The young dancers on American Bandstand were the reality stars of the 1950s and ’60s—kids nationwide rushed home to watch their every move and chatter about their relationships and exploits.
But just like a lot of today’s showmances are concocted, many of the Bandstand boppers were harboring a big secret: They were gay.
“I knew I was different early on, but being with all these [Bandstand] friends, I came to terms with my feelings,” Bandstand star Arlene Sullivan writes in her memoir, Bandstand Diaries. “I kissed a girl, and I liked it!”
Bandstand debuted in Philadelphia in 1950 and took on its familiar format two years later. In addition to appearances by big pop stars of the day, Sullivan’s on-screen romance with Kenny Rossi was a huge draw for the show.
Rossi was straight—but Sullivan, many of her female co-stars, and most of the young male dancers were not.
Sullivan, 74, wrote Diaries with Ray Smith, another dancer who was closeted during his Bandstand years.
“The one thing that really shocked me was that those boys who were 14 and 15 and 16 were sleeping with each other,” Smith told the New York Post.
At the time, being open about their sexuality would have meant the end for these young performers with stars in their eyes. Sullivan says Bandstand host Dick Clark knew most of the cast was gay, but was determined to keep it under wraps for the sake of the show.
There were even allegations that Clark conducted witch hunts, sending production staff to Rittenhouse Square, at the center of Philadelphia’s gayborhood, to see if any of the young stars were there. But overall, their meet-ups remained a sanctuary.
“In other parts of the country, if you were a gay kid growing up, you were probably the only one in town who was gay,” Sullivan says. “But… we were like a little family together, and we all had something in common, and we all stuck together, and that made it easier for us.”
Despite that sense of community, the show’s stars—gay and straight alike—were targeted in Philadelphia, and even physically attacked in some cases, just for being dancers.
“When I used to walk down the streets of Philadelphia and be recognized, I’d be called a ‘Bandstand f*ggot,’” dancer Frank Brancaccio told the National Enquirer in 2014.
Once when Sullivan and Rossi visited another show regular in North Philadelphia, “we were leaving her apartment and were headed to the El, and I heard car doors slamming, and I looked back, and all these guys were coming up the steps, and they started beating up on Kenny,” she recalls.
“I was trying to hit them over their heads with my pocketbook, but they just wouldn’t give up. Finally, we got away and jumped over the turnstile. They were hurting him. It was horrible.”
Another time, a dancer was thrown onto the subway tracks. One young performer was dangled down an elevator shaft.
But for the gay kids, the abuse at home was worse: When one dancer’s parents learned he was gay, she told the Post, “they put a drinking cup in front of him and said, ‘This is your cup, and you’re the only one who will use this cup.’” Another was thrown out of the house.
Thankfully we’ve come a long way since those sad days. And while more openly gay performers are comfortable taking the stage these days, it’s good to know we’ve always been there—even if in silence.