TOMS RIVER – Susan Toms of Forked River spent a few hours at the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library on May 7 awaiting the arrival of her idol, singer, actor and more recently, author, Robert Ridarelli, better known as “Bobby Rydell.”
Toms had first met the performer in 1965 at the Suntan Hotel in Wildwood Crest, N.J.
“I was 17 at the time,” Toms said while looking at a poolside photograph of Rydell and her.
“The last time I saw him was a few days before 9/11 at the Garden State Art Center in Holmdel so I was looking forward to this,” she added.
Toms was among more than 200 people who came to the branch’s Mancini Hall in the library to hear the former teen idol speak about his life and to have him autograph his book “Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances.”
Many in the audience asked Rydell about his experiences in show business, and his life growing up in South Philadelphia.
Rydell said when he was growing up his father would take him around to various nightclubs including the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. That is where he saw Benny Goodman and his band.
“I didn’t know who that guy in Benny Goodman’s band was playing the drums but I told my father I wanted to be him.”
When asked if he played any other instruments Rydell said “I fool around with bass but I’m left handed so I play it upside down.” Rydell first performed as a professional drummer at age 9 and at 19, he was the youngest person ever to headline the famous Copacabana club in New York.
“My first hit record came out when I was 17 in 1959,” he said.
He credited his father for seeing his talent.
“I’ve been performing since I was a kid and I just turned 75 on April 26,” Rydell said.
Rydell’s recording career earned him 34 Top 40 hits. Billboard magazine placed him in the Top 5 artists of his era. His biggest hits included “Volare,” “Wild One,” “We Got Love,” “Kissin’ Time,” “Swingin’ School,” “Sway,” “Wildwood Days” and “Forget Him.”
“Volare would be my signature song but I love Wildwood so “Wildwood Days” is one of my favorites,” Rydell said responding to the question of which hit was his favorite.
He also spoke about how in 1985 he, Fabian and Frankie Avalon teamed up as The Golden Boys to tour and how they continued to perform as a trio.
“Frankie said to me we used to hang around on the same street corner and here we are still hanging around on stage together. We all lived close to each other as kids,” Rydell said.
When asked about other favorite performers he worked with Rydell said he had a close association with Danny Thomas and that he had also been involved with Thomas’s charity cause of the St. Jude Hospital. He also admired the work of comics Red Skelton and George Burns. “They were all great.”
Rydell was also asked about his guest appearance in an episode of the 1960s war drama “Combat.”
“The script was called “The Duel” and I’m with Vic Morrow, the star of the show and I’m under the truck for the whole episode. The director Mike Nichols said he liked my work and I did a reading for a film but the producer said I just wasn’t what he was looking for. The film was for “The Graduate.” You win some and you lose quite a few,” he laughed.
When another audience member said he was in love with actress Ann-Margret, who Rydell starred with in 1963 film “Bye Bye Birdie,” Rydell responded, “Who isn’t?” with a laugh. “Ann was 22 at the time and I was 21. I asked her once why didn’t we get married? We talk once a month. We’re great friends. That was a great cast, Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde”
Rydell revealed that a dark time in his life came when he lost his first wife, Camille, in 2003. “I was basket case after that and I turned to alcohol. In 2012 I had to get a new liver and kidney through a double transplant operation. I had a 50/50 chance and I felt that I had enjoyed a good life so whatever happened was going to happen.”
He added that the donor was a 21-year-old woman who had been in an accident.
“I have 75% of her liver and 25% of it went to Assiah, who was 4 years old,” he said, in reference to fellow Philadelphian Assiah Phinisee, who received the transplant at the same time. “I was 70 years old but she was just starting her life.” The performer said the experience made him an advocate for organ transplants.
When the producers of “Grease” wanted to pay tribute to performers of the 1950s-60s, they named the high school where most of the story took place “Rydell High” in his honor. “I didn’t even know they were going to do that,” he said.
During the program, Rydell talked about his time in the military. “I was 95 pounds in 1964 when I took basic training at Fort Dix. During an interview, Rydell shared a visit to Seaside Heights during that time period. “The sergeant wouldn’t give us a pass to come out to Seaside Heights but we wanted to go there so my buddy and I went and our heads were shaved and like idiots we had our dog tags on and the MPs sometimes patrolled the beach. We could have been caught but we weren’t. We were lucky,” Rydell said.