In the early 1950s Philadelphia, South Jersey, and the entire Delaware Valley were rocking with a television phenomenon that would change the region: “American Bandstand.”
Every weekday afternoon scores of formally dressed teenagers gathered live at a Philadelphia studio on West Market Street to bring the newest rock ‘n’ roll sound and latest dance steps into any home that had a television antenna.
That included one small house in South Philadelphia.
“One day tuned in to a show called Bandstand and I saw these kids dancing, and I said I could dance like that. And I went to Bandstand and snuck in,” says Jerry Blavat about his first appearance as a Bandstand dancer.
That was 67 years ago, in 1953, and since then the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame member and self-proclaimed “Geator with the Heater” has been the living presence of Philadelphia’s old time rock ‘n’ roll.
As the performer, who recently turned 80, advises at the end of his weekly WXPN “Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rhythm and Blues Express” radio show, “Keep on rocking, because you only rock once.”
Blavat practices what he preaches by rocking the region with his weekly South Jersey dance party at his Margate club, special events — including an annual stop in Bordentown — and his own radio network that brings the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll to Trenton, Atlantic City, and Vineland via his Geator Gold Network.
“I was a lonely kid,” says Blavat — born Gerard Joseph Blavat — during a recent telephone interview about his long career — one that had its own rocks and rolls.
“My father was a Jewish racketeer. And my mother was a Capuano,” he says, mentioning his mother’s maiden name as if describing an entity.
If so, it was an Italian Catholic family strongly disapproving of his mother’s choice of husband.
That tension, says Blavat, caused disruption. “My existence as a kid was being shifted around.”
That meant moving between a house where a street-smart freewheeling father ran numbers and his mother’s hard-working grandparents laid down the rules.
“Then I found music,” he says. “In the middle of the night I would hear music, and it took away the loneliness.”
As he notes in his autobiography, thematically titled “You Only Rock Once,” there was also dance.
“I learned to jitterbug at the Capuanos’, watching my mother, my aunt, and my uncles. Whenever they played an Artie Shaw record — or Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra — they would clear a space in the living room and get right down to it. I would do my best to imitate the grown-ups.”
Eventually, he says, at around age 10 he started to become a good dancer and developed an ear for dance music that, he says, “would eventually fuel my career.”
Then there was the Bandstand moment when his singer uncle and his group got a shot singing on the show.
But for Blavat, it became all about the dancers. “Their energy, their vitality, the pure joy that presented itself in their movements made them immediately recognizable to me,” he says. “Seeing myself in them so clearly, I felt as though a bolt of lighting had hit me, and the words come pouring of me as if they had a mind of their own, ‘I want to be a dancer like that!’”
Blavat says his way to Bandstand was helped by Jo Mazzu, a neighborhood girl and Bandstand regular.
After giving an approving nod to his dancing, Mazzu guided him and a friend to studio, where the 13-year-old Blavat, who didn’t meet the 14-year-old minimum admittance requirement, snuck through the entrance as his pal diverted attention.
“Jo and I did our thing that afternoon, jitterbugging like nobody’s business, and I had never felt more alive. Soon, some of the older girls were asking me to dance, and the excitement of it all began to feed on itself until I could think of nothing else.”
His dancing eventually attracted the attention of Bandstand’s original host, radio personality-turned-TV host Bob Horn, who put Blavat on a teen committee that helped select music and participated in the production.
“Before long, Bandstand became my life, and I started going every day,” he says before adding that his special sauce was created from picking up dance steps at his grandparents, doing the Mummers’ strut on the way home from the New Year’s Day parade, trying out steps with his sister, and stomping at weekly dances.
He sums it all up by saying all of that “gave me a unique style, and by the time I started dancing on Bandstand, my steps were different than most kids.”
He says his activity with Bandstand also strengthened his dance music taste and made him champion new works — often performed by Black musicians during a segregated era — over the covers done by mainstream white singers.
