More than 50 years after the young trumpet prodigy Frankie Avalon switched to singing and became a hit-making teen idol, with a nice side career in beach-party movies with Annette Funicello, he’s still out there entertaining.
His active touring schedule includes performances of his concert/reminiscence show May 19 and 20 at Drury Lane Oakbrook. We caught up with Avalon for a few questions about why he does what he does and what’s kept him successful for more than half a century.
Q: What sort of show are you doing these days?
AVALON: It’s mainly reminiscing about old times. There’s a lot of music I’ve recorded through the years and a lot of film stuff. Home movies about my family and me as a young boy, growing up in South Philly. Also footage from the Dick Clark Show and the beach-party movies and “Grease.” I really enjoy doing it because it’s an entertaining show and people leave with an upbeat feeling.
Q: Why do you think you’ve lasted so long in this business where so many only have brief success?
A: When I first arrived on the scene, way back in 1957, the reviewers said, “This kid’s lucky if he lasts a year.” Well, it’s been a lot of years now. (Laughs.) I think the reason for that is that I’ve had a good choice of material, recording-wise, that’s really lasted. And I’ve been in some pretty major films that people are still interested in. Plus, I’ve also worked on my craft quite a bit over the years. I never sloughed off; I always wanted to advance myself as a performer. I still do. I always put my thoughts and my heart and soul into what I do.
Q: You’ve had to adapt to a lot of changes, though, since 1957.
A: Oh, for sure. Tremendous changes. Take filmmaking, for example. The cost of making a film nowadays is outrageous. And the themes, the styles, the music — it’s all completely different.
Music too. In my day, if you wanted a song you went to the record store. If you liked a song you heard on the radio, you went to the record store and you bought it and kept it. And you played it until it wore out. Now, you download, you upload, you this load, you that load. (Laughs) It’s crazy and I don’t know how they do it, but that’s technology and that’s progress.
Q: Things changed so much, though, so fast after you established yourself. Did you ever go through a phase. . .
A: Oh. You mean my lean years? (Laughs) Things were great from 1957 to around 1967-68, when everything really started to change. The Beatles hit around 1964 and that started to change the look of the person in front of the camera or on stage or whatever. Different hairstyles, different clothes….
So that was one thing. Another was that the type of material I performed was stemming from the 1940s and into the ‘50s. The innocent romantic years. When there was an established dating procedure. Going to the house to pick up your date, opening her car door. Then, suddenly, things weren’t that way so much anymore.
Those beach-party movies were also so innocent. Sure, they were about wanting to go to bed with Annette Funicello, but she always said, “Not until you put a ring on my finger.” (Laughs.) Then, all of the sudden, the rules changed and that wasn’t in style.
I tried to do some other movies, but the audience didn’t respond as well as they did in the past. And my concert audience was basically people like me. They were starting to raise their families and they didn’t go to nightclubs until the weekend came along. But the weekend eventually did come along and that was enough to keep me going — until their kids got older and they could get out more often.
Q: Did you ever question your approach or think about changing to fit the fashion?
A: No, I never did. I didn’t really care that I was playing to 400 or 500 hundred people when I had been playing to 5,000. Because I was focused on trying to learn my craft. I didn’t want to just be a kid who sang “Venus” and “Why” and “De De Dinah.” I wanted to do more. So I worked on my impressions, I played my horn and I tried to advance myself artistically. To become a more well rounded entertainer.
You know, when you’re a hit, you never really have a chance to learn. You’re always doing that one thing people want to see or hear. But if you come down that ladder a bit, you have a chance to work on your craft if you’ll take it. I’ll never forget what Jimmy Stewart told me about that. We were at a party and he said when you first get on the bus, you might be up in the front for a while and then you suddenly find yourself in the last seat in the back. But the important thing, no matter what, is to never get off.
Q: And here you are, all these years later, still on the bus. Is that why you’re still performing?
A: I do it because it keeps me alive and on my toes. And I love it. It makes people happy; how could you not love that?
When I was a kid I never thought, “Some day I’m going to be a movie star.” Or “Some day, I’m going to have my own television show.” I never thought about that stuff. I just did what I wanted to do the best I could possibly do it.
And I was shocked at the way things turned out. You know, I didn’t do it do it to become a star. I didn’t do it so people would say, “Oh, hey, there goes Frankie Avalon.” I did it because it was in my mind and my body and my soul all my life. I just kept on trying to do it better.