Eric Paulsen and Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – It was must-see TV for anyone who grew up in this city in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s: the music, the dances, the fashions, and the host – John Pela.
This year marks 50 years since a Channel 4 staff announcer named John Pela took over the show called "Saturday Hop."
Now that he’s retired, an anniversary was the perfect reason to bring Pela back to the WWL studios for some reminiscing.
For the kids, that studio was the only place they wanted to be, every Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. For more than 10 years, from 1961 until 1972, John Pela was their Dick Clark, and this was their “American Bandstand” – only better.
Originally it was called “Saturday Hop,” a different name but basically the same show. Pela says it was hosted before him by a man named “Good Old” Bob Drews, but that soon management was looking to go in a different direction.
“So I got called up to (general manager) Mike Early’s office and he asked me if I’d be interested and if I had ever done a dance show before,” Pela remembered. “I had, but it was a radio show in a department store in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, one time only. So that was my experience. Thank goodness he didn’t ask me any more details because three days later, I’m hosting ‘Saturday Hop.’”
A few years into his tenure, about 1963 he says, station management renamed the show in Pela's honor, or so he thought. The real story came later, from a sales executive.
“He said, ‘We were having such a difficulty selling national commercials. The only thing we could put on a teenage dance show is pimple cream, soft drinks. So we decided to change the name to The John Pela Show and treat it as if it were a variety show.’ That really brought my self-esteem down!”
Television wasn't quite in its infancy then; maybe its "teenage years" is a better description. It was live, and it was local, which sometimes meant flying by the seat of your pants, but that's part of what made it a hit.
Pela said he soon became well-versed in the musical hits of the day, eventually choosing all the music and the lineup for the show. Live music guests were not as common as you might think, though Pela does remember one “Steppenwolf” appearance.
In the early 60s, Pela said, the boys who appeared on the show came in with sportcoats and ties and the girls, with dresses.
“We used to get the kids from certain high schools. We had to change that because one time in the early years, we came to do the show and this particular high school didn’t show up. As it turned out, their football game had been rained out on Friday night so they were playing Saturday afternoon and no one came.”
Fortunately, that Saturday, the regularly-scheduled dancers from the Hazel Romano dancing school were able to fill in. Later, dancers from Tony Bevinetto’s dance school also became a regular attraction each week.
After that fateful no-show Saturday, teenagers who appeared on the show were selected from among those who sent a letter to the station – with the age requirement that they be between 14 and senior in high school.
“It was a big deal to be on television for them. To see these kids and to realize that we had given them the opportunity to come in off the street and be on television was special,” Pela said.
He also remembered the year the show was integrated, thanks to help from a friend of his who was a pastor at a local church. Pela asked the priest if he would help recruit some African-American students for the audience, and he did. Pela said when those teens arrived at the studio for the show, it was all about the music and dancing, and that's it - a far cry from the sometimes racially-charged atmosphere of the time.
Now, 50 years later, memories are mostly all that remain – aside from a few still pictures and clips from the few shows that survived. Since it was the era before videotape and careful preservation of what would become broadcasting history, copies of just a handful of episodes exist.
Is the former host still surprised by the reaction he gets whenever he meets someone who remembers being on his show?
“Yes,” he said, “but I'm still gratified that they remember.”