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A pop crooner and teen idol during the late 1950s, singer Frankie Avalon transformed into a movie star via a string of surf-and-sand musicals in the 1960s like "Beach Party" (1963) and "Muscle Beach Party" (1964). Slight of stature and build but handsome and charismatic in an eminently safe and approachable way, Avalon wooed teenage girls with light romantic tunes like "Venus" and "Why," both of which shot to the top of the charts. When rock and roll took over the music business in the 1960s, he shifted fulltime to films, where he teamed with Annette Funicello for the silly but watchable beach party films. In ensuing decades, he was a familiar face on television and the occasional film, most notably 1978's "Grease" as the Teen Angel, and always happy to revisit the nostalgia of his career for new audiences. If his body of work was lightweight, it was also well loved, which ensured Avalon's place in pop culture history.Born Francis Thomas Avallone in South Philadelphia, PA on Sept. 18, 1939, Frankie Avalon was the son of Nicholas and Mary Avallone and brother to older sister Theresa Avallone. From an early age, he displayed a genuine talent for music, but as a trumpeter, not a singer. Having learned...
A pop crooner and teen idol during the late 1950s, singer Frankie Avalon transformed into a movie star via a string of surf-and-sand musicals in the 1960s like "Beach Party" (1963) and "Muscle Beach Party" (1964). Slight of stature and build but handsome and charismatic in an eminently safe and approachable way, Avalon wooed teenage girls with light romantic tunes like "Venus" and "Why," both of which shot to the top of the charts. When rock and roll took over the music business in the 1960s, he shifted fulltime to films, where he teamed with Annette Funicello for the silly but watchable beach party films. In ensuing decades, he was a familiar face on television and the occasional film, most notably 1978's "Grease" as the Teen Angel, and always happy to revisit the nostalgia of his career for new audiences. If his body of work was lightweight, it was also well loved, which ensured Avalon's place in pop culture history.
Born Francis Thomas Avallone in South Philadelphia, PA on Sept. 18, 1939, Frankie Avalon was the son of Nicholas and Mary Avallone and brother to older sister Theresa Avallone. From an early age, he displayed a genuine talent for music, but as a trumpeter, not a singer. Having learned the instrument from his father, he quickly developed into something of a child prodigy, playing at clubs and on television while still in grade school. A performance at a private party for singer Al Martino led to an appearance on "The Jackie Gleason Show" (DuMont/CBS, 1949-1957) and a 1954 record, "Trumpet Sorrento," for X Records, a subsidiary of RCA/Victor. By the time he had reached his teens, he was performing regularly in a local group called Rocco and the Saints, which featured one Robert Ridarelli on drums. Ridarelli would later follow Avalon into the teen idol scene under the name of Bobby Rydell.
Avalon was approached by Philadelphia music producer Bob Marcucci about singers who might be interested in recording some of his rock and roll numbers. He directed Marcucci to Andy Martin, frontman for Rocco and the Saints, but he passed on the Nordic-looking performer in favor of Avalon himself, whose dark Mediterranean looks would translate better with teen female audiences. After hearing Avalon perform a few songs, Marcucci quickly signed him to his label, Chancellor Records. His first record, a swooning pop song called "Cupid" was followed by "Teacher's Pet." Neither song made much of a dent on the charts, but they did earn him his first film appearance in 1957's proto-rock and roll movie, "Jamboree," where he promoted the latter tune. But his third release, "Dede Dinah" (1958), was a bonafide smash, reaching No. 7 on the pop charts, selling over a million copies. From that point on, Avalon was a certifiable teen idol, delivering five Top 20 hits between 1958 and 1959, including two No. 1 hits: 1959's "Why" and his signature tune, "Venus."
Blessed with boyish good looks, a capable voice and an abundant head of hair, Avalon found himself at the epicenter of teen fandom. He was unquestionably safe for adolescent consumption - Marcucci had shrewdly steered Avalon away from anything resembling rock and roll for that expressed purpose - and his clean-cut image passed muster with adults as well. His popularity on both fronts allowed him to transition smoothly into feature films as well. He played juvenile leads in mostly low-budget, drive-in films like "Guns of the Timberland" (1960) and "Panic in Year Zero!" (1961), with occasional forays into major features. He was a member of Davy Crockett's militia in John Wayne's "The Alamo" (1960) and a Navy seaman aboard Walter Pidgeon's nuclear-powered submarine in "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961). Avalon was of course granted the chance to croon songs in both films, thus guaranteeing youthful ticket buyers.
