By JOHN SCANLON, For the Courier-Post 1:09 p.m. EDT April 22, 2016
Bob Pantano Dance partyBuy Photo
(Photo: Curt Hudson/For the Courier-Post)
On a leisurely afternoon in Deptford, radio DJ Bob Pantano is tucked away at a corner table of the Adelphia Restaurant, never figuring it would take nearly two hours to eat his bowl of soup.
But he is “Mr. Saturday Night,” the storied host of “Bob Pantano’s Saturday Night Dance Party” on WOGL-FM, a live-broadcast record hop that just celebrated its remarkable 39th anniversary.
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So a reporter is going to have a ton of questions.
Pantano, 66, schmoozes with a DJ’s charm. And just as he has that soup spoon oh-so-close to his lips, only to lower it yet again for another ill-timed question, you realize something else.
Bob Pantano is a patient man.
“No one wants to be old,” he says, pondering the nostalgia that keeps his fans on the dance floor. “Forty has become the new 20. The dance generation doesn’t want to give it up. And as long as they’re dancing, I’m playing.”
Each Saturday night, from 7 to the wee hours of Sunday morning, nearly 800 dancers flow into the Adelphia, a culinary temple of marble and stone that has been home to Pantano’s radio dance party for seven years.
Their ages span roughly 35 to 65 — even some revelers in their 20s show up — but the core is the boomers who’ve matured from Motown hipsters of the ‘60s to today’s card-carrying AARP members, their camaraderie rooted in shared memories of youth and their journeys as life-hardened survivors dancing the night away.
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It seems like the perfect time to ask Pantano.
“Do you keep a defibrillator next to your mixer board?”
“No,” he says, laughing. “But we’ve lost four people over the years.”
“Lost? As in died?”
“Uh-huh. But not the Saturday dance party. Dances I’d done at other places over the years,” he says.
Pantano recites the four places with his fingers. Heart attacks, most likely, he says.
“A guy who looked like Elvis walked into a dance at the old Coral Reef. A nice guy,” Pantano says, recalling an evening perhaps 20 years ago at a Bellmawr landmark destroyed by a 2004 fire. “He came over to me, ‘Hey, Bob, good to see you,’ and I’m broadcasting on the radio and suddenly I hear this thump. I look over and he’s on the floor. Elvis is dead.”
Pantano’s face is serious. He remembers the numbness of watching EMTs trying to save the fellow.
“It’s awful,” he says. “It takes the wind out of the evening. The whole mood changes.”
Do something for four decades and you’ll see such lows.
The high is that the Saturday dance party is cheery and upbeat, just leave your cares at the door and boogie.
That’s how it has been ever since a 27-year-old Pantano stopped playing disco hits at WCAM-AM in Camden and joined the blossoming disco format at WCAU-FM — later to become WOGL — and within weeks debuted his “Saturday Night Dance Party” on Feb. 12, 1977.
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“The music has always been broad-based,” says Pantano, whose dance has had several host nightspots on both sides of the Delaware River over the years. “You have to select songs so that the 30-year-olds can dance and the 60-year-olds can dance.”
Does he ever think he’ll scream if one more person asks for ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”?
“Never. If people enjoy it, I’m happy to play it. That and the ‘Electric Slide,’ ” he says. “And I never get tired of playing ‘Billie Jean.’”
He hasn’t missed a Saturday dance party in three decades — since Jan. 12, 1985, to be exact, the eve of his wedding to wife Debbie. His longtime producer, Tony Harris, filled in. Even a broken leg caused by a ladder fall in 1995 — “I tried to stretch a little too far,” Pantano says — couldn’t hobble him.
He has shown up to party when feeling ill or bothered by life. He played through a bomb hoax at a Cherry Hill nightclub. Through a ceiling fire at a Philly nightclub.
He’s the rock. So he rolls.
“What I’ve done,” says Pantano, a Washington Township resident, “is create a brand name. Bob Pantano is a brand name in the market. I’m proud of that.”
He’s already thinking about next February’s 40th anniversary. Ideas are rolling in his head. He’s reluctant to spill them.
“It’s going to be a major event, not just the (dance) show,” he says. “It’s possible we’ll need a theater. It’s going to be something huge.”
“I’ve seen grandparents, parents and kids,” Bob PantanoBuy Photo
“I’ve seen grandparents, parents and kids,” Bob Pantano says. “When you’ve been out there all these years, how long is a generation -- 15, 16 years? Do the math.” (Photo: Curt Hudson/For the Courier-Post)
Operative word? Fun!
