It’s always special to Bobby Rydell’s fans when he’s booked in Wildwood.
But it could never be any more special than it is to Rydell himself.
If the former teen singing idol had X-ray vision, he could look through the Ocean Front Arena at the Wildwoods Convention Center this weekend and literally stare at his childhood.
That’s because Fox Park — where the 76-year-old entertainer played as a kid — is the only thing separating the Convention Center from Rydell’s boyhood. Well, that and Kelly’s Café, where Rydell admits he used to sneak a beer or two after one of his gigs when he was just a little bit underage.
Just a few steps behind Kelly’s is where Rydell’s maternal grandmother, Lena Sapienza, owned a boarding house in the 200 block of East Montgomery Avenue.
“That was my home every summer,” Rydell says during a recent morning phone call to his home in suburban Philadelphia, nostalgia creeping into his voice.
Joined by childhood friend Frankie Avalon and another Philly kid who made it big, Chubby Checker, Rydell will headline the Fabulous ‘50s & Beyond Weekend concert 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Wildwoods Convention Center.
It’s been years since Rydell sold his grandmother’s summer home. But the performer who introduced hits like “Volare,” “Wild One,” “Kissing Time” and “Sway” says he’ll always consider Wildwood his summer home.
The city doesn’t seem to mind that Rydell’s no longer a taxpayer. In fact, the town always treats the kid from South Philly like the musical hero he is because of one song: “Wildwood Days.”
Released in 1963, the same year The Beatles and other British bands began lighting up the charts, “Wildwood Days” was not, contrary to rumors, a flop.
It reached 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and Wildwood adopted the song as its anthem. Rydell even has his face on the side of a building there.
Checker and Avalon have their memories of Wildwood, too, though they’re not as connected as Rydell.
Yes, Checker really did perform “The Twist” for the first time in 1960 at the old Rainbow Club on Pacific Avenue.
Avalon, whose South Philly peeps knew him by his God-given name, Francis Avallone, was a regular whenever Dick Clark would do an “American Bandstand” record hop at the old Starlight Ballroom.
Rydell was 5-years-old when his dad took him to see big band leader Benny Goodman. When he saw Goodman’s drummer, Gene Krupa, perform for the first time, he decided right then and there that he wanted to be a drummer, so his dad went out and bought his kid a drum kit.
As he grew older, he began singing and performing for family and friends, then at neighborhood parties. Word began to spread about Adrio Ridarelli’s kid with the big voice, and Rydell turned professional when he was 16.
By the time he played his first professional gig in Wildwood, he already had a few hit singles bubbling under the Top 10. Besides Atlantic City, Wildwood was considered one of the top show towns on the East Coast for headline performers.
“I guess I was about 18 or 19, and the first club I worked in Wildwood was Phil (Bonelli) and Eddie’s (Rossi) Surf Club,” Rydell says of the popular room on Atlantic Avenue. “I played the Surf Club for a lot of years and I loved it, I absolutely loved it.”
What wasn’t to love? Rydell — by that time, he’d Americanized his Italian surname from Ridarelli to Rydell — had the best of all worlds.
He could perform wherever or whenever he wanted, camp out at his grandmother’s place in Wildwood, hang with his friends from South Philadelphia who made their own summer pilgrimages to Wildwood or spend the day on the beach or boardwalk.
Despite hit records, major TV shows and some tasty movie roles — like playing opposite Ann-Margret in “Bye Bye Birdie” — Rydell’s life hasn’t been a non-stop party because of his success.
His heart was broken in 2003 when Camille, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 35 years, died after a long battle with breast cancer.
Rydell began drinking heavily to help mask the pain of his loss.
In 2009, Rydell married a longtime friend, Linda Hoffman, but his battle with booze continued. He candidly describes that in his 2016 autobiography “Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol On the Rocks.”
By 2012, drinking had damaged his liver and kidneys so badly the only way he’d survive was through organ transplants.
Six months later, with a new liver and kidney, he was back on stage in Las Vegas performing the original Golden Boys show along with Avalon and Fabian, another South Philly refugee.
Still packing a beautiful tenor capable of reaching the same notes today as 40 years ago, Rydell continues to work. One week, he could be working with the Golden Boys show. The next, he might be playing a solo gig, which is a completely different experience.
He’s still in demand internationally, especially in Australia, where he’s done 20 solo tours. Yet nothing beats coming home to Wildwood, he says.
“Every time I get the chance to work Wildwood, it brings back so many memories for me,” he reminisces. “My mom used to take me down to Wildwood when I was a baby and all my summers were spent in Wildwood, New Jersey. So to be able to come back home and work the Convention Center is absolutely wonderful.”