By Tobi Schwartz-Cassell
Tobi Schwartz-Cassell: So you’re a home grown boy!
Frankie Avalon: I was born and raised in South Philadelphia, but as things started to progress in my life and my career, I got a little bit luckier. In 1959, I finally went out to New Jersey because it was the wide open spaces (he chuckles). We found a property in Cherry Hill Estates and we found a builder and he built a home for us. We moved in in 1960, meaning my mom, my dad, my sister and myself. I was living in Cherry Hill, and going back and forth to California and traveling around the world, but Cherry Hill was home.
TSC: You got your start playing trumpet.
FA: I was about 9 years old and I’d seen a motion picture, Young Man with a Horn, and fell in love with the trumpet. After watching the movie about seven times, I walked into my house and told my dad, “Gee, I’d like to play the trumpet.” He was a frustrated musician himself, so he went to a pawn shop and picked up a cheap horn, which I took that first day, went up to my room and didn’t leave until I played a song. I had such a passion for it that when I started taking lessons and learning more about music, I started to have some success. It took me about a year or so to make my way in the world of show business. I was on The Jackie Gleason Show in New York City and from there on in, I started playing on different TV shows, radio shows and then I signed with RCA Victor Records as a young virtuoso trumpet player.
I had some chart records as a trumpet player, and eventually starting studying with Seymour Rosenfeld of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I became First Trumpeter of All City in Philly and then I continued to work and make some money and play with different bands.
TSC: How did you make the transition to singing?
FA: As time went by, I kept studying trumpet and I wanted to make a few bucks on the side. So when summertime came and I was out of school, I joined a band called “Rocco and the Saints.” We played down the shore in Wildwood and Somers Point. I used to sing a couple of songs with the band and a new record company (Chancellor) heard about us because we were pretty popular. They came and listened to us and they signed us. They wanted me to sing on one side of the record with an instrumental on the other side and that started my singing career.
TSC: What was the song?
FA: “Cupid Shot an Arrow.” That was my very first record in 1957 and the other side was called “Jivin’ with the Saints.”
TSC: So was “Cupid Shot an Arrow” a Top 40 hit? A Top 10 hit?
FA: It was no hit! It was called a bomb!
But the band continued and the record company wanted me to come out solo and that was fine with the other guys in the band. One became a chemist, and we all went our different ways. But the record company wanted me to stay and do a three-record deal with them. My third record was “De De Dinah.” They put it out and I went back with the band and about three weeks later the record company called me and said, “You have a hit! Your record is breaking around the country!”
TSC: How did you feel when you got that phone call?
FA: Well, I was ecstatic! I mean my God, I got a hit record! And then I’d be driving around in my car, and I’d turn on the radio—and in those days there were only a couple of stations that played rock and roll—and boy, I heard my record and I pulled over to the side of the road and I’d just listen to it! It was amazing to me!
TSC: So “De De Dinah” was your first hit on the Chancellor record label.
FA: And from there I did “Gingerbread,” “Venus,” “Why,” “Just Ask Your Heart” and a lot of hits. I had about 15 hits in a row.
TSC: Ah, “Venus.” That’s my very favorite.
FA: Yes, that’s really held its ground for a long, long time. It’s still played around the world. It’s a great song.
TSC: And then you went on to Bandstand.
FA: Yes, that was in the early days of “De De Dinah” and “Gingerbread,” when Dick Clark took over for Bob Horn. I would make personal appearances on the show and started to gain more momentum with the kids, and I became one of these teenage idol guys.
TSC: And you still are!
FA: Well, I don’t know about that, but thank you.
TSC: Weren’t you pretty much the same age as your fans?
FA: That’s what started to happen. Things started to change, like they’re changing now. We’ve got some wonderful performers out there. Justin Timberlake, I’m a big fan of his, but he’s of an older genre right now. I’m talking about the younger ones like Justin Bieber, and Austin Mahone—he’s as hot a teen idol as Justin Bieber is now.
TSC: So you moved on to movies.
FA: That started because of my success and the fan clubs. I had so many fans that Warner Bros. said, “Let’s get this guy and put him in a picture with a major star and maybe he can bring in a younger audience.” So they brought me out and I did my first film called Guns of the Timberland. The stars were Alan Ladd and a wonderful, beautiful actress, Jeannie Crane, and I was introduced in the movie world in 1958.
TSC: And that was a dramatic role?
FA: Yes. And I sang in the picture, a la what Presley used to do in his pictures. He’d have a role, yet they made sure that he did some songs.
TSC: How did it turn into beach movies?
FA: I started to make a lot of films. My next one was The Alamo with John Wayne, then Sail a Crooked Ship with Robert Wagner and Ernie Kovacs. I did a lot of guest star dramatic roles on TV and began studying in New York with Wynn Handman. I was under contract with American International Pictures and the films I did for them became very successful. I did war pictures for them. I got really close with one of the writers there, and we talked about doing a different kind of picture—something fun for young people. He came back about a month later with a script called Beach Party. I read it and I loved it and the next thing I knew, they cast me opposite Annette Funicello. They released it and it was a tremendous hit! I think it did about $12 million at the box office when it was a dollar a ticket, so that was a pretty high grossing movie. Because of that, we started doing a string of them, and we wound up doing about 7 or 8 of the beach series pictures.
TSC: What did you like better, the dramatic or the fun?
FA: I like the fun. It’s wonderful to go on the set and be light and easy and loose and have fun and laugh.
TSC: Did you do your own surfing in those movies?
FA: Not the good stuff, the hard stuff, but I did get up on the board and come into the camera.
TSC: Speaking of movies, I understand your role in Grease has increased your fan base even more!
FA: Yes, that was quite an interesting endeavor. I’d been around already for about 20 years when I got the news. I was playing golf and I’d finished nine holes and I came in for a soft drink and my manager was there waiting for me with a script under his arm. He said, “Paramount wants you for this picture called Grease.” And I said, “What role?” And he said, “Teen Angel.” And I remembered seeing the play on Broadway when it first opened in ’72 and I said, “Tell them I’m not interested.” And he said, “Okay.”
So I went back out and played the back nine, came back in and he was still there. He said, “They won’t take no for an answer.” So I met with them and they said, “Why don’t you want to do this picture?” And I said, “Because I saw the play and “Teen Angel” was an extension of Elvis, with long sideburns and a black jacket. It’s just not my style.” So they changed the character and put him all in white and I did my vision of “Beauty School Dropout.” We made it in 1977, they released it in 1978 and to our amazement, it was a tremendous success.
TSC: And you were perfect as the “Teen Angel.”
FA: Well, it really did work! As time went by, it became a cult kind of picture. The double album sold about 30 million or so, and the next thing I know, I got a call from the tour company asking if I’d do the “Teen Angel” role across the country in 15 different cities! I went on tour with them, and as a matter of fact, we played the Academy of Music in Philadelphia! And it still worked. It was a wonderful experience for me just doing that number, but then I did a little 10-15 minute “after-show” where I did some of my hit songs. So it was a fun, fun experience for me.
TSC: Now let’s go back in time again. I’m sure the studios weren’t so happy when you decided to get married.
FA: No, they really weren’t. Everybody said, “Once you take that step, you’re going to lose your fan base.” But I was so in love and dedicated to getting married that I said, “You know what? This is more important to me than this career.” And so we married.
TSC: Did it have the impact as predicted?
FA: It did have an impact, but I don’t really think it was because I got married. At that point, my fans started to get married, too. They started to have families, I started to have a family, and now instead of playing the big venues with 10,000 people, I would be playing nightclubs. So come the weekend, they were able to get out because they could get a babysitter. So that kept my career going.
TSC: How did you meet your wife?
FA: I met Kay through a columnist named Rona Barrett. I knew from the very beginning that she was the gal I was going to marry.
TSC: With so many celebrity marriages ending so badly, how have you managed to maintain yours?
FA: We’ve got a great family. We have eight wonderful children, 10 grandchildren and we’re married 50 years! So it’s a great life together.
TSC: How old are your children?
FA: They range in age from 49 to 39. Frank, Tony, Dina, Laura, Joe, Nick, Kathryn and Carla.
TSC: You continue to tour the country and Frank is in your show as well as Edan Everly (the son of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers). Are any of your other children in your show?