He also learned some basic television staging and met celebrities, like Sammy Davis Jr., who was so taken with Blavat’s dancing that he called him “a little white me” and took a liking to Blavat that turned into a friendship.
“The family I never had was my show business family,” says Blavat about getting more involved with the production staff and his “second father,” Bob Horn.
However, just like his biological family, this one was also destined to break.
When Horn was arrested for drunk driving, studio management eagerly replaced him with the hipper, younger looking Dick Clark.
Blavat refused to accommodate Clark’s appointment, left the show, and found work promoting records to disc jockeys and station managers.
During his last year in high school, he also became the road tour manager for the band Danny of the Juniors — handling the group that created “To the Hop” to New York City to appear on rock and roll history giant Alan Freed’s Christmas Show at the Paramount Theater.
When that tour was over Blavat started making his own career moves.
Organizing dance parties was intentional. Becoming a radio personality was not.
“I never intended to be a disc jockey,” says Blavat, who connects the move to a 1961 dice game with some neighborhood guys.
One player was a South Broad Street’s Venus Lounge partner who started lamenting his venue’s poor customer traffic on Thursday nights.
Fresh with recent business dealings promoting records and a band to area stations, Blavat suggested a live radio show and offered to host it if need be.
When the lounge owner wavered between interest and hesitancy, Blavat said the decision was left to the dice. And Blavat’s winning toss led to the lounge owner paying a fee to Blavat, who used it to rent time at the publicly owned WCAM in Camden, sell ads, get guests by pulling favors from his broadcaster friends, and then hitting the airwaves with “The Jerry Blavat Show.”
The show that mixed music, dancing, and interviews brought life to the lounge and put Blavat on the dial, but then there was a game changer.
A snowstorm closed the lounge but not Blavat’s sponsor obligations, so with the assistance of a few young men who helped with his dances, he dug his car out, packed it with records, and headed to the Camden station.
“I put on my headphones and went to work,” he says in his book. “I had been thinking about this moment ever since I realized that I couldn’t do my show from the Venus Lounge, and I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I opened with ‘Those Oldies but Goodies’ by Little Caesar and the Romans and ‘Rock and Roll Music’ by Chuck Berry.”
Soon high school students surfing the radio channels for school closings tuned in, liked what they heard, and “the phones were ringing off the hook.”
Blavat says that for many it was the first time they heard music and musicians usually missing on mainstream stations, and he resolved to stay independent and attract a likeminded audience.
His radio presence also strengthened attendance at the dances he coordinated as his main source of income.
The radio show also led to the creation of “The Geator.”
“When I was with Danny and the Juniors,” Blavat says, “we went to different towns (and visited radio studios). I saw Black disc jockeys had a persona. So when I went on radio I had to be Jerry Blavat, but I had to be special. So I needed to come up a persona.
“So I thought of an alligator sleeping in the mud. He won’t bother you unless you get too close. When you do, he’ll snatch you right up. That was me,” he says —equating himself as a gator snapping up unsuspecting listeners from the unsuspecting bigger stations.
Wanting the name to rhyme and be hot, he says he recalled South Philadelphia guys getting in winter cars and shouting, “Turn up the heater.”
“Gator became Geator. So the raps was ‘The Geator with the Heater, the Boss with the Hot Sauce,” he says — making it clear he was talking about barbecue sauce from Lawnside, New Jersey, a Black municipality in Camden County.
“That was my persona. And it came from all the old Black DJs who had a handle and persona,” he says.
After syndicating the show regionally and producing specialty albums, his move to television came when local TV personality Ed Hurst invited Blavat to lead dancers on his weekly “Summertime at the Pier,” a live show from Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
That appearance, the success of his dance parties, and the good word to television producers by Dick Clark, who before moving Bandstand to Los Angeles in 1957 had become Blavat’s friend and ally, eventually led to the creation of Blavat’s own 1965 television dance show, “The Discophonic Scene.”
Designed like a rock and roll dance party, Blavat danced on a riser among the other dancers and introduced songs and musical acts that performed live (rather than lip-sync).
During the interview Blavat recalls the show’s opening and announces over the telephone, “Don’t dare leave that screen! This is the Discophonic Scene, the world of the yon teen. And here’s the teenage leader, the teenage greeter, ‘the Geator with the Heater.’”
Blavat says the half-hour Saturday show sold out advertisers in the first two weeks and expanded to an hour on the third.
The show also expanded from one day to weekday afternoons and eventually syndicated and renewed national attention to the Philadelphia music scene.
It also gave Blavat the spotlight, and soon he was making guest television appearances on “The Monkees” and “The Mod Squad” and headed to Hollywood.
And despite the time he spent in Los Angeles and the energy devoted to becoming a movie celebrity, this time his luck ran out.
The result was a missed opportunity to renew his television show contract, build on personal performances, maintain attendance at dance clubs, and resolve his faltering marriage.
He had also failed to confront the change in musical tastes that had been ushered in by the Woodstock and acid rock generation.
“I knew that I had to get back to Philadelphia to start all over again. It was obvious that I had made the biggest mistake of my life,” he says in his autobiography.
He slowly began rebuilding his dances and performing with his Geatormen Group.
Then in 1972 he purchased the former Elbow Room in Margate and turned it into Memories — and hit Geator gold.
He says he chose the name because “if people were having fun, people were going to come back for the memories. And it worked. People want to relive the good times.”
But something else also worked. With Pennsylvania’s “Blue Laws” restricting Philadelphia alcohol sales on Sunday and Atlantic City being in its pre-casino doldrums, Margate provided a quick drive solution for thirsty fun seekers and Memories — part of a strip of pubs and taverns — became a destination and helped Blavat reestablish himself.
In addition to providing him with a base, it has become a weekly South Jersey dance party with a live radio broadcast.
And while the separated father of four daughters may have rebuilt his now-solid reputation on that move, as his warts-and-all book and his willingness to share during an interview show, there were times when his beloved music was nearly drowned out by static.
That includes his alleged association with organized crime through his friendship with Angelo Bruno and others. And in the early 1990s Blavat was included in a New Jersey State investigation regarding organized crime’s impact on clubs and taverns in southern New Jersey.
While Blavat answered questions during closed meetings with the commission, during a public session he cited his Fifth Amendment right to not answer.
As Blavat notes in his book’s chapter “Trouble with the Law,” “That night, it was all over the news that Jerry Blavat took the Fifth and refused to answer any questions. I wasn’t concerned because I knew the whole thing was bullshit. They were grandstanding at the taxpayer’s expense.”
About his friendship with Bruno and other individuals involved with crime, Blavat says during the interview, “I grew up in a neighborhood where you knew everybody. You knew the priest and the baker. My dad was a racketeer.”
Blavat adds that the persistent allegations came from competitors and the perception that “he hangs with unsavory people” affected business deals and jobs. “I wasn’t in the mob,” he says.
Then looking on his employment history and the current business problems related to COVID-19, he says, “There hasn’t been a career when there hasn’t been lulls, but the secret is that you have to believe in yourself.”
But there are also highs, and while Blavat can’t boast that he’s part of the Hollywood royalty with whom he hobnobs, he can point to being a Philadelphia legend and a Congressional Award recipient for “expanding opportunities for All Americans through their own personal contributions, and who have set exceptional examples for young people through their successes in life.”
And, in addition to his long term relationship with Keely Stahl, he can also talk about on-air endurance: He is live with his Margate dance parties on Fridays, broadcasts from WXPN on Saturdays, is on several regional stations daily, and hosts his “Talking with the Geator” on Facebook on Sundays.
He is also planning his return to the Inlet restaurant in North Wildwood, a social distance-compliant Live Nations car concert at a Philadelphia stadium, and his annual oldies review at the Kimmel Center on the Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Summing his life up, he says, “I found a passion that was music and dancing, and I passed that to people. I’m no different than anybody out there. I’m lucky that god has given me the ability to follow my dream. It’s that simple.”