BOSTON — If you can’t catch Opening Day at Fenway Park, don’t worry. We have your ticket to another (former) national pastime that is sure to get you out of your seat.
This Month from the Vault: Dancing Disco, Episode 1, “The New York”
“So what’s a nice television station like WGBH-Boston doing with a national television series called Dancing Disco?” Executive producer Sylvia Davis asked this question in 1979, and then answered it with a line that was both decorous and slightly wacky.
“We’re the people who bring you Julia Child, The French Chef, Masterpiece Theatre, and Nova. Why not disco? We figured if we could teach people the joys of French cooking, we could also teach them the pleasure of learning how to disco.”
Here’s How it Happened
Building on the success of The French Chef, WGBH caught “how-to” fever in the mid-to-late late 1970s. The Victory Garden launched in 1975, and the first episode of This Old House premiered locally in early 1979.
Davis and broadcast manager Mark Stevens jumped in with their disco idea after the huge box office success of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever (1977). Disco may have been offbeat for public television, but it was in step with the times.
In Boston, “discos began popping up like spring flowers,” Davis explained in a companion book to Dancing Disco. “Based on the marvelous dancing [in the movie], we began looking for someone to teach on TV.”
When Davis saw Randy Deats on an audition tape, she knew he was the right choice. “Suddenly, this man came on and began talking to me. He told me to stand up, start moving my feet, and do what he did. And I did. What Randy Deats could do for me, he could do for others.”
Deats, who is still active in the dance scene and has a studio in Warwick, Rhode Island, is a terrific teacher. In this episode, host and then-WCOZ radio personality Lisa Karlin sets the scene, telling viewers to push back the coffee table and get moving. Then Deats takes over. He teaches a line dance called the New York, so viewers don’t need a partner.
In other episodes, all shot at Club Max in Boston’s Park Square, Deats teaches dances with names like the Rope Hustle, the Triple Hustle, the Rock, and the Drop, among others. The episode featured here has a segment on disco fashion with Mademoiselle magazine fashion editor Diane Smith. Other shows include interviews with DJs, top dancers, special effects experts, musicians, and even a foot doctor—“because you can’t make those moves when your feet are sad,” according to a blurb in the WGBH program guide Prime Time from July 1979.
Whether you’re in it for the dance moves, or the clothes, or just the nostalgia factor, Dancing Disco is fun to watch. And keep in mind that entire cable channels have been inspired by the fruits of WGBH’s creativity in “how-to” programming (think Food Network and HGTV).
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