"YOU take a young boy and make him into a star, and if he doesn't like it, what does he do? Have you destroyed his life because you've made a lot of money for him? As a human being, he always has a choice, though he was young. So they were caught up in the success syndrome -- it's a whirlpool that you don't want to get out of."
The speaker is 50-year-old Bob Marcucci, and they were Frankie Avalon and Fabian, the two teen idols propelled by the manic Marcucci into fleeting fame during the late '50s. From Philadelphia high schools to Hollywood highs, Marcucci sculpted a Pygmalion fantasy that ended with lawsuits and bitter feelings. In between, there was a lot of money to be made.
Much of that story is told in a new film, "The Idolmaker," which opens Friday. Marcucci is listed as "technical adviser"; the names of all the principals have been changed and the story altered enough to avoid legal problems with the two stars and others.
"It's a fictitious story with many paralalels loosely based in real life," said a spokesperson frm Koch-Kirkwood Productions. "The characters are designed to be away from [Avalon and Fabian] in a certain sense."
"'The Idolmaker' is not based entirely on Fabe or Frankie or myself," Marcucci insists. The film's producers "came to me because of all the managers of that era, I did so many way-out, left-field things that people didn't do back in those days -- tk two kids and made them superstars, one from a doorstep and one from a nightclub. The two boys aren't really Frankie and Fabe to me when I look at the movie. Some of the incidents and experiences are, but the people aren't to be."
But "The Idolmaker" is as much about Marcucci, Frankie Avelong and Fabrian as "Citizen Kane" is about William Randolph Hearst.
The late '70s saw a flush of films riding on the nostalgia craze and the rock revival: "Elvis" and "The Buddy Holly Story" looked at the stars, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "American Hot Wax" looked around them. But "The Idolmaker" is unusual in several ways, not the least of which is its portrayal of the often ruthless methods of behind-the-scenes manipulators like Marcucci. Despite his five-year involvement in making the film, the Marcucci character (calaled Vinnie Vaccari) comes off as a rock-and-roll Mephisto, an egotistic jerk who loses friends as fast as he makes money.
Marcucci's specialty was taking young men of limited talents and capitalizing on their good looks. The music was less important than the image. Between 1959 and 1962, he helped create a sub-genre of rock that was little more than audible pablum for teen-agers obsessed with the dreamboat next door. In Marcucci's case, next door was Philadelphia -- home of "American Bandstand" and three of the most influential teen-idol labels: Cameo, Swan and Marcucci's own Chancellor.
When Marcucci first met Dick Coark in the '50s, he was "a bit on the chubby side with curly hair and an easy smile," as Clark recalls in his autobiography. They would become close friends over the years as the idolmaker saw his idols become regular and exalted guests on "American Bandstand." Marcucci had started the Chancellor label in the mid-'50s (with a $10,000 loan from his father, another scene recreated in the film). It was one of hundreds of small independent labels across the country, though its only real hit had been Jodie Sands' "With All My Heart" in 1957.
Looking for a project, Marcucci settled on Francis Thomas Avallone, an 18-year-old trumpet player and singer who'd had limited success as an 8-year-old guest on a number of national television shows and had won numerous local talent contests. Marcucci and his song-writing partner, Pete De Angelis, snatched Avalon out of a rock 'n' roll band called Rocco and the Saints (which also had a 15-year old drummer named Robert Louis Ridarelli, later changed to Bobby Rydell).
Marcucci & Co. groomed Avalon, smoothed down his looks, dressed him in bright sweaters and beautifully pressed slacks. On their third try, the combo hit with "Dede Dinah" -- for which Marcucci made Avalon sing while pinching his nose closed in order to get a different sound. The guest shots on Clark's "Bandstand" started coming regularly, as did appearances at record hops. Avalon's pictures started to appear in the teen magazines, moving from the back to the front cover with surprising speed. And the records started to sell: four charted hits in '58, seven in '59, four in '60, three in '61, two in '62 (by which time Avalon's career as a teen idol was pretty well over).
"I'm not on any negative terms with Frankie," says Marcucci. "I haven't seen him for a while. We haven't done anything negative since we sued each other . . . since he sued me . . . back in '66 to terminate our contract."
In "The idolmaker," a character named Tommy Dee bears a striking physical and historic resemblance to Avelon: He's a saxophone player plucked from a New Jersey rock club. Vinnie Vaccari builds him up through sock hops and appearances on something called Ed Sharp's "National Bandstand," gets him on the cover of a teen magazine and eventually watches him head for Hollywood. Tommy Dee wears Frankie Avalon hand-me-downs and looks like he visited the same Philadephiia barbershop.
But, Marcucci says, "Frankie Avalong was never the kind of character like Tommy Dee. He wasn't a goofball. He was a very sweet, little adorable boy . . . which I don't think you can make a two-hour movie out of."
(Reached on location in Washington state, where he's working on the latest of a long line of B-movies -- the first was "Disc Jockey Jamboree" in 1957 -- Avalon, now 40, claimed he knew very little about the film, and reserved judgment until after he's seen it.)
