It was the late '60s and early '60s when kids across the country would tune in to see Arlene Sullivan and Kenny Rossi slow dance on American Bandstand. Before the reality show craze took America by storm, this group of wholesome teens was all people could think about. They would get fan letters by the troves from kids enamored with their seemingly glamorous lives.
But behind the pristine façade was an inconvenient truth that host Dick Clark covered up at all costs. Sullivan and most of the young men and women on the show were in fact gay. If that were revealed, the kids at the time would never have been allowed to tune in.
Sullivan recently teamed up with fellow gay Bandstand alumnus, Ray Smith to write a tell-all about the show’s secretly queer cast. Bandstand Diaries reveals a portrait of growing up gay before the Stonewall riots.
“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 said. “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.”
They would often congregate in Rittenhouse Square, the gayborhood of Philadelphia, where the show was filmed. They frequently suspected that Clark had sent members of his staff to spy on them and report back. But that was just part of their struggles.
The streets of Philadelphia were dangerous for male members of the cast, straight or gay. They were frequently assaulted while walking home.
One time, Kenny and I went to visit one of the other regulars up in North Philadelphia, and 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,” Sullivan said.
Smith even recalls seeing dancers thrown on the El tracks and dangled over an elevator shaft.
At the time, Sullivan tried to conform to heteronormative society, and she even got married to a young man when she was in her early 20s. Now 74, she lived in Philly with her partner and still goes out dancing once a week.
Bandstand Diaries is now available to order online.