However, by the time of those film's releases, Avalon's stock in the teen music business was beginning to drop. Avalon's brand of smooth, brassy pop gave way to more rock-oriented acts like The Beach Boys and, eventually, The Beatles, though he continued to release songs until 1960. He wisely shifted his focus to acting, and found a second stardom as the lead in a string of light musical comedies for American International Pictures (AIP), a low-budget production and distribution company that specialized in genre films for teen audiences. The rise of the surf culture in California had begun to catch on with national audiences, thanks in part to The Beach Boys' music and the film "Gidget" (1959); AIP decided to exploit its growing popularity with "Beach Party" (1963), a harmless comedy about an anthropologist (Robert Cummings) studying the "mating habits" of Southern Californian teens while frolicking in the surf. Avalon was the "juvenile" lead, though by this point, he was well into his twenties and married to beauty pageant winner, Kathyrn Diebel. His onscreen partner was Annette Funicello, a former Mouseketeer who, like Avalon, was searching for her own niche after her initial teen stardom. "Beach Party's" mix of silly comedy, real surf music (courtesy Dick Dale and the Del-Tones), sunny locations and plenty of semi-unclad flesh, was a massive hit with young audiences. AIP quickly ground out seven more "beach party" films between 1963 and 1965, most of which featured Avalon and Funicello repeating the same storyline of break-up and make-up, between crooning disposable pop tunes. Though the pictures were limited in terms of plot or dialogue, they did afford Avalon an opportunity to flex some comic muscles, most notably in 1964's "Bikini Beach," where he took broad potshots at the British Invasion as "Potato Bug," a bespectacled and bewigged English rocker who bore a remarkable resemblance to Terry-Thomas.
When the beach party films ran their course, Avalon continued to work for AIP on several other features - all forgettable. By the 1970s, he was a staple on television as a guest star on episodic series and variety shows, playing up the nostalgic aspects of his celebrity. In 1976, he hosted his own variety program, "Easy Does It with Frankie Avalon" (CBS, 1976), a musical comedy show that also featured Funicello. Two years later, he experienced a career boost when he played the Teen Angel, heavenly guardian to the wayward Frenchie (Didi Conn), in the film version of "Grease" (1978). Reportedly, the character was based on Avalon's stage presence and audiences' responses to his charms. Avalon would reprise the role in numerous stage productions of the play, and performed the song along with contestants on the reality series "Grease: You're the One that I Want!" (NBC, 2007), which sought out new cast members for the national productions.
In 1980, Avalon's pop career and relationship with Bob Marcucci was the uncredited subject of Taylor Hackford's film "The Idolmaker." The Avalon figure, called "Tommy Dee" and played by Paul Land, was groomed by Ray Sharkey's avaricious manager. Peter Gallagher played a fictitious Fabian, who devolved into a monster due to the pressures and glories of fame. When pressed for his take on the picture, Avalon dismissed it, stating that most of the incidents in the film were untrue.
Avalon celebrated his third decade in show business by hitting the road in 1985 with fellow former teen idols Rydell and Fabian in a package tour called "The Golden Boys of Bandstand," which saw the principals - now in their fifties - reprising their greatest hits for an adoring audience. Two years later, Avalon had his first starring role in nearly two decades with "Back to the Beach" (1987), an amusing tribute-cum-parody of his beach party films that featured Funicello and a host of '60s-era stars in cameos. Avalon and Funicello played the adult version of their beach party characters, wrestling with parenthood, middle age and the glories of the past. A fizzy, silly delight, it pleased audiences and critics alike, and gave Avalon his first credit as producer.
Avalon continued to play the oldies circuit throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, while selling health and cosmetics to his demographic via his web site and the Home Shopping Network. Still full of abundant good health in his sixth and seventh decade, he enjoyed a cameo opposite Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" (1995) and made frequent appearances in show biz documentaries and specials, most notably in "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" (2007), which honored his frequent beach party co-star. In 2009, he performed "Venus" on "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ), where he showed that he had lost none of his ability to charm audiences with a gentle pop tune.
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