Golden boy Frankie Avalon returns home


Having retained his compact coiffure, gregarious grin and vivacious voice after more than 60 years in the public eye, Frankie Avalon continues to court followers.

Budding and ripened enthusiasts conversed with the 72-year-old icon May 24 at ShopRite, 29 Snyder Ave., where he assisted sister Theresa Belfiore in peddling Avallone Tomatoes, crushed Jersey goodies she and son Stephen Belfiore devised two years ago as an atypical gift for their kinsman. Nostalgia mixed with contemporary joy as admirers took photos and purchased the enclosed vegetables, all featuring the beaming smile of matriarch Mary Avallone.

“He has almost everything, so I wanted to give him something nobody could,” Theresa Belfiore said of her older brother, born Francis Avallone.

Deriving her culinary interest from her mother, the Cherry Hill, N.J., resident decided to further her love of the Garden State’s notable product and market it for gravy and sauce fanatics. Securing approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she opened for business in Feb. 2010, landing placement in area stores and produce stands. Last week’s Pennsport visit, her third in eight months, included more recollections than its predecessors, courtesy of her famous relative, but an equal amount of cash register success for owner James Colligas.

“We enjoy promoting local products,” he said, adding his clientele is 70 percent Italian, a statistic he felt demanded he provide a helper for traditional Sunday gravy preparation. “This has fared beyond expectation, and we’ve even run out on occasion.”

The early afternoon store traffic looked as if it would yield more sales for Colligas and Theresa Belfiore, but capitalism alone did not inspire their partnership. The latter figure’s son Nicholas Belfiore combats severe autism and has resided at Princeton, N.J.’s Eden Autism Services for Autistic Children and Adults for 25 years. Avallone Tomatoes donates portions of its proceeds to the site, with Avalon and Stephen Belfiore often teaming up for musical benefits for it, too.

“I’ve played the guitar and piano, and my uncle has sung, as always, with love in his heart,” the proud nephew said.

The demonstration marked the 17th anniversary of Mary Avallone’s passing, so her offspring felt pleased as consumers enjoyed samples and purchased the 28-ounce cans of tomatoes.

“I’m sure my mother would be smiling as she is on that can,” Theresa Belfiore said as patrons ingested bread topped with heated sauce and Parmesan.

Her brother fondly recalled his parent’s countenance and kitchen accomplishments yet dwelled on much more.

“My mother was a fantastic person and a marvelous cook,” Avalon said. “She had a great sense of humor and should have been a comedian. I can think of many adjectives for her, but the best are strong and bright.”

Her skills influenced his nutrition mission, and father Nicholas Avallone, a multi-instrumentalist, nurtured his artistic crusade. Avalon spent his first 19 years in South Philly, residing at numerous spots yet esteeming his eight years on the 1900 block of South Hemberger Street the most. That span saw him graduate from the now-shuttered St. Edmond School, 23rd and Mifflin streets, and South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St. His adolescence aligned him with Fabiano Forte, now Fabian, and Robert Ridarelli, now Bobby Rydell, with whom he has formed enduring friendships. Their association has included a 27-year run as “The Golden Boys,” an alliance that performed Saturday at Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget.

“I’ve been gone for a long time, but I often think about South Philly,” Avalon, a California resident, said. “Its ethnic mix gave me insight into other cultures and really prepared me for life. It was a great growing experience.”

Once away from the area, he embarked on a successful stint as a singer. His singles “Venus” and “Why” topped Billboard Magazine’s Hot-100 chart in 1959 and when the hits died down as rock music began to eclipse his brand of pop, he joined with Annette Funicello for a series of jovial beach movies, including ’65’s “Beach Blanket Bingo.”

The owner of six top-10 hits, he derives more joy from knowing he will mark 50 years of marriage to Kathryn Diebel Jan. 19. Their union produced eight children, who have delighted their patriarch with 10 grandchildren.

“I’ve been able to perform in many places and that has given me pride, but nothing beats family,” he said.

Those who clamored to meet the performer, who achieved a second wave of fame through his role as The Teen Angel in ’78’s musical film “Grease,” deemed Avalon an extended member of their clans.

“I listened to his music as a child,” Rosemary Sanvitale said. “His era was a romantic time, and memories are coming back to me so easily.”

The resident of 20th and Jackson streets relayed that a relative with Down syndrome delighted in hearing Avalon’s tunes as a baby, perking up immediately when “Venus,” a five-week chart topper that featured a call for intervention in securing a love interest, would play. Seeing the child thrilled helped Sanvitale see that music can provide therapy, with a special bonus deriving from her hero’s providing it.

“That’s my favorite but ‘Bobby Sox To Stockings’ is a classic, too,” she said of the ’59 ode to maturity.

Avalon last enjoyed an extended Philadelphia stop in 2003, reprising his role as The Teen Angel in the Academy of Music’s production of “Grease.” Sanvitale attended and swooned as she had 25 years earlier.

“When he sang ‘Beauty School Dropout,’ I nearly fainted,” she said of his contribution.

He capped off the decade by singing “Venus” on an April ’09 episode of “American Idol.” The show gave him many thoughts on music’s evolution and helped him to dabble in a bit of constructive criticism.

“I would say music is progressing,” he said as onlookers waited to take photos. “It can be a bit complex at times because I think people forget about simplicity. In my day, simplicity was important.”

Marketing has become important, too. Aside from his Avallone Tomatoes endorsement, he has appeared on the Home Shopping Network to hawk health and cosmetic products and expressed enthusiasm for two ventures, the Frankie Avalon Kahuna Surfboard and interaction with Voice Assist, a hands-free speech technology solution to texting while driving.

“I enjoy working with businesses,” he said of going from working on his vocal pitch to helping someone’s sales pitch.

Customers enjoyed his sister’s product, which he said will help any dish. Hobnobbing with them reminded him of his upbringing.

“I am on the West Coast, but it, like other spots, is a location,” he said. “This is home.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview .com or ext. 124.