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Still dreaming of being a Deaner

"When you dance be sure to hold her, hold her tight.

When you dance you'll squeeze her, yes, with all your might.

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Such a thrill, oh, when she's close to you.

Well, hold her tight when you dance."

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-- "When You Dance," The Turbans

Could life be any dreamier?

There I was under the burning lights of the WJZ-TV studio, slow-dancing with a Buddy Deane Show committee member. She smelled like a garden of flowers and could crack her chewing gum discreetly.

It was 1961 and I was on television, successfully building my teen-aged reputation. Deane's show was one of the highest rated local television shows in the nation and girls didn't care as much for my corner jump shot as they did my ability to cha-cha or do the bop.

But the second the camera moved away from my partner and me, she too pulled away, as if I had whispered into her ear that I had hand grenades taped to my legs. "Oooo, you sweated on me!" she yelped. Crushed, I retreated from cheek-to-cheek to a distant and awkward completion of a slow tune by the Miracles.

From pinnacle to the pits in a few short seconds. It couldn't get much worse, or so I thought.

When the show was over, I caught the city bus near TV hill and it dumped me off as dusk gathered in my Belair Road neighborhood near Erdman Avenue. My father had forbidden me to try out for the Buddy Deane Committee -- fearing, perhaps, that it would interfere with my becoming a national scholar at City College high school or prevent me from one day discovering the Internet -- so I had to sneak on the show, courtesy of girlfriends who sent away for tickets and took me as their guest.

"Where you been, boy?" my father inquired as I walked into our rowhouse. "Uhhh, I had a long basketball practice ... and I had to take extra foul shots," I lied. To this day, I don't know why my late father, then in his 60s, was watching the Buddy Deane Show. But he was, and busted me courtesy of that close-up shot, seconds before my fragile teen-age ego was shattered by Pixie, or whatever her name was.

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The punitive consequences weren't significant; I think he threw an ashtray at me. Besides, he never discovered that his youngest son had been on the show a dozen other times, further solidifying my stock among my peers.

Such was life in Baltimore. If you could claim that you were a Buddy Deaner -- a member of the regular committee that appeared on the daily show and attended weekend record hops of Deane, who died Wednesday at 78 after a stroke -- the social status attached to that was substantial. Even as a guest, your friends and relatives saw you basking in your temporary fame.

Some teens in the suburbs like John Waters might have watched the show on the sly, and danced with the refrigerator door, because for many in his Towson community, Deaners were not individuals to admire. But in a lot of corners of Baltimore and beyond, getting on the show was equivalent to stardom and instant popularity.

"None of my friends dressed in the Continental style, it was uncool to be a Buddy Deaner," said Waters, whose movie Hairspray is based on that era in Baltimore and was adapted into the successful Broadway musical.

Passing the acid test

A guy I attended City with, Carroll Weber, lived in Highlandtown and was on the committee. He went steady with committee member Bobbie Lanham, a heartthrob to legions, and got lots of telegrams inviting him and Bobbie to lead dances. The committee members could dance with each other only every third or fourth dance: the other songs were reserved for dancing with the guests, 30 or so of whom appeared on the show every day.

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The day Weber was approached for autographs by girls at Eastern High School, I knew without a doubt that being on the committee carried as much cachet as running first string for Dunbar High School's basketball team or having your own car with four-on-the-floor.

Alas, my future held no such promise.

New committee members were selected by Deane and Arlene Kozak, his dependable first sergeant on the set -- a mother figure who even today keeps former committee members connected. Deane and Kozak were advised by a small group of committee members on final cuts.

To qualify, first you needed a solid command of the day's dances -- the pony, Madison, jitterbug, bop, cha-cha, the stroll, the twist -- and there was even a "cool" style for slow dancing. Committee members had to look sharp, have a style and be willing to appear on weekends for Deane's dances from Westmin-ster to Salisbury. If you made the short list, you were required to bring in a letter of reference from your parish priest, minister, rabbi or a teacher.

The boys had to wear coats and ties, dressing in the aforementioned "Continental" style. Some committee guys bought their shoes at Manchester's on Howard Street, pointy-toed footwear that sported various buckles, flaps and other avant-garde touches. If the boys dared to sport chino pants, the crease had to be razor sharp. No long hair, only pompadours, hurriedly combed during commercials. There was no sexiness in dress for the girls. Big hair was a plus. So was Aqua Net.

