Grease: Still the Word for Frankie Avalon

Grease: Still the Word for Frankie Avalon It was 25 years ago that fifties teen idol Frankie Avalon was cast as Teen Angel in the film version of Grease, singing what is perhaps the score's funniest song, "Beauty School Dropout," and revving up the nostalgia meter for baby boomers.

Now, Avalon—looking more like the teen heartthrob he was than the sixtysomething grandfather he is—has donned his angel suit again, appearing in the national tour of Grease in select cities. And he's having a blast."It's so wonderful to do this in a theatre and have the reaction of a live audience," he says. "The film meant so much to so many people, and when they come to see the show, they really get into it. When my number is about to happen, I can feel the energy of the audience. When the scrim goes up, I'm there all in white—just like in the movie—and the girls have the same look with their wardrobe and their hair. And the audience just starts to roar. It's so much fun." The fun continues after the final curtain, when Avalon returns to sing several of his hit songs, including his mega-hit, "Venus." For the boomer generation, Avalon will always be best known for that song and for the "Beach" movies with Annette Funicello. But he says that more people know him from "Grease" than from anything else he's done. "'Grease' is the most successful thing I've ever been part of," he says. "It spans generations. If I go to a restaurant or if I'm at an airport and people recognize me, it amazes me that most of them know me from 'Grease.'"

In his 45-year career, Avalon has done it all: recordings, movies, television, clubs, even summer stock. As young Francis Avallone growing up in Philadelphia, he originally hoped to become a professional trumpet player: He appeared twice on Jackie Gleason's show as a trumpeter when he was 12 years old. "I studied with Seymour Rosenfeld, who was first trumpeter of the Philadelphia Orchestra," he says. "I was trying to become a legitimate trumpet player, and I had a scholarship to Eastman School of Music. I was really on my way. But I didn't take the scholarship. I got sidetracked, because when summers came around, I started playing with a rock-and-roll band."

Avalon's success as a singer eventually opened doors in Hollywood, and he took on straight acting roles in such films as The Alamo and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. But once the "Beach" movies began in 1963, he was no longer offered more challenging roles. "Those movies limited me, without a doubt," he says. "But I didn't care. I enjoyed them. Then came a part of my career where I wanted to do other stuff, and no one would let me. It was frustrating, but I got over it. Now I think, 'Thank God for those movies.' They kept me around and put my [eight] kids through school, and they were wonderful times."