Curtis, who founded the Brentwood veteran’s motorcycle club of American Legion Riders, was a member of the Little Bandstanders, a group of youngsters who strutted their stuff for the TV camera.
“It’s one of the things that surprises people today,” Curtis jokes, “with this svelte body of mine.”
He learned to dance at a young age, at a studio in his hometown of Linfield, Penn., a suburb of Philadelphia, where “American Bandstand” was first filmed. Curtis described Linfield as similar to Brentwood, a small farming community about an hour’s drive from the big city.
When Curtis was 5, his studio was invited to dance on “American Bandstand,” an iconic TV show that featured the hippest acts in music. Hosted by Dick Clark from 1956 to 1989, Bandstand hosted artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, ABBA, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Prince, Run-DMC and Aerosmith. Before the advent of the computers, the show was where Americans discovered the most talented singers.
Curtis danced on “American Bandstand” once a month, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, until he was 12 and the show moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
While his group wasn’t the main dancing act, it made its presence known in the background. “They had their own group of dancers and it was just a little three-second spot, and if you didn’t know what you looked like, you missed yourself,” Curtis said. “We did ‘The Nutcracker’ – that was one that stuck out – but it also got me involved in high school drama and plays.”
Dressed up in a suit and fedora, Curtis shared the stage with big-ticket performers such as Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, who was also a young man at the time. Curtis didn’t get to interact much with Clark, but described him as a warm presence who didn’t act like he was the star of the show.
“He was a very nice guy, very unassuming,” Curtis said. “He wasn’t pretentious. He made you feel at home, as a little kid. You felt like you were important to the show.”
Curtis treats his time on Bandstand like it was no big deal, just a part of his childhood, but many of his students at Joseph A. Ovick School in Brentwood are shocked to learn of their teacher’s past. From time to time, he’ll show video of “American Bandstand,” and students express surprise that their mountain man of a teacher danced for a nationwide audience.
While his youthful involvement in dance led him to participate in plays as a high school student, he largely stopped learning about the art of dancing after that. Curtis joined the military after high school, and throughout his life, saved his skills for weddings and social events.
Through his studio, and Bandstand, Curtis learned not only some of the most popular dance moves in America, but styles of dance from around the world. He said he can still cut a rug at weddings, even if his hips aren’t what they used to be.
Curtis remains humble about his appearances on Bandstand and connection with the recently deceased Clark, who became an international star.
“You don’t think about it, 50 years ago, that it would become that big and that (Clark) would become that big,” Curtis said. “To me, it’s just a little spot in my life.”