(One female committee member supposedly teased and sprayed her hair so much it caught fire one night as she slept. Untrue, but we believed it.)

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Some who made it

Five kids in my neighborhood were on the committee -- Concetta Comi, Georgia Ann Richter, Peggy Keaton, Joan Darby and Billy Pritchard. Today, Concetta is married to another former committee member, John Sankonis. Billy died earlier this month, at 60. Billy, especially, was picked on unmercifully "up on Belair Road," but deep inside, the ones making fun -- some of whom would wind up with heroin habits or work down at Bethlehem Steel -- were deeply envious of him.

Dance was the thing. Friends now joke that Baltimore was the cha-cha capital of the world. The Madison line dance was born here, called by the supreme voice of Eddie Morrison. We even did this hideous dance called the roach, where you would spray with an imaginary bug killer and "squish, then squash" the pests. (It's featured in Waters' film.)

Concetta, for one, says her connection with the show as a committee member is enduring. "Jesus, I can be anywhere, like a funeral parlor, and people will introduce me as 'this is Concetta, she was on Buddy Deane.' "

Former committee leader Mary Lou Barber (nee Raines) remains dumbfounded that she received 100 letters a week from fans, some of whom resided at the state penitentiary, but mostly from lovestruck boys who fell in love with the girl with the bow in her hair.

Mary Lou, now a successful Realtor and grandmother living outside Philadelphia, said there were three important guiding forces in her life then -- "my hair, dancing, and who I was going steady with."

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To say that the Buddy Deane Show was the centerpiece of every teen's life in Baltimore would be a stretch. Very few "squares" or "Joe College" teen-agers were on the show. Some guys, too insecure to dance even at the Little Flower CYO, thought Buddy Deaner guys were "sissies." My black friends knew they could not be on the show because of segregation.

Dance as a connection

And there were a bunch of us on the rock-and-roll fence, eyes on Buddy Deane's show and ears on Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson, the gifted and wild Baltimore radio disc jockey who introduced frenetic free-association poetry at unusual times.

At Elmley Playground, transistors would be tuned to Fat Daddy. If the Contours or James Brown came on, some would stop games of basketball, pinochle or pitching nickels and start dancing. I would see this again years later, stinky and scared young guys dancing to candlelight in a sandbagged Vietnam bunker, serenaded by a tropically-warped Temptations album. That dancing was integrated and I learned how to do the boomerang, shing-a-ling, the skate and the twine time. Dance was a brief connection with home for us, time out from the insanity of war.

Many came away from the movie Hairspray thinking that Buddy Deane, and not WJZ's management, was responsible keeping black teen-agers off the show. Kozak says that was far from the truth. Deane helped numerous black record artists in their careers -- James Brown among them.

Truth is, the era wasn't as innocent as some might contend. But being a Buddy Deaner, or even a guest, moved a kid into a fantasyland, a world of teased hair, pointy-toed shoes and fashions by Lee's of Broadway. The uncertain life of a high-schooler became more tolerable. Being a Deaner lifted a committee member into the rarefied air of being a star at 16.

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To those of my generation, Deane left a lasting legacy in both culture and memory. Many regulars, with nicknames like "Termite" and "Peanuts," converted the short-lived glory of local television stardom into success later in life.

For many of us, Deane will always be there, standing ramrod-straight, an electronic maestro with a microphone, introducing Brenda Lee or hyping sponsors like Kit-Kat and the Etta Gown Shop.

Buddy Deane and his kids flashed into our living rooms nearly 40 years ago. What he left us was an early introduction and enduring devotion to rock and roll. And those wonderful dances.

But the show will go on

Buddy Deane, 78, the impresario of Baltimore's dance show from 1957-1964, died Wednesday of complications from a stroke near his home in Pine Bluff, Ark.

He was to have been the host of the first Buddy Deane Fan Fair and Dance in September at the Fairgrounds in Timonium, an event that is still scheduled. Deane's show is the foundation of the John Waters film Hairspray and the popular adaptation of it that's now on Broadway.


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