25th Anniversary

Thursday, February 28, 2002

Bob Pantano is celebrating 25 years as host of the radio dance party

DJ Hy Lit (left) chats on the air with Bob Pantano at Pantano's 25th anniversary party at the Coral Reef in Bellmawr Saturday. SCOTT ANDERSON/Courier-Post SCOTT ANDERSON/Courier-Post DJ Hy Lit (left) chats on the air with Bob Pantano at Pantano's 25th anniversary party at the Coral Reef in Bellmawr Saturday.
By CHUCK DARROW Courier-Post Staff

Bob Pantano has worked every Saturday night for the past 25 years save for two: He missed a night when he got married in 1985 and when he broke his leg a decade later.

But don't feel sorry for the 52-year-old, longtime Washington Township resident. There's nothing he'd rather do than what he has been doing since Jimmy Carter was president, hosting the Saturday Night Dance Party on WOGL- FM (98.1).

The show is Philadelphia's longest-running, live-on- location radio program and one of the oldest of any sort in the market.

"I know nothing else but working on weekends and being on the radio Saturday nights," said Pantano, a South Philadelphia native who celebrated his show's 25th anniversary last weekend.

"Saturday night to me is a work night."

Every Saturday from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., Pantano is joined " at work" by hundreds of mostly over-40 revelers who pack the Coral Reef restaurant in Bellmawr.

Many, like Marjie and Bob Harms of Marlton, are drawn by the music Pantano plays, a mix of Motown, Philly soul and classic '70s dance hits. "We love to dance and this is the best place," said Marjie Harms, 46, over the din of the anniversary party. Other clubs, she added, "Don't play the music we like."

For another Dance Party regular, the key is the ambience fostered by Pantano and his audience.

"You almost feel like family here," said Craig Savage, 53, of Burlington Township. "It's a very relaxed atmosphere. Everyone seems in tune with each other. It's a happy place to be."

Savage also pointed out the role nostalgia plays.

The mixture of music and dancing, he said, "brings back a lot of memories. It's almost like going back to that time of innocence."

Pantano emphasizes how important that aspect of his game plan actually is.

"We took the music of the record hops and brought that to the nightclubs," he said. "We carry on the tradition of the sock hops."

The 25th anniversary broadcast, which was attended by such local luminaries as Phillies' announcer Harry Kalas, Fox 29 sports anchor Don Tollefson and Joe Terry of Danny & The Juniors, drew legions of longtime devotees. But at least one person left the Coral Reef as a newly minted fan.

"Now that I've been here, I would definitely come back," said Haddonfield's Suzanne Browne. "The crowd is a very nice mix; not too old and not too young."

Pantano wouldn't argue with these assessments.

"It's the music and the ambience of the live crowd that makes it successful," he said. "Take one of those out of the mix, and it just doesn't work."

The Dance Party dates back to February 1977, when what was then WCAU-FM (it's now 'OGL) went to a disco format. At the time, Pantano was spinning disco records on Camden's WCAM-AM (1310), now the Spanish-language WSSJ.

"They were looking for someone who knew disco," Pantano recalled. "They thought I was the guy."

For the first five years, the show was strictly an in- studio affair. In February 1982, Pantano, who moved to WIOQ- FM (102.1) in 1981, hit the streets. His first remote broadcast took place at the old Ripley's night club at Sixth and South streets in Philadelphia. Dance Party was off and boogieing toward "local institution" status.

"Opening night, we had over a 1,000 people," he said. " Traffic was backed up from Broad Street."

In subsequent years, the program had several homes, including the Crazy Horse Saloon in Barrington and the West L.A. Cafe in Cherry Hill. In 1988, Pantano returned to WOGL, which had instituted an oldies format. He took Dance Party to the Coral Reef in 1996.

That the program, and its host, have remained intact for a quarter-century is nothing less than "a miracle," according to Kal Rudman, publisher of the Cherry Hill-based Friday Morning Quarterback, a weekly radio industry trade publication.

Rudman noted that on a national scale, radio hasn't traditionally lent itself to permanence because of such things as format and management changes. But here, it's a different story.

"Philadelphia is virtually unique in the United States" in the way disc jockeys have engendered loyalty among listeners, he explained."

Harry Kalas, a close friend of Pantano's, isn't surprised the veteran deejay is one of those whom the public has taken to its collective heart.

"He's a great guy, and he makes people feel comfortable. And he truly enjoys being where they are," said the beloved baseball announcer, who has attended the past 10 anniversary broadcasts.

With 25 years under his belt, Pantano has yet to tire of the Dance Party. As far as he's concerned, it's here to stay.

"I would like to do it another 25 years if I can - as long as the crowds still enjoy coming out and dancing to the music. When that ends, I don't know."

AGE: 52OCCUPATION: WOGL-FM (98.1) disc jockey; owner, Philadelphia Music Connection advertising agency; owner, Philadelphia Spinners Association disc jockey agency. RESIDENCE: Washington TownshipFAMILY: Wife, Debbie.COLLEGE: Graduated from Temple University, 1971; Radio, Television and RECOGNITIONS:

Director's Award for recognition of fund-raising efforts, St. John Neumann High School, Philadelphia; Best Weekend Show, 1997 Philadelphia AIR Awards.

If you goBob Pantano's `Saturday Night Dance Party' is broadcast live from the Coral Reef restaurant, Black Horse Pike, Bellmawr, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. 931-3434.

8 p.m. Wednesdays, Springfield Country Club, 400 W. Route 320, 9 p.m. Thursdays, Adelphia Bar and Restaurant, Clements Bridge Road, 8 p.m. Fridays, Legends Night Club, Holiday Inn, 10th Street and Packer 2