1961: When ‘The John Pela Show’ taught New Orleans to dance
Elsewhere, “American Bandstand” was the TV dance show for teens to watch in the late 1950s and into the ’60s. But in New Orleans it was all about “The John Pela Show,” named after the WWL-TV staff announcer who in 1961 took over hosting duties of the show originally titled “Saturday Hop” — and on whose watch the show became must-see TV for local kids. Featuring a studio full of New Orleans teenagers dancing to the latest pop hits, and with groovy, era-appropriate graphics setting the mood, the live, hourlong dance party originated from the WWL studios every Saturday for some 15 years and, once Pela took over, was consistently No. 1, both in viewers’ hearts and in the ratings books.
In the early 1970s, Pela became WWL’s radio programmer, which left little time to prepare for the dance show. That’s when the decision was made in 1973 to pull the plug. “People don’t realize the tedium involved,” Pela said in a 1976 interview with The Times-Picayune. “… Standing under those lights, waiting for ‘the moment of truth.’ I’m probably getting older; I just didn’t want to put up with that any longer.” Pela retired from WWL in 1992 and moved over to local PBS affiliate WLAE. He retired for good once he hit 70 and moved to Sarasota, Fla.
- “Saturday Hop” started around 1958 and was originally hosted by the husband-and-wife team of Jack and Ann Elliott, who appeared on-screen as Jack the Cat and Jackie the Kitten. They left the show in 1961 and were replaced briefly by Bill Barry before Pela took the reins.
- Before hosting “The John Pela Show,” Pela appeared on the New Orleans airwaves as a host of “Popeye and Pals” — succeeding the popular “Uncle Henry” Dupre — and as the title character in the kid’s show “Captain Mercury.”
- Early in its run, the show’s set was populated each week by students from a different area high school. One week, when a rained-out football game was rescheduled for Saturday — at the same time as “The John Pela Show” — producers found themselves scrambling when nobody from that week’s school showed up. “That’s when we made the decision to open the show up to couples,” Pela said in 1976. “That’s when things went from the sublime to the ridiculous; enormous crowds showed up.”
- A noteworthy moment in the show’s history came about five years into Pela’s run, when longtime WWL General Manager Mike Early told Pela he wanted to integrate the show’s cast of dancers. Remembering that moment on a 1990 episode of “The Angela Hill Show,” Pela said he called up a local priest who served a mixed congregation and asked if he knew of any black kids who might be willing to help. He did, and just like that the show became a party for everyone.
- Every week, “The John Pela Show” featured a new set, built by WWL production designer Juozas Bakshis and his team to reflect various themes, such as holidays and seasons of the year, according to Dominic Massa’s book “Images of New Orleans Television.”
- A number of regulars often showed up to dance on the show, as well as performers with the Hazel Romano and Tony Bevinetto dance schools, which performed weekly choreographed numbers.
- Before heading to Hollywood, local actress and comedian Rhonda Shear appeared as a dancer on “The John Pela Show.”
In today’s fractured media landscape, it’s hard to imagine a single TV show unifying an entire demographic for more than the time it takes to binge-watch the latest Netflix hit series. But that’s exactly what “The John Pela Show” did in New Orleans in the 1960s, and for more than a decade. Spanning the years from bobby socks and beehives to go-go boots and miniskirts — and serving as a sort of transition between the AM-radio era and the MTV generation — “The John Pela Show” was a local pop-culture phenomenon. Made in the era in which TV stations reused videotapes, only three episodes are known still to exist, but for those who watched it and remember it, “The John Pela Show” will never go away.