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Singer, actor, spokesman performs April 24
By Joshua Maloni
What is the shelf life of a TikTok star?
Or, put another way, in 50 years, will we remember the myriad overnight performers thrust upon us since the advent of reality television, YouTube and social media?
It’s unlikely the current crop of “stars” will attain the level of success Frankie Avalon has had over the past eight – count them, eight – decades as a singer and actor.
“The Big Kahuna” first became a big deal at the end of the 1950s, with the release of singles “Dede Dinah” and “Venus.” With a string of hits in the 1960s, Hollywood came calling, and this teen idol started to land on-screen roles alongside the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Robert Wagner, Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby. He also starred in a trio of beach-based romantic comedies with “The Mickey Mouse Club” standout Annette Funicello.
With the 1970s came appearances in classic TV series “Love, American Style,” “Police Story” and “The Love Boat.” Avalon closed the decade with perhaps his most iconic performance, appearing as “Teen Angel” in “Grease.” He sings “Beauty School Dropout” to Didi Conn’s pink-haired Frenchie.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Avalon would show up in Shelley Long’s cult classic “Troop Beverly Hills,” drop in on “Full House,” and guest on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” More significantly, he went back to the beach in, well, “Back to the Beach,” a tongue-in-cheek take on his past performances that also starred Funicello – with special appearances by Connie Stevens, Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman), Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Mathers and Barbara Billingsley, and Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr. Avalon also had a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” alongside Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone.
Since then, Avalon has toured steadily, both solo and alongside fellow 1950s-’60s vocalists Bobbie Rydell and Fabian.
He returns to the historic Riviera Theatre for a 3 p.m. concert Sunday, April 24.
The affable entertainer and California resident chatted about his career, his costars, and his live show during a recent interview.
“I’m coming into the area again, which I love,” Avalon said.
“I love going back to the Buffalo area. I've got a lot of friends there. And I can't wait to see them.”
An edited Q&A follows.
Frankie Avalon returns to Western New York for a concert on April 24. (Image courtesy of Latshaw Productions)
Q: We are excited to have you back out this way. It's always a lot of fun when we see you live on stage.
Having seen you on “Dancing with the Stars” not too long ago, you look fantastic. You sound fantastic. Not many people can say that they've done it as well as you have, for as long as you have. Is there a secret? Is there a trick? What are you doing better than the rest of us?
Frankie Avalon: You know, Josh, that's very nice of you. And a nice compliment. And thank God. I get that all the time. “What do you do? What is this, that and whatever.” And you know, I got on the Facebook Live, and I tell everybody what I do. My regimen would be the vitamins I take, the things that I've been doing, and it's worked for me – and I've been doing it for 63 years now.
Q: You're coming out this way for a live show. You are known as a great live performer. We know the past two years have been very challenging, to say the least. What has touring looked like for you over the past two years?
Frankie Avalon: The change was not being active enough (on stage). I mean, I stayed active; I keep moving, which is very important. But I sure did miss the opportunity to get in front of an audience, and sing, and do what I've been doing for all these years. So, I had to find and adjust by staying home a lot more with my family, and playing some golf, and then just doing other activities that I would do periodically. I just made them into a schedule for a year-and-a-half.
Q: Have you found that the fan reaction has been different since people were without live music, that now they're more excited to see what they didn't have for that period of time?
Frankie Avalon: Very good question. I’ll tell you, at the very beginning – it's opening up now; people are getting more relaxed – but when I started to come back again just a few months ago, I saw it. Because they would be sitting in the audience and, of course, anticipating who's around them. Some were with masks; some were not with masks. The reaction was different, only because of the fact that they were masked, and I couldn't hear the reaction. I couldn't hear a laugh, if there was a laugh that we had. I think the enthusiasm was a lot more subtle than normal. But now – because I've been doing it more and more – it's starting to open up again, and people are getting more relaxed. But there was a definite change in the attitudes of an audience.
Q: For the people who haven't seen you perform, how would you describe your live show?
