Live from Wagner’s Ballroom

Legendary DJ Jerry Blavat spun a whole new world for Philly teens in the 1960s

5 minute read
Photo of Blavat, in tan baseball hat, with Schaefer, in a red-patterned scarf. They’re smiling with an arm around each other
Jerry Blavat and writer Susan Schaefer reunite in a Philly restaurant in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Susan Schaefer.)

Every Sunday afternoon in the mid-sixties, Jerry Blavat hijacked Wagner’s Ballroom at 5810 Old York Road, just blocks from my alma mater, Philadelphia High School for Girls. Blavat had risen to fame with his WCAM 1310 AM radio program "Yon Teenagers" that he broadcast from his South Philly home garage radio console.

Wagner’s Ballroom Sundays were my escape from our biscuit-box Mt. Airy rowhomes and the monotony of conformity. Teens from all corners and the center of the tristate area converged into that steaming, red-velvet-curtained, mirrored dance hall for the exciting new Phil Spector Wall of Sound dance tunes spun by Blavat, deejay at the helm.

The “Geator with the Heater, the Boss with the Hot Sauce” agitated our teenage urges with his “Hippest Show on the Radio,” spinning the discs, stirring our imaginations. Live from Wagner’s Ballroom boomed from everyone’s home transistor radios and at Wagner’s itself, temporarily shattering the rigid neighborhood lines of 1960s Philadelphia. We gathered like a nation of diverse tribes with one purpose: to dance—especially with someone new.

He always stood on the Broad Street side of the dancefloor. My gang had dubbed him Vineland, since word was he came all the way from South Jersey, a farm country boy.

On the dance floor he moved like no one else.

At well over six feet, trailing a potent English Leather vapor, he towered above the pack of scrawny, pimpled, still squeaky-voice teenaged boys.

One of my favorites

When Vineland finally spoke to me, he didn’t sound corn-pokey, but was velvet-voiced, deep-throated like David Ruffin crooning “My Girl” with the Temptations.

I’d been standing alone in our gang’s corner, my girls already on the dance floor or in the ladies’ room shellacking their beehives, bubbles, or bangs with more Aqua Net. I sported the newer swinging British look, my shiny auburn hair loose in a sassy bob, bangs wagging with each blink of the Maybelline-blackened lashes that fringed my wide hazel-green eyes.

In my signature pose I stood with arms relaxed in front, left hand grasping my right wrist, a sort of regulation at ease. I was tanned and lean, in a form-fitting maroon pencil skirt and sleeveless top that left little of my budding curves to the imagination. Even in summer, we wore tan suede Chukka boots with crepe soles for perfect dance-floor traction.

Black & white photo: Schaefer & friend, teen girls in 60s-stylish dresses & hair, stand on either side of the smiling Rydell
Writer Susan Schaefer (left) at age 15 with Bobby Rydell and her best friend Mickey Spector at South Philly’s Sciolli’s Supper Club in 1965. (Image courtesy of Susan Schaefer.)

Vineland usually hung back on his side of the room, but this day his eye caught mine as I pretended to look away. We felt a momentary current of positive attraction, like metal shavings to a magnet in chem class. Vineland crossed the room, sweeping me into a stroll position, maneuvering me to dead center of the dance floor, as “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love?” by The Spinners wobbled down the chunky spindle of the 45 Bakelite unit perched next to the two larger long-playing turntables. Three turntables always ready to go—Blavat spun like a dervish, never missing a beat—wall-to-wall music for hours of non-stop dancing.

“This is one of my favorites,” Vineland whispered in my ear.

His surprising low baritone, almost bass, hit me in the same spots as this forbidden music did—forbidden for years; outlawed on the radio. White kids discovering Black rhythms that unleashed us, young and free, in the ritual of dance.

One intoxicating package

There was a sort of neighborhood hierarchy of dancing: Mt. Airy Jewish boys weren’t exactly kings of the dance. The West Philly and Germantown Black boys danced with minimal movements that produced maximum effect. The blonde Ukrainian guys from Olney and Northeast, or the rusty-haired Irish Fishtowners, could bump and grind full throttle. And no one could stroll with more authority than the impeccably dressed Italian guys from South Philly.

Somehow, Vineland was all the Philly boys’ best moves in one intoxicating package. Together, we moved like liquid across the wooden floor.

We’d barely finished the first song when the Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”) slid down the spindle. We didn’t miss a beat; his heart humanized the percussion. We were in song: the dance floor, the drone of whispers, lights and curtains, summer beyond the stage doors—none of that existed. There was only the soft cotton of Vineland’s shirt, the throb of his heart.

The real Vineland

I finally looked up into his eyes, actually seeing this young man for the first time. “You’re really a good dancer, um ...” I stammered seeking a name.

“Eddie. Eddie,” he said.

“Eddie,” I slurred his name a bit. “I’m …”

“You’re Sue.”

Another strong jolt shot through me. I opened my mouth but before the question formed, he answered. “I asked around.”

“I heard you call me Vineland,” he added quietly, without a trace of sarcasm.

I swallowed hard and nodded. The Geator was determined to keep us joined like two wet sheets of composition paper as he spun another slow tune.

“Yeah, we know you come from Vineland. Is that somewhere between here and Atlantic City?”

“Yes, but I know you say that I’m from chicken pluckin’ Vineland New Jersey, right?” Again, not a hint of irony.

I blushed, though I wasn’t a blushing type. That made Eddie’s smile break open, revealing decidedly un-cornpone teeth, white and straight as his stance.

“Truth is, my parents do own a chicken farm.” His grin grew, along with mine.

A global gateway

I learned that Eddie’s parents ran a very successful chicken farm (they supplied Campbell’s Soup). Eddie had won a scholarship to study agriculture at Rutgers University and intended to upgrade and modernize the farm. He was interested in the environment and spoke of ideas I’d never heard of or considered.

Though our contact was limited to Sunday dances, our ongoing conversations opened my mind and my world.

I met Vineland Eddie because Jerry Blavat saw music as a universal connector. He was a pioneer in bringing Black music to his mostly white audiences. Dance was baked in his bones, and every week at his Wagner’s Ballroom dances, my worldview found an unlikely global gateway. I’m sure there will be a dance party in the great beyond hosted by the beloved Geator.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation