It was the summer of 1960. Fledgling performer Chubby Checker, just 18, had landed a gig as the headline act at the Rainbow Club, a popular spot at Pacific and Spicer avenues in Wildwood.
Only a few months before, Checker had been Ernest Evans, a Philadelphia high school kid who worked part-time at a produce stand in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market, singing mostly to grandmothers buying zucchinis.
Late in 1959, he had a minor novelty hit, “The Class,” in which he imitated contemporary performers like Elvis Presley, the Chipmunks, and Fats Domino; the latter became the inspiration for Checker’s stage name. The producers at Philly’s Cameo-Parkway record label, home to local teen idol Bobby Rydell, reformulated a song called “The Twist” by the R&B group Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, had the newly named Checker record it, and then got him the Wildwood gig. The twist craze was born.
“Rock and roll had a sound, a beat, but it didn’t have a dance,” says Checker. “Not until Wildwood and the twist.” Checker had noticed that kids were dancing apart for the first time, not just jitterbugging like previous generations. He would get on stage and move his arms up and back, wiggle his hips, and swivel from his toes to his knees.
“It was just dancing apart, with the beat,” Checker says. “When I did the twist in Wildwood, nothing was the same after that.”
By August, Checker had begun his nightly show at the Rainbow, and the young performer had appeared on American Bandstand, Dick Clark’s popular Philadelphia-based musical variety show.
“What started in Wildwood became national on Bandstand,” says Checker, who lives outside Philadelphia and still dances the twist at about 80 shows a year.
Clark himself was a graduate of the Wildwood club scene. He had been a summer deejay at the Starlight Ballroom, a dance hall at Oak Avenue and the Boardwalk.
“I remember as a kid,” says Ernie Troiano Jr., 59, the former mayor of Wildwood, “Clark held up a record and said he had just gotten it in and would test it out on a Wildwood audience. It was ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ by Buddy Holly, and you know where that led.”
Jerry Blavat, a longtime Philadelphia deejay and radio and TV personality, was a Clark counterpart, spinning records for “yon teens” at the Scene, a club he designed in an old supermarket at Oak near Pacific.
“Wildwood in the 1950s and 1960s was a little bit too far to come for the day, so kids and young adults would be there for the weekend or week, which gave rise to lots of clubs,” says Blavat. That was in the days before huge concert tours, so many of the big rock stars would go through Wildwood in the summer. “Being at the beach was attractive, and Wildwood ruled.”
There were at least two dozen clubs, with acts from the Supremes and Frankie Avalon to Checker and the 5th Dimension every night in the summer. Blavat says older-generation acts—big bands and the like—worked in Atlantic City, so younger attractions ruled in Wildwood. After the British Invasion, he says, big-name acts wanted to play in larger venues, and the clubs reverted to mostly local acts.
“But when we put on ‘The Twist,’ Wildwood was the place to be, so we were able to start a revolution,” says Checker, who later recorded dance hits like “The Hucklebuck,” “The Fly,” “Limbo Rock,” “Pony Time” and, inevitably, “Let’s Twist Again” and “Slow Twistin’.”
“Everything from then on was dancing apart to the beat. It was like doing a striptease without taking your clothes off, and kids loved it,” Checker says. “And we started it all at Pacific and Spicer. How about that?”