Frankie Avalon: My live show is mainly very entertaining; I will say that. And I think it pleases the people that really want to come in to see me, because I don't do anything that's going to be different. They come to hear songs, they come to relive their feelings with me all these years, and I give that to the audience, and it really works out. And I must say, honestly, I cannot remember walking off stage where they're not standing and yelling. So, it works.
Q: That's awesome. I'm sure you have no shortage of great stories to tell. You've had, of course, an illustrious career. How do you pick and choose what you're going to share with an audience at any given time?
Frankie Avalon: Well, that's something that's very special and very demanding for me. And it's my gut, my heart and my feelings, what I would like to do. When I work on a piece of material, whether it be rearranging some of the things I've done, or even introducing something, it's always in the style of what they want to hear. If I'm doing a cover song with one of my friends, or if I'm doing a tribute, it takes a lot of work and a lot of discipline on my part, and the people that are around me, to share how we arrange things so we will make some kind of an impact on the audience.
Q: What sort of a crew do you have with you on stage? Is it a big group, a small group? What’s the accompaniment like?
Frankie Avalon: I carry my personal ensemble. It’s my conductor/pianist; my drummer son; my guitarist, who is Don Everly’s son; and that's about it. I carry three people, myself, and we augment wherever we go in this country with more horns and all the other instruments that we need.
Q: You grew up, of course, a very acclaimed singer, musician. You had specific training in that from a very early age. We know you have a musical background. What made you decide to get into acting? How did that opportunity come along, and what appealed to you about doing something like that?
Frankie Avalon: Well, it really wasn’t my decision, Josh.
What happened was, when I started singing and recording and becoming successful with hit songs, I started to generate a lot of activity from fans – and they were usually all the young kids. And mostly being a teen idol in those days, there was a tremendous amount of fan mail, and an excitement of the fans. And Hollywood recognized that.
So, they called my agency – it was Warner Bros. – and they were doing a film, and there was a role that would fit a young actor, who possibly could sing. And Warner Bros. brought me into Hollywood, because they said we've got a major star, Alan Ladd, let's bring this young boy in who's got a great following of young people, so we’ll enhance our ticket sales by bringing in this boy, Frankie Avalon, with his fans. And they did that, and it worked. So, because of that, I started getting more offers of filmmaking, and wound up doing over 40 motion pictures.
Q: Of course, Annette was a big co-star for you. Such a great actress and such a great onstage and on-screen personality. What made your connection so special? What made your chemistry as good as what we saw?
Frankie Avalon: I think, basically, honesty. I think, whatever I do – whether it be as an actor, or a singer, or performer, I think it's the honesty that I project, that they respond to. I’m not a phony; I don't have two faces. This is me. And this is what I do. And I offer it out there; and I do it honestly. And I think they respond.
Q: Tell me about how the role in “Grease” came to be.
Frankie Avalon: Well, actually, I was playing golf, as a matter of fact, and I played nine holes, and I came off, and my manager was in the clubhouse. I came in to get a soft drink, and he was there with a script. And he said, “Paramount wants you for this picture.” And I said, “What is it?” He said, “ ‘Grease.’ ” I said, “What character?” And he said, “The ‘Teen Angel.’ ” And I said, “Pass,” and I went back out and played the backside nine holes.
Came back in, and he was still there, and he said, “I talked to the producers and director, they will not take ‘No.’ They at least would like you to have a meeting.” So, I went, “OK,” and I went to Paramount, and we sat around the desk of one of the producers. And they said, “Why don't you want to do this?” And I said, “Well, back in 1973, I was playing the Copacabana, and they were doing a promotion on a Broadway show called ‘Grease.’ ” And I went to see the show. And I remember the character, which was really an extension of Elvis, because the character came off of a rope and all in a black leather jacket, and long sideburns, and did kind of a doo-wop version of the song “Beauty School Dropout.” And I said, “That's not me.” I said, “I have a style, and I don't get away from what I do. So, I'm sorry.” They said, “Well, we'll change it” (laughs). They said, “We'll put you all in white, and we'll do this, and then you sing it your style.” I said, “If that's the case, you got it.” And that's how I got it.
