Up in the Air
The Fuge in Warminster is a strange place for a dance party.
The round, 12,000-square-foot room was used by the U.S. Navy throughout the 1940s for testing black-box technologies and photosensitive lenses. It houses one of the country's largest centrifuges (hence the name). The Mercury Seven astronauts and other spacemen came to The Fuge to test their G-tolerance.
"The room seems to go on for an eternity due to its roundness," says local television producer Mike Nise.
"Plus, it's right behind the county forensic lab," laughs Mike Rossi, an old friend of Nise who runs a company that provides parties with lighting, sets, mobile disc jockeys and more.
Currently The Fuge is in a second incarnation as a venue for weddings and bat mitzvahs. But when Nise looks at the space, he sees something else: a set for a television show. The heavy curtains surrounding The Fuge's center, he explains, provide a perfect backdrop for the small screen.
Nise and Rossi have been down this road before. In the '80s, the two worked on a local television sensation, one filled with quaintly tacky fashions and sprayed-high hair-don'ts. Dancin' on Air was a live, hourlong program where smiling high school kids from Philly and New Jersey grooved to chart-topping dance music and hip-pop. Against the midnight-blue hue of the lighting and backdrops, the teens seemed to be floating in space or, well, dancing through mid-air. Lip-synching performers such as Menudo, Stephanie Mills and Robert Hazard may have been Dancin' on Air's big-deal guests, but it was the local kids — rapping with the hosts, selecting their paramours for Choice Dances — who were its stars.
This is the quaint-seeming concept that Nise now wants to give a second life. But is '80s nostalgia enough to make people tune in again?
DDancin' on Air ran from 1981 to 1987 on Channel 17 in the dinosaur days before that station added MyPHL to its name. Eventually the show, affectionately known as " DoA," morphed into Dance Party USA on the USA Network before going off the air in 1992 (during '86 and '87, the same studio set was used for both DoA and DPUSA). The two shows featured "typical" teens of all shapes, sizes and races at a time when white skin was still television's go-to color scheme.
Last year, three 30th-reunion shows aired on Channel 17, and the results were eye-opening: A prime-time July marathon of vintage shows mixed with interviews had the highest ratings for the local-program time slot among Philly's 18- to 49-year-olds. So Nise decided it was time for a revival. On Saturday mornings, starting March 31, a new audience of 'tween viewers can tune into the reborn Dancin' on Air.
"I waited for the right moment to bring back our show," says Nise. "The family" — by which he means the cast and crew of the old show — "has been asking for it forever."
But will audiences also clamor for it? Channel 17 thinks so, considering the ratings of that July 2011 reunion program (others followed on Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve). The revived DoA, however, is tweaking the formula, promising a mix of new music and old clips, in order to snag not just young kids but also their middle-aged parents. "The kids love the '80s revival, and the older folk are the ones who watched DoA in the first place," says Vince Giannini, vice president and general manager of PHL 17 and the other man responsible for DoA s return.
For the reboot, Nise is looking for a cast of "everyday kids" like the ones who made the first DoA a winner: an ethnically diverse blend of tall and short, thin and thick, clotheshorse and casual — a very different look than that original scrubbed-clean-teen dance program, which also started in Philly, American Bandstand.
In its heyday, the live, five-days-a-week DoA featured local kids hot-dogging their way into viewers' hearts. The now-ubiquitous Kelly Ripa was a dancer on DoA; so was Rennie Harris, the hip-hop choreographer and founder of the PureMovement dance troupe, and Khaliah Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali. Rossi — who will be tending to sets, music and other production details for the new show — was no slouch himself: Long before starting a decades-spanning career in Philly radio, he started as a DoA dancer and rose to host the show. Other former hosts include cabaret crooner Eddie Bruce (DoA's first host) and Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic.
"There were 50-plus DoA hosts overall," laughs Nise. "Each and every one of them was terrific."
The guest performers were new-wave and pop musicians long before they became giants (Madonna, Will Smith) or went away altogether (Stray Cats, The Jets).
"It's hard to believe that nearly 30 years ago the same woman who performed at [this past] Super Bowl halftime made her first-ever television appearance just yards from where I'm sitting," says Giannini. "It's all a bit remarkable, really."
