoes were not so accommodating. But another up-tempo number came on the jukebox and they switched easily to a jitterbug.
Ed said he learned to dance from his predecessors on the show, while Bunny liked to practice her moves while holding onto the swinging refrigerator door, much to her parents' consternation when the food defrosted.
Back then, ``American Bandstand'' aired lived from Philadelphia weekdays after school, and the most avid dancers in the area were sure to be in line daily for a seat in the bleachers or, better yet, a spot on the floor. Viewers who had outgrown ``Howdy Doody'' and ``The Mickey Mouse Club'' made the show a ritual and latched onto pairs who were interviewed by Dick Clark or featured in the ``spotlight dances.'' The regulars became TV's first reality stars.
Bunny pulled out a bag brimming with photos, well-preserved pages from 16 magazine, and even a paper doll version of herself.
``It was like a soap opera, that's what it was,'' Ed said. ``You were tuning in every day to see your favorites.''
``To see who was dancing with whom,'' Bunny added. ``If you wanted to get more fan mail, you didn't dance with each other - they'd think you broke up.''
``We never did that,'' said Ed. They never were a romantic couple - Bunny actually married a ``Bandstand'' fan when she was just 16 - but the fans were happy presuming there was a relationship.
They both talked about the permanent exhibit being planned for the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg showcasing the program's regular dancers.
Bunny said she plans to donate her leopard-print jacket (which has since been used as a costume on NBC's ``American Dreams'') and a 45 rpm record, maybe Jimmy Charles' ``A Million to One,'' which she said reflects her feelings about her ``Bandstand'' fame.
Then Ed ran down his donation: ``I had an olive green Italian mohair sweater from 1960, my 45 rpm record player, a pair of cuff links and a tie clip that said 'Eddie.' Somebody sent me a trophy that said 'World's Greatest Dancer' on it - I gave them that. And I'm about to give them my record case.''
``Helloooo,'' Bunny put in. ``I think I'd better up the ante. I think I should donate my Peter Pan collar.''
Their mega-celebrity among ``Bandstand'' viewers came with a price, everything from shunning to threats from their schoolmates in Northeast Philadelphia.
``I actually had to leave St. Hubert's High School because they threatened to kill me,'' Bunny said. ``I ate lunch by myself. They threatened to beat me up all the time. And when I got that note in class - 'If you don't leave here, we're going to do you in' - I finally said to my mom, 'I can't take it any longer. Please transfer me to public school.' ''
Bunny said the reaction was part jealousy over her fame and part shame at conduct that was viewed then by some as disgraceful - dancing to rock 'n' roll on television. She learned years later from another student that many of the girls actually admired her determination.
``No matter what they did to me, I'd be standing out there on the highway with my little hatbox full of my 'Bandstand' clothes to change into on the bus, and I'd be going to 'Bandstand' no matter what they did,'' she said.
``It was a very lonely time in our lives,'' agreed Ed, who also quit his Catholic high school under pressure from its principal. ``I used to take back streets not to be seen, and camouflage myself.''
``I went (to the 'Bandstand' set) because my childhood was rough at home, and I watched the show and everybody looked so happy,'' Bunny recalled. ``And I knew there had to be more than I was experiencing. The dancing motivated me to go, but I also went to make my mother proud of me.''
Reliving the ``Bandstand'' glory days at Pierce College this week and again in August on a special Holland America cruise to Alaska brings up those dark memories along with all the warm recollections, but Ed and Bunny can handle them now.
``The good memories far outweigh the tough ones,'' Bunny said.
``I agree,'' Ed said. ``We were having such fun, whatever else was happening in our lives, 'Bandstand' made up for it.''
Bunny hopes to mount similar events at more college campuses and other venues to keep the dances of the '50s and '60s alive. And her experience last November dancing with local foster children at the Day of the Child event at Pierce has spurred her in her ``Dancing Is Our Drug of Choice'' campaign, for which she is applying for grants.
She strongly feels dancing is great for self-esteem, exercise, tension relief and other assorted ills. She admires the athleticism of of contemporary dance moves but feels kids would benefit from the teamwork and contact required by the dancing she grew up with.
``When you're holding each other like this, you don't have to make out with each other. You're getting attention from the opposite sex, but it's clean and it's innocent,'' she said. ``They don't have that physical touch from dancing today, and I think it would be good for the kids.''
Valerie Kuklenski, (818) 713-3750
SOCK HOP ON STAGE
Where: Pierce College Performing Arts Theatre, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
(1) ``American Bandstand'' dancers Kathleen ``Bunny'' Gibson and Ed Kelly re-create their '50s/'60s chemistry next to the jukebox at Mel's Diner in West Hollywood. The pair share their story again on Thursday at Pierce College.
Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
(2) When Gibson and Kelly were a popular couple on the weekday ``Bandstand,'' both were pressured to leave their Catholic high schools.