"To be a celebrity, you have to have talent," said Kelly in his Union City apartment last week, explaining that most people watching the show thought the regulars were professional dancers. "We didn't have any talent. We just danced the way teenagers danced in Philadelphia at that time."
Whether Kelly was a celebrity or not, he was to be one of the dancers featured on the ABC special, "American Bandstand's 50th Anniversary," which aired Friday, May 3 at 8 p.m.
American Bandstand, which ran from 1952 until 1989, moving from Philadelphia to California in 1963, showed teenagers performing popular dances from the time as well as allowing them to create their own, such as the stroll and the calypso.
For years, teenagers would crowd outside the doors of the Philadelphia studio where American Bandstand taped, just waiting to get inside and dance on television. And those who lived too far away performed their favorite dances in their living rooms while watching the regular couples on television.
Kelly, who started on the show when he was 15, was coupled with Bunny Gibson during his run and also partnered with Ivette and Carmen Jimenez on the show. He didn't dance the first couple of times he went to the studio.
"I was nervous dancing on television," Kelly said. "I just wanted to see what [a dancer named Roseanne, also known as "Big Ro"] looked like in person. Everyone went to see someone."
American Bandstand first began as a local program on WFIL-TV Channel 6 in Philadelphia as "Bob Horn's Bandstand" in October, 1952. In 1956, Dick Clark, then 26, took over the show and it was renamed American Bandstand. All dancers on the show were between the ages of 14 and 18, however some had gotten on the show early at 12 or 13.
Many of the dancers began on the show the same way Kelly did.
"We were going there really to dance," said Kelly, who moved to Union City four years ago and now works in records management for a law firm in New York. "Not to be part of pop culture."
However, once an "amateur dancer," or unknown dancer, began receiving fan mail and was asked to be featured in the popular teen magazines, such as Teen Screen, from the '50s and '60s, they became known as regulars.
Kelly's first magazine feature was in Photoplay, a movie magazine. Here, a picture of Kelly was printed with a quote of him complaining about dating. However, Kelly said that he was more excited when his picture turned up in an issue of Rolling Stone in 1995, for an article titled Wide Lapel Hell: VH1 Drags Bandstand out of Fashion Closet.
"I was more excited that I was in Rolling Stone now," said Kelly. "Back then, when I was 15 or 16, I didn't realize that these things were national."
Kelly said that he didn't realize that he was a television personality until he left Philadelphia. After appearing in New York City for Dick Clark's Saturday Evening show, Kelly realized that more than just Philadelphia knew who he was.
"When we got out of the car, the people went crazy," said Kelly, adding that the regulars used to appear at record hops and other events. "They just mobbed us against the wall."
Each of the regulars also had their own fan clubs, and the dancers received between 15 and 20 thousand letters a week.
"She thought that I was the king of the bandstand," said Kelly, leafing through one of his old scrap books that was started for him by one of his fans. "I am glad that somebody did."
Kelly also received pictures of himself on television and drawings of himself from fans. Kelly even took a trip to Wisconsin to visit a woman who said that he looked like her son who was in Pakistan with the Air Force.
While many young girls may have turned on their television sets to see Kelly, Kelly said that he couldn't watch himself on television.
"I saw myself once," said Kelly, who had watched one of his shows during the summer vacation. "I decided that I never wanted to watch myself again. I don't know how anyone could have written to me."
After the show
Kelly knew that when he turned 18, he would be off the show. However, Kelly's term on American Bandstand ended a few months early.
In 1961, any dancer who did not attend a credited high school was no longer aloud to dance on the show. Kelly, who attended Catholic High School when he first started dancing on the show, transferred to a private business school his sophomore year.
"It just ended suddenly," said Kelly, who left the show in April, 1961. "My diploma from that school was not accepted as a high school diploma."
Kelly admits that he was not ready to leave American Bandstand at 18.
"The magazine interviews stopped, the fan mail stopped. Everything stopped," said Kelly. "I used to dance for two and a half hours a day every day after school. That was all I knew."