In 1968, the legendary director Otto Preminger tried to make a film for the youth market called Skidoo, and then proceeded to stack the cast with such aging hepcats as Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Burgess Meredith, and Groucho Marx. To be sure, all of these greying icons looked awfully “groovy” and “with it” all decked out in tie-dye, but one actor Preminger refused to meet was a genuine teen idol named Frankie Avalon.
“First of all, he didn’t even want to see me because my agent said he didn’t want a ‘Beach Boy’ in his film,” says Avalon from his home in California. Frankie Avalon was not actually a member of the Beach Boys, though his presence in such films as Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, and Beach Blanket Bingo might have confused the elderly filmmaker.
“But my agent had such belief in me, he said, ‘I’ve got a relative that I think would be right for this role.’ When I got to the studio I said to my agent, ‘Does he know I’m coming in?’ He said, ‘I told him,’ and he gave me the story that I’m a relative. I said, ‘He’s gotta know who I am, come on,’ and he said, ‘I just believe you’re right for the part.’”
“So I walked into his big office with the big desk, and the first thing out of his mouth, he screamed, ‘You bring me a Beach Boy!’”
To be fair, Preminger was not too far off. Beginning with his massively popular single “Venus” in 1959, Avalon’s squeaky-clean good-looks and pleasant voice would bring him a Bieberian level of fame, soon to be compounded by the popular beach party films he made with Annette Funicello. Compared to some of the era’s more hip-swinging rockers, Frankie was the kind of teen idol you could take home to mom.
But the life of a teen idol is a short one, and ten years after Skidoo, Avalon was already old enough to bring elder-statesman gravitas to the role of Teen Angel in Grease. For 50 years, over untold hundreds of concerts, he reinvented himself as an adult. On August 29, he’ll be bringing his act to the Canadian National Exhibition, and at age 72, he is that rare thing: a showbiz lifer.
“To be a teen idol was really exciting,” he says. “Doing the teenybopper kinds of songs, the nice little innocent types of lyrics and melodies… and then when that starts to go away, you better find something else if you want to stay in the business.
“I wanted to stay in this business as many years as I possibly could — and it’s been 55 years … So what I did is, I made sure that I went to the best mentors in this business to teach someone like myself — who was just, y’know, in front of ten thousand screaming kids — to go beyond that when they weren’t screaming.”
Who were some of his grown-up influences?
“Well, there were so many at that time. I loved the casualness of a Perry Como. I loved the coolness and style and class of Nat King Cole. I loved the artistry of Frank Sinatra, who was the ultimate. So I mean, you try to mold yourself, and not do them, but try to pick and choose little elements that really give you inspiration.”
I ask if he feels any kinship with the teen idols of today, but he has trouble making a connection. “One of my friends was telling me about a conversation he was having with somebody, and Justin Bieber’s name came up, and the guy said, ‘You know, Frankie Avalon was Justin Bieber 50 years ago.’ And my friend said, ‘Yeah, but let me ask you this: will Justin Bieber be Frankie Avalon 50 years from today?’”
He resists the Bieber comparison, saying he admires the sturdy professionalism and longevity of Justin Timberlake. Avalon himself stayed on the straight and narrow, marrying in 1963 and raising eight kids despite his managers warning it would hurt his career.
“I met the gal that I’m still married to for the last 50 years…” — (who but Frankie Avalon could so un-ironically call his wife a “gal”?) — “… and just fell in love, and I knew this was very important to me. I didn’t put my career first. I said, ‘Listen, I wanna marry this gal, I wanna have her as my wife, and raise a family.’ And of course, all they saw were the dollars signs. I resented it, and I just went with my gut feeling.”
Today, he estimates that he performs about 40 shows a year. I ask what keeps him going.
“You’ve gotta realize this: I started doing this at the young age of 10, 11 years old. That’s all I know,” he says.
“I’m a musician — I’m a trumpet player — and I started playing music and trumpet when I was a young boy, and I had a lot of success. Because I dedicated myself, I practiced eight hours a day, I studied with the best in the world of music, as far as trumpets go, with Rosenfeld of the Philadelphia Orchestra… I dedicated myself to music, and eventually got into singing, and eventually got into acting, which eventually got into performing, so that’s all I know.
“If I have to screw in a light bulb, my wife is great — I can’t do that!”
Frankie Avalon will perform at the CNE Bandshell on August 29, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto who can frequently be found in Kitchener. You can follow his shenanigans @WillSloanEsq.