FA: No. But I just finished playing an engagement in Las Vegas and one of my grandkids, Connor, who is now 16, is a very talented guitarist and I brought him onstage and we worked together.
TSC: Do your children and grandchildren live nearby?
FA: It is so fortunate that they all live within 10 miles of our house.
TSC: Do you see them often?
FA: Sure! We get together at least twice a month at our house for pasta dinners and meatballs and sausage. We do barbeques; yes, we are a real tight family.
TSC: You still have family here in New Jersey, right?
FA: My sister and my nephew, a lot of cousins and aunts, and of course, time has gone by and a lot of them have passed. But there are a lot of Avallones there. (You can hear him smiling.)
TSC: That’s your original name?
TSC: Did you have it legally changed to Avalon?
FA: Nope. In all my legal paperwork it’s Avallone.
TSC: So Kay’s name is Avallone?
TSC: And your sons and daughters…
FA: All Avallones!
TSC: When you played the Broadway Theater in Pitman last winter, you mentioned that as you were coming up, you roomed with some others who also became famous.
FA: Bobby Darrin and I were very close and we shared a room at the Century Hotel on 48th Street in New York while we were trying to make our way in the business. And we met Paul Anka when he was 15. He’d hang out with us and stay at our place now and then.
TSC: We were so happy to meet you backstage when you played at the Broadway, and you were so incredibly kind to us. With all the fame, how do you maintain your humility in a business full of egos?
FA: You just do what you do in part of your life, and in the other part, you are just thankful for everything that’s happened. I never thought of myself as really anything special. I just have a different kind of a job. And I love it and I love people.
TSC: You mentioned Annette Funicello earlier, and everybody is just so sad for her loss. And I think more than that, for all the suffering she endured over the years…
FA: And you hit it right on the head, Tobi. The last five years of her life, let alone the last 25 years, because she was really diagnosed with MS about 25-26 years ago. And it gradually started to go downhill, but then it really took off and the last part of her life was just miserable. I didn’t even go to see her. I’d call and just leave messages because she was just really not up to anything. It was so tough for her.
TSC: And I understand that her husband was with her every step of the way.
FA: Oh, yes, he was an amazing man. He did as much as he could for her. He took her around the world, tried to find things to help her get well. He was at her side all the time.
TSC: And I’m sure you had a true friendship all along.
TSC: I know you use and highly endorse a particular product for your health.
FA: Yes. Orosine by Res-Q. First of all, the staff and the doctors there are magnificent. This is a company that deals with good health and preventative medicine. I’ve had many meetings with Dr. Vagnini (Dr. Frederic Vagnini, Chief Medical Advisor) and he and his staff developed Orosine. It’s a wonderful supplement that helps blood flow. And I was very concerned about that because my dad had heart problems as a younger man, and you have to keep your heredity in mind. But the product has been great for me. I’ve noticed it’s kept my immune system up, my blood flow is great, if you have any anxieties or palpitations, Orosine kind of levels things out. It’s just a great product and I’ve been using it for about three or four years.
TSC: I’ve checked out Res-Q and I notice that it’s top quality, and that their processing assures that all nutrients are preserved.
FA: Absolutely. It is a very special company. They’ve got a list of different supplements that can apply to many people who have difficulties. And that’s the important thing with Res-Q products—you really do feel a difference. Sometimes when you take other brands, you feel nothing. But with the Res-Q supplements, you really do feel a difference.
TSC: Is there a cause or non-profit that you find noteworthy?
FA: I’ve done a lot of work with autism. Unfortunately, one of my nephews, my sister’s son, is autistic. And I’m talking about 40 years ago, when you didn’t know what autism was, my sister and I would take him to different facilities to find help for him. But it took a long, long time to really understand. When we did, we got involved. We went to Washington to try to make the public, the country, aware of what autism was. We’ve written letters, attended meetings, we’ve been delegates around the country and I’ve done a lot of charitable things for the cause. So it started the ball rolling. And my sister has been involved in it more so than I.
TSC: After all these years, at 73, you are still Frankie. Is that a joy to you or do you wish people would give it up and call you Frank already?
FA: No! As a matter of fact, I will say, “Excuse me, it’s not Frank. It’s Frankie.” (A hearty laugh follows.) “Frank? No. That was my grandfather. I’m Frankie.”