It’s Saturday night at Adelphia, Feb. 27, a very big night for Bob Pantano’s dance party. It’s the 39th anniversary. It’s an extra-special reason to party.
Over the decades, he has welcomed generations on the dance floor.
The crowd is heavy with dancers in their 50s and 60s. They are friendly and fun, yet in step with the realities of growing older, but that doesn’t mean they meekly surrender to it.
The attire spans casual to disco glitter, with some truly bold fashion statements here and there. Follicle counts vary. Aqua Net freezes some big hairstyles in 1979.
The mass of humanity in Adelphia’s massive lounge encompasses couples, divorced folks, singles, tables of friends, girls'-night-out celebrants, male movers gripping bottles of beer.
The operative word is always “fun.”
“I dance in six-inch heels for six hours straight,” says Katie Valentine, 50, displaying the spike on a silvery disco shoe.
Her feet must ache like crazy at 2 a.m. But no worries. Valentine comes prepared.
“I’ve brought my slippers!” she says.
For six years, the Pennsylvania resident has driven from King of Prussia to the Adelphia twice a week, for a Pantano dance party held every Thursday, and then for his big WOGL broadcast bash every Saturday, meeting up with friends like Roseann Arrison, a National Park dancer who volunteers only that she’s in her 60s.
Nostalgia holds huge appeal, Arrison says. Those fond memories — they’re just a line dance away.
“We’re all stressed these days,” she says. “But you can come here and have a good time. You also don’t have to put up with any bull----.”
The guys. Are they respectful? Do they harass women by blowing the dust off those old disco pickup lines?
“They’re very respectful,” Arrison says. “And if they aren’t, they still don’t get what they want either way.”
You can’t help but notice Janis Haller as she maneuvers off the crowded floor. It’s because she likely was still cosmic dust when her folks were dancing to Donna Summer. Sure enough, the Northeast Philly resident is just 31, joining some older co-workers on this night because she enjoys ‘70s dance music.
“I can thank my parents for that,” she says with a laugh. “Most people here are much older, definitely. I don’t see an age difference. I just see everybody with the same idea — get away from things for a few hours and have fun.”
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That’s why Doug Morano puts on his dancing shoes. At 61, he’s partial to Motown. The Medford resident has joined friends at the dance party only a few times, but he enjoys the nostalgia, that time-machine trip to record hops at his eastern Pennsylvania high school.
“For a few hours,” he says, squeezing up to a busy bar, “you remember how fun life used to be. The only difference is that I’m no longer as smooth on the dance floor. There’s not as much hustle in my Hustle.”
Years back, the allure of big crowds having a blast in his restaurant made co-owner Bill Balis believe that he and Pantano could be good dance partners. Balis did have a few jitters. The size of the crowd, their behavior. Whether he’d overlooked some issues.
“I visited his other location at the time because, yes, I had some questions. Would it help? Would it hurt?” said Balis, whose restaurant is across from the Deptford Mall. “But there is always a good crowd here. They enjoy themselves. Bob and I have a good relationship.”
It isn’t hyperbole for Pantano to boast that his throwback bash is something rare. He’s a vinyl pioneer still grooving in an era of MP3 downloads.
The years have brought him recognition. There’s his 2008 induction to the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia hall of fame. Last year’s Pennsylvania House of Representatives resolution that saluted his years in radio. The proclamations that spotlight his charitable causes.
He’s certainly a survivor among the radio jocks with voices once so distinctive to their fans. But the listener demographic got younger. The jocks got older, not as hip anymore.
Time does that.
“Young kids today don’t dance. We’ve lost the art of dancing,” Pantano laments. “I guess it has to do with electronic music. It isn’t music to dance to. Our generation went to record hops. Kids today just like to jump up and down. They’re passionate about their music. They just don’t dance.”
Ask Pantano how he dodged the meteor of extinction and he’ll sum it up in one word. Reinvention. Keeping his ear to the ground for the next popular beat.
Actually, Pantano started reinventing himself ages ago — he hasn’t done a daily radio show for 27 years, not since 1989, when he was a 40-year-old jock at WOGL thinking hard about his place in the radio universe.
“For the longevity of my career, I figured I’d be better off doing the dance parties,” he says. “Music and radio were changing. Radio isn’t the same today. Now it’s heavily formatted, it’s all computers. It’s not the person. It’s not me. I love what I’m doing. And the people . . . I think they love it too.”