For something so remarkable, Dancin' on Air started rather modestly.
Nise, 68, might have conceived of a television show meant to be "like American Bandstand made modern," but its beginnings lie with his dad, Frank Nise. Before they partnered to help create DoA, Nise's father worked for AT&T in the television department for nearly 50 years. His mother, Ida, a teacher, introduced Nise to innovative Philadelphia-based comedian Ernie Kovacs and brought her son to studios where the comic was filming. "I grew up behind the scenes with the machinations of showbiz in my blood," says Nise, who became a teacher like his mom but helped his dad with his recording business on the side. Nise wound up producing a record for a Levittown pop group called August, and helped produce the song "Penalty Box" for Flyers hockey great Dave "the Hammer" Schultz. "When the Daily News asked me if I thought Schultz could sing, I suggested that they should tell him otherwise," says Nise.
He started a recording-industry newspaper and wound up producing radio and television commercials for the Valley Forge Music Fair at Channel 17's studios on Wynnefield Avenue. "They were one of few stations whose facilities were available for hire," explains Nise. It was there Nise met then-programming director Zvi Shoubin, who hoped to resurrect the daily-dance-show format. Seeing in Nise a solid ally with the right résumé, Shoubin told the young producer to raise $100,000 for six months' worth of production. Nise formed a corporation with his dad, gathered an investors group that included Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, and Dancin' was closer to air time.
"I didn't have the imagination for a show title," jokes Nise. "I'm the type of guy who'd call a baseball team Mike's Baseball Team, so I jumped on Dancin' on Air and hoped that no one in the press would say anything about being 'dead on arrival.'"
There was one detail Nise hadn't grasped. "Several weeks before our first show, I asked [Shoubin] when taping would start," says Nise. "That's all I ever knew: tape. Shoubin looked at me with his glasses lowered to the bottom of his nose and told me we were going live — that I'd love the rush."
As for the dancers who would be corralled before that live audience, the producer wanted all types, reflecting working-class Philly. "That multicultural mix was my life — it's what Philly was and is," says Nise. But he still needed to find them. He advertised for dancers for a Plymouth Meeting Mall test run, and only 12 kids showed up. "We took 'em all," he laughs. By the initial show, DoA had 45 kids, a musical guest in McFadden & Whitehead, an interview with Blue Oyster Cult and a host in Eddie Bruce, a young cat Nise took to because of his conversational signatures ("You got nailed" was a big one) and street savvy.
"It was an exciting thing in my 20s to go from singing at bar mitzvahs to suddenly being live on television five days a week," says Bruce, currently planning an April tribute to Tony Bennett at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. "DoA changed my life." For better and worse, it seems. "It wasn't always the most pleasant experience for me, frankly. I was a married father of one. There was a lot to process. Add to that fact that Mike and I never got along real well and it was explosive. He was difficult to work for at times. Demanding. Then again, it was just as much my issues as his. We had a stormy time. But you never saw that in the entire two-and-a-half years I was there."
What audiences did see was kids from across the city in Day-Glo clothing, stiff teased bangs and spiral perms — regulars they came to feel at one with such as Suzie Pollack, Dominic Rivera, Anita Forma?, John DeBernardo, Alice Johnson and Jimmy Jam. "Kelly was the all-American type," notes Nise of New Jersey native Ripa. "There were kids more talented than her, but she had chutzpah." Some dancers had one-name fame: Charlene, Snake, Maryanna, Peaches, Cowboy and Princess.
"The dancers from West Catholic, North Catholic, all over, used to come on set in their Catholic school uniforms and change before they hit the stage," laughs current consulting producer Rossi, at the time a Cardinal Dougherty High junior who became a dancer at the encouragement of a cousin. "There were a lot of young women and not too many guys, so it was definitely a way to meet girls." Rossi was then tapped for larger duties: "I wound up hosting for the first time ever within 36 hours after our host quit without warning."
