South Philly has always embraced its entertainers. We churn out celebrities like the tiny Dominican Republic village of San Pedro de Macoris produces shortstops. And that love has almost always been returned. But none of these celebs, no matter how talented, was more loved than Robert Ridarelli — Bobby Rydell to most of us. Maybe that’s why it seems almost impossible that he’s gone. It’s like the most famous spot in South Philadelphia has suddenly just vanished.
We knew Bobby could’ve been a bigger star on a bigger stage. He knew it, too. But he stayed home. And we loved him all the more for it. Bobby Rydell was a throwback. He was retro before there was retro. Spent his summers as a kid with his grandparents on Montgomery Avenue in Wildwood. Just like a lot of South Philly kids did. Married his high school sweetheart. As an adult when he moved, he took his parents with him. Rydell enjoyed the ultimate storybook romance. Her name was Camille Quattrone. All the girls in South Philly knew her, even if they didn’t go to school with her. Camille was the luckiest girl alive in the eyes of the young women of South Philadelphia, but they couldn’t dislike her for it. Camille, they said, never let her marriage to Bobby change her. She was still the same Camille and the girls loved her because of it. But in life, luck is a lady that never hangs around too long. The love of Bobby’s life was struck by breast cancer. The light of Bobby’s life was about to go out.
Camille’s death — at age 60 — caused a steep downturn in Bobby’s life. Stories circulated that Bobby could not live without Camille. Whether it was true or just some romantic myth dreamed up by South Philly admirers, I don’t know. We do know that Bobby began drinking heavily after he lost Camille. He later confirmed as much in his memoir TEEN IDOL.
About the time in 2009, when my wife saved my life by donating her kidney to me, Bobby received a double transplant (kidney and liver), also at Jefferson Hospital. Bobby shared part of the donated liver with a young girl. Two lives saved. Wonderful story. Then Bobby started on the long road back.
His health problems were not over. But Bobby teamed with Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte to go on tour. They called themselves “The Golden Boys.” Became one of the most popular acts ever in our area. Local women re-lived happy moments of their teen years by flocking to see The Golden Boys. The Boys themselves loved the adulation. They were accessible, too. All you had to do is mention South Philly and you had a chance to talk to them backstage.
Bobby Rydell’s death brought me back to the age-old controversy back when the Boys were teen idols. Which one would make it big? Forte wound up in Hollywood with not much discernible talent other than his incredible good looks. Avalon was the ultimate showman — the song-and-dance man who could play just about any instrument. And then there was Bobby, who self-admittedly was not a rock and roller. He was a singer of great American songs — a future Darin, maybe even a Sinatra. I was working at the time at WWDB, a 24-hour FM jazz station in town. Sid Mark was “the man” at WWDB, my mentor on music. Sid told me that Bobby was the most talented guy of the three. Said Bobby had the brightest future. Not long after, in GREASE, the classic musical of that era, the school was named “Rydell” High.
My late sister dated Bobby for about two weeks during those halcyon days of the early ‘60s. “His mom had him play the drums for me,” she said. That same story was told by other Philly girls at the time. When my wife was 10, she danced at the South Philadelphia Boys Club while Bobby played the drums. “I’m sure he wouldn’t have remembered me,” she said.
South Philly is a special place. It is a small town unto itself. I’m not sure why it is more difficult to leave South Philadelphia, but it is. To live in South Philly is to be caught in a seductive web. The tug on us is incredibly strong. Maybe it’s a virtue. Maybe it’s just fear of the outside world. Your columnist didn’t leave South Philly until he was 80. Whatever it is and for whatever reason, Bobby Rydell decided to remain in the area. The farthest he would get from where he was born on South 11th Street was Blue Bell. His career occasionally took him to Vegas, LA and Australia but he always came home.
The kids who grew up with Bobby Rydell are grandparents today. Many of them, like Bobby, stayed home. Those still here are an anachronism. Clinging to traditions most folks abandoned long ago. Living the life of their parents. In some ways, we replay the final scene from American Graffiti over and over again. Like Richard Dreyfuss in that film, Bobby never left. He chose la famiglia. By extension we feel as if he chose us over the glitter and fame of the outside world. And around here, in this crazy, wonderful place called South Philly – where sometimes we feel smothered and trapped by our own love, Bobby will always be revered for his choice to stay home.
A while back Fran and I were touring Italy. Late in the evening, we arrived at our hotel in Venice. As we entered the lobby, there was music playing in the lobby of the mostly deserted restaurant off to our left. Bobby Rydell. He was singing “Wildwood Days.” We had traveled the world, but had not really left home.