Marina del Rey’s resident “American Bandstand” alum heads back to Philly for “Hairspray Live!”

By Christina Campodonico

Bunny Gibson dances with a partner at a “Hairspray Live!” viewing party in Philadelphia
Photo by Joseph Kaczmarek / Courtesy of NBC Universal

From 1959 to ’61, Bunny Gibson danced her way into the hearts of American teenagers as a regular mover and shaker on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

The actress and Marina del Rey resident recently relived some of those moments from her youth at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, where she was a special guest at a VIP viewing party of NBC’s “Hairspray Live!”

During commercial breaks for the live musical broadcast, TV hosts reported with live shots of adoring fans from five U.S. cities. From Philadelphia, Gibson waved and cheered to not only cameras, but also a group of young dancers performing the very same dance styles she used to do on “American Bandstand.”

“These kids were just phenomenal,” said Gibson, whose given name is Kathleen Elizabeth. “Just the energy, the amazing youthful happiness about doing those dances — the jitterbug and the pony and the twist and all those dances. Just so happy.”

Gibson was also honored to have a special fan in the crowd with her: her 23-year-old granddaughter Nicole Weiss.

“Seeing the glow in the eyes of my granddaughter … she was so proud of me,” said Gibson. “She was twittering. She was recording me being honored and being introduced to everyone, and she was absolutely thrilled to see her grandmother have that honor.”

Nowadays, Gibson is still a working actress, having made appearances on “How I Met Your Mother,” “Glee,” “Two and a Half Men” and “CSI: Las Vegas.” She’s also the founder of Devoted to Youth, a non-profit that holds dance contests for disadvantaged children and awards them toys and prizes for sharing their moves.

Gibson, who says she’s 16 if you ask about her age, shared her American Bandstand story with The Argonaut.

How did you get on American Bandstand? Did you have to audition?

No audition. You went down to the show. There were requirements that you were between 14 and 18 and you just waited in line. [There were] two greens doors: the girls on the left, the boys on the right. Now I was only 13, but when I found out about the show and saw it and I said, ‘Wow, they look like they’re having fun. I want to go.’ And I didn’t come from too happy of a household, so I said, ‘That’s it. That’s where I belong.’ So one day I put my mother’s makeup on, her perfume. I stuffed my bra with tissues, wore a hip girdle, everything to make me look like I was 14.

So I apparently did a good job looking older and I stepped into the door of fantasyland, of TV land, of bright lights, of seeing the dancers, the regulars that I had watched on TV and Dick Clark. And it was almost like a dream. Like a dream. I was just gaga over everything.

I sat in the bleachers and came back and back. I said, ‘This is it. This is my real home.’ And then eventually a regular asked me to dance, and from there I got fan mail. Then I was in. I was now a regular and receiving thousands of letters each week.

We were the first reality stars. Back then we were really the first revolution of teenagers in this country because it was the first time that we had buying power. We bought records. It was a new name that was given us. We were the teenagers.

And it was phenomenal.

So how did you learn all those dance steps on Bandstand?

There’s something maybe in the Philadelphia water, in the bread, something like that, but we could easily see a step and they’d say this is the pony or this is the mashed potato and we would just look at it and do it. It was very organic for us.

A lot of the dancers, we would go to the record hops and see a new dance, and some of the dances we learned from black kids. They stopped us from being beaten up a lot of times. In Philadelphia I had to leave St. Hubert’s Catholic High School because I got a note on my desk: ‘If you don’t leave here, you’re going to be killed.’

Because why? Because I shook my booty on TV. Because I went outside of the envelope and dared to dance. And we were dancing to ‘the black music.’ So there were times we’d go to record hops and you would get beat up and it was black kids that really defended us.

What was your first impression when you met Dick Clark?

Knowing him since I was 13 and through the years, he was a part of my family. But truly the first feeling that I had when I saw him was, ‘Why is he orange?’ [Laughs.] … I said to my friend, ‘How come he looks orange?’ I never realized it was orange make up in person, but on TV it looked great.

How did the Bandstand chapter of your life come to a close?

It came to a close because, sadly, in 1961, it seemed that one by one we were banned from Bandstand. … I had a fight [with] an ex-boyfriend outside the show and that was the reason to use to ban me. What it truly was, we had become so popular, that Dick, I guess, felt like it was getting out of hand. So one by one we ended up having to leave, which was really hard.

Frani [Giordano] ran down the street crying, ‘My life is over.’ And that’s how we felt. All we had was Bandstand. And that was our family. So when we left, there was nothing.

Probably the gold that came from Bandstand was the fact that one of the fans, and his name is Don Travarelli, he watched me on the show. He was from New Jersey, fell in love with me watching me dance, [and] came down to Bandstand to find me. They wouldn’t let him in because he was 21. But he found one of the dancers and he found me. He met me and ended up marrying me.

So even though I lost my whole life with Bandstand, it picked up because then Don and I dated, and we actually got married on my high school Thanksgiving vacation in my senior year. So Bandstand, it played cupid. I guess Dick Clark played cupid. He was Mr. Cupid.

“Hairspray Live!” is available to stream at nbc.com. To make a donation to Devoted to Youth, email bunny@bunnygibson.com.

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