Viewers saw performances by Duran Duran, Vanity 6, the Hooters and Bobby Brown. John Waters visited the set and later told Philadelphia magazine that he modeled Hairspray's ambience on DoA. "When Madonna was here, she brought her girlfriend Erica Bell along," says Nise, regarding one of DoA 's few taped episodes. "Bell wrote 'Tinkerbell' on Channel 17's women's room wall. Management was incensed, and rightly so. After she finished, I told Madonna that if she wanted her performance of 'Everybody' to air, she had to clean up the bathroom."
Channel 17 got a clean bathroom courtesy Madonna. They also doubled their ratings the day after DoA's premiere, increased the station's ratings by 512 percent in the 4 to 5 p.m. time slot within six months, and earned its investors a 124 percent rate of return.
DoA was a force to be reckoned with, so much so that by 1985, Nise began seeking syndication opportunities. "But we had to prove that audiences on the West Coast would be interested in watching Philly kids dancing," says Nise. "There was some dumb idea that other cities were so much more sophisticated than us. Remember, though, Dick Clark faced that same criticism before he went national."
Nise gave away the show to a Los Angeles station for free to test the waters, and became one of only two shows to earn the station a rating. After that, the USA Network made it known to Nise that they were looking for a teen show. Dance Party USA was born. "We would do the live DoA show in Philly from 4 to 5, take a break, then from 5:30 to 6:30 do the national show," says Nise. Every dancer did both shows, and many people wore multiple hats. "While I was hosting DoA I was also involved in the production end of Dance Party USA," says Rossi. "I wanted to get into this biz to be like Jim Gardner, and here I was running a fun dance show. It was like a party every day."
All parties must wind down. DoA stopped production in April 1987. Dance Party USA folded in 1992. Sales reps, Nise explains, wanted to focus on advertising for kids' programming without having one hour of teen programming getting in the way. At least in the Philly market, he says, "We became difficult to sell."
While Nise worked at WPPX as public affairs director and taught at the Art Institute, he and his television family held reunions. "As the 30th anniversary of DoA and the 25th anniversary of Dance Party approached, I began getting antsy," says Nise. "I wanted to do a new DoA." Nise introduced himself to the new regime at Channel 17, some of whom had never seen his former prized creation.
"I brought a demo DVD of some of the old shows to Vince [Giannini], and he was smart enough to see the value," says Nise. "He saw something we missed — the past before the future." When the station first posted notice of its plan to rerun old DoA episodes with new interviews in July 2011, Giannini expected a couple of past members to come forward. "We got hundreds" of expressions of interest, he notes. "That was a good sign."
Giannini saw a future for DoA, one relevant to kids like his own 'tween-age children as well as the parents of those youths who fondly remember their own quickly receding teen years. "The DoA brand still resonates. The nostalgia component will get the adults, and the new stuff grabs the kids who also happen to dig the old clips, since so many of the '80s styles have come back." He pauses. "Maybe not the high hair."
Can it work and be relevant beyond the nostalgia factor? Certainly Billboard reflects the current popularity of dance music, with DJ culture stars (David Guetta), electro divas (Lady Gaga) and glamorous hip-hop songstresses (Rihanna) topping the charts. But the show's format will be altered. The kids will be dancing to sounds both old and new. Nise isn't ready to announce guest performers, noting that the show will have to prove its popularity before booking any big names?. Nise is adding talk segments called "Party with a Purpose," where kids can discuss social causes and personal issues.
The biggest change to the new Dancin', though? "This time we won't be live," says Nise, who'll tape DoA on Sundays for Saturday's air time.
In the end, the kids will be the stars, just as it ever was. "We want to see how the guys like to look at the girls and how the girls like to look at the guys, interacting while dancing," says Nise. "Audiences are more tolerant than ever, and if there are gay couples, we'll show that, too." Ultimately, Nise still just wants to capture kids being themselves.
"Our old reputation precedes us," says Nise. "Our new reputation will be even better."
Want to be part of the new Dancin' on Air? Open calls for dancers will be held Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Bayou, 4245 Main St., Manayunk, and Sunday, Feb. 26, at The Fuge, 780 Falcon Circle, Warminster. For more information or to sign up, call 215-469-1992. Aspiring hosts should go to dancinonair.com.