Marcucci always had an angle. In his book "Rock, Roll and Remember," Clark recalls running into Marcucci when "he had a record out called 'Calypso Parakeet' and was giving away parakeets as promotion. I wasn't along in thinking he was half nuts."
"Pete De Angelis and I looked at what was big," recalls Marcucci. "Calypso was big back then and parakeets were big. I thought: Let's do a combination. The song didn't make it, but wondered in the meantime what I could do to get recongnition for my label? I'm a little company. So I bought dozens of parakeets, my aunt and mother took care of them and we made a big thing out of spreading them around the region. The record was a bomb , but when we got done, they all knew Chancellor Records."
"After Bob hit with Frankie Avalon, he started looking for his next teen idol," writes Clark. "Frankie had a friend named Fabiano Forte whom he introduced to Bob. Bob named him Fabian and proceeded to tell people he'd discovered the kid sitting on a doorstep. The kid, Bob said, had it."
At the time, Fabian was a 15-year-old sophomore at Southern High in Philadelphia. He'd been dropped from the school chorus because he couldn't sing. Did that stop Marcucci? Not when the look of the idol was so much more important than his sound. That year, Elvis was in the Army and Fabian looked like a cross between him and Ricky Nelson, another established Teen Dream. Once again, Marcucci groomed a youngster, built up an air of mystery around him with huge posters asking "Who Is Fabian?" "What Is a Fabian?" and "Fabian Is Coming!" He never did really learn to sing, but by the time Fabian made his first appearance at a "Bandstand" hop dressed in a blue sweater, tight-fitting pants and white bucks, something was ready to pop.
"The litle girls at the hop went wild," recalls Clark. "They started screaming and yelling for this guy who didn't do a thing but stand there. I've never seen anything like it." Fabian went on to have seven hits in 1959, three in 1960. He went up fast and came down the same way. By 1959, the gross sales of Chancellor Records totaled more than $7 million. "Fabe may find some bitterness about our relationship," Marcucci says. "He grew, I grew. Our deal ended amicably."
In "The Idolmaker," the Fabian character -- named Cesare -- is discovered waiting tables in an Italian restaurant. He can't sing, but he's groomed to fever itch. Posters go up all over New York City: "Cesare Is Coming," "What Is Cesare?" The poses on the posters are remarkably reminiscent of Fabian, now 37. A super-hype tour drives the girls crazy. "Fabe had charisma," says Marcucci. "So does Cesare."
The movie does not deal with Marcucci's promotional failures, like the promising John Di Andrea. "He was the third buildup for me, my third star," Marcucci says wistfully. "I got him on 'Shindig' as the new teen idol of 1964. We got him a recording contract, did a great publicity campaign on him like he was the new Tyrone Power of the business. Darryl Zanuck personally signed him to a contract at 20th Century-Fox. But he didn't make it. That 8-by-10 good-looking glossy wasn't making it in the record business. The look of people had started changing." Di Andrea went on to become a record producer, working with acts like Paul Revere and the Raiders, Donny and Marie Osmond, Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett.
By the mid-60s, Marcucci's own star was on the wane. He continued to write songs to work in the music field. The film company advertises him as still active in the rcord busness, with several new acts "being groomed for stardom by the Marcucci touch." But Marcucci says that he has no acts, though he still gets tapes from would-be stars. "The only kids I'm working on now that I'm making into people are my two boys: Bobby's 15 and Mark is 16. Mark just wants to be a jock, while Bobby wants to be an attorney in the entertainment field. They're the only idols in my life. I'm working on becoming a father and applying some of that idolmaker deal to making them good kids."
"The funny thing is -- he's got a voice," Marcucci says of Bobby. "But I would never push him in that direction." When "20/20" came to film a segment on Marcucci, the idolmaker bought his son a beautiful velour suit and black silk shirt. Marcucci says that when Bobby tried it on and looked in the mirror, he turned around and said, "That looks good, Dad! You know, you're doing with me what you did with Frankie and Fabian. Does it bother you?" "No, that's great," Marcucci said.
"Watching the movie," he says "I became aware of things that I shouldn't have done, even though they were successful. In one scene the teen-mag ublisher says, 'You used the boys to get to where you wanted to get to.' I don't ever think of myself as using Frankie and Fabe to het ahead. But I guess we do use each other, don't we?"
The final scene in "The Idolmaker," which was added on as an upbeat ending by the film's producers (who also did "Rocky"), finds Vinnie Vaccari emotionally spent after both Tommy Dee and Cesare have left him. After the failure of Di Andrea, says Marcucci, "I grew u and didn't want to do it [make idols] anymore . . . that way. It doesn't mean I don't want to do it now, but I don't want to get involved in their lives, hold their hands. I want to have fun, be a manager, not a father figure."
Would he come up with any outrageous schemes to publicize the movie? Perhaps at Radio City Music Hall this week, where 5,000 kids are expected to attend a promotion set up by the film company?
"No," Marcucci says.
Not even a little? A smile cracks at the edges of Marcucci's mouth: "Yes." Suddenly, it's 1959 again, if only for a few minutes.