Q: I've chatted with Olivia Newton-John before, and I've seen her on stage, and I think she still is very surprised at how popular those songs are this many years later. Does that film's iconic status still surprise you? Did you have any idea that film would be as successful as it was?
Frankie Avalon: Never. Never. You know, Josh, when you make a motion picture, or when you do a recording – whatever you may do – you never know what it's going to do. You do it from your heart, and you do what you do. And you walk away from it. And then it's out there. And then you wait and see what the response is.
I never thought that “Grease” would be this iconic movie. It is the highest-grossing musical of all time. I'm talking about from “Singing in the Rain” on, with great musicals. This one has lasted for 40-some years around the world. I don't mean just in our country. I mean, I can go to Spain; I can go to Italy; I can go to Germany; I can go anywhere and get recognized by that film alone.
Q: Of course, as you said, you've been in so many different movies. I have to ask you about “Back to the Beach,” because that was one of the first films that I ever saw. I was actually in Virginia Beach seeing that movie. How much fun was that film to make?
Frankie Avalon: Well, it was a lot of fun – and gratifying, too, because I produced that, you know. And I knocked on doors in this city, here, of Hollywood, to different producers and different studios, and it was rejected, rejected, rejected – until my agent that I've been with for so many years took me into Paramount. And I gave a synopsis to the president – Ned Tanen was his name. And I told him, and my agent said, “We can get Jimmy Komack to write this, and Jimmy Komack did “(Welcome Back,) Kotter.” He created “Kotter” and “Chico and the Man.” And the president of the studio said, “If you get him, and with Frankie's ideas, let's put it in development.” And we did.
So, it took me about five years to get that picture on the screen. And it was fun. It was great.
Annette was beautiful and wonderful. That's when we realized and recognized that she wasn't well. She was really diagnosed after that picture. We were doing some reading and some cue cards, because we're doing some promos, and she couldn't see. She went to an optometrist and they said, “You've got MS.” So, good and bad came out of that picture.
Q: I'm wondering if you watched the Oscars? I look at the cast of characters that you've worked with over the years, not just actors, but people like Dick Clark, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, John Wayne, Robert De Niro. I'm wondering if you keep tabs on what's going on in current Hollywood, and if you see people that you think are going to have the longevity, or the career, that some of the people you worked with have had?
Frankie Avalon: No, I don't have that magic ball. I know that there's so many talented young people. That's wonderful. Singers included, and actors included.
Longevity? I don't know how that happens, Josh. I really don't know. I think it's the kind of material that you do.
The man who taught me, his name is Nick Castle. And he was my mentor. And he always said to me, “What you do on that stage, or in the film, make sure that you do it, and make sure that that audience feels it, and takes you home. If they take you home with them, then you've made a career.”
As an example, if you're on stage and you say something – never use anything that's foul language or this or that – but if you say something that's poignant, as they're waiting for their car, to get into the car and go home, they’ll say to one another, “Oh, Geez, remember when he did this? Remember what he said that?” The next morning, they'll get up around the coffee table, and they'll say, “Geez, I loved when he did this.” If they take you home, that's longevity.
Q: So many actors, so many musicians look up to you and respect what you've contributed to those industries. I'm wondering if there are actors or musicians that we see nowadays, on screen or in concert – not that you look up to, of course – but that you admire for their talents, or for their charisma. Are there modern-day performers that stand out?
Frankie Avalon: Oh, god, I could go on and on.
You mentioned some of them. Lucille Ball – I mean, what an artist. And not only that, but just a lady, and bright and funny; and John Wayne that I worked with; and Frank Sinatra, that I would go to his house. I admire these people – and I would learn; I would talk with them, and have conversations; and they would give me advice. Nat King Cole was a mentor of mine, another one.
You know, you’ve just got to keep your ears open, and grasp as much as you can.
Catch Frankie Avalon in concert at The Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda, at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 24. Tickets can be purchased online at https://www.rivieratheatre.org, or by calling 716-692-2413. This show is presented by Latshaw Productions.
Frankie Avalon returns to Western New York for a concert on April 24. (Image courtesy of Latshaw Productions)