Next week marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of the once nationally popular, Philly-set teen dance show Dance Party USA. The show was a spinoff of Dancin’ on Air — something of a neon-and-Members-Only-wearing little cousin to American Bandstand — which itself turns 35 later this year.
If you were a tween, teen, or young adult — or the parent of one — in Philadelphia in the ’80s, you are no doubt familiar with Dancin’ on Air. It premiered on Channel 17 in October 1981, eventually got syndicated in 1986, and morphed into Dance Party USA, which became a huge hit for cable’s then-fledgling USA Network. Both shows were shot in Philly and, like predecessor Bandstand, featured teens from the area. While many of the dancers were simply kids lucky enough to get in for the tapings, others became “regulars” whose performances earned them a degree of local fame.
But the shows weren’t just a bunch of young Gen Xers dancing in leg-warmers and hilarious-in-hindsight hairdos. The programs featured performances by some very big names, including Will Smith in his Fresh Prince days, Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder, the New Kids on the Block, Nine Inch Nails, and Madonna, in what was reportedly her very first television appearance. It’s hard to remember a time when Madonna was so clothed and when kids in Philadelphia danced like this:
Dancin’ on Air ran until 1987, and Dance Party USA continued until 1992. Decades later, the regulars are all grown up and pushing 50. One of them remains a household name today: South Jersey native Kelly Ripa, who declined to comment for this article. But by the mid-’90s, with the shows all but forgotten by your average television viewer, the other regulars had settled into relatively quiet lives far from from the spotlight.
The invention of social media enabled a few of them to rekindle their renown through Facebook fan pages, where they post memories, photos, and where-are-they-now updates to their followers, which number a thousand or more in certain cases. Others post similar content on their personal Facebook profiles. And now Facebook is where tensions between the regulars and the producer of the show, Mike Nise, have flared up in a big, big way since January, when Nise launched a new, online version of Dancin’ on Air.
You’d think that the people behind two programs that continue to occupy a weird little niche of Philadelphia’s collective consciousness might be popping a few Champagne bottles — or at least a six-pack of wine coolers — together to mark a momentous anniversary. But the familiar faces from the shows — and the producer behind it — aren’t doing much celebrating at all. Instead, they’re locked in a contentious fight over their memories and the shows’ very legacy.
HEATHER DAY IS the 45-year-old owner of Manayunk’s Awakenings Pole Fitness, where she teaches women how to grind and gyrate their way into better health. But in the ’80s, she was known as Princess, a Dancin’ on Air regular who wound up hosting Dance Party USA late in its run. On the phone from her home in Montgomery County (she declined to tell us exactly where she lives, explaining that she’s had stalkers), Day says none of the regular dancers were paid, which was fine with her, because it was so much damn fun. (As host, she says, she made $55 per day for 12-hour tapings.)
Here’s Day as Princess introducing Nine Inch Nails, in a performance we can only imagine Trent Reznor has blocked out completely:
Like many of her peers from the show, Day has held onto VHS and even Betamax tapes from the broadcasts, recorded at home by friends and family excited to see their Princess on TV. And like the other personalities, she has shared clips from her personal show highlights on her Facebook fan page. Many of the clips shared by Day and the others were shot with a cell phone from a TV screen. High-def they are not.
Recently, the videos shared by Day and several other regulars we spoke with started disappearing from Facebook, with messages from the site explaining that the clips in question were in violation of United States copyright law. Some regulars report that their Facebook pages have been suspended after repeated infractions, and one says that her entire YouTube channel — which she says also included videos of her kids — was removed.
The copyright claims have come from a Philadelphia-based entity known as Omni 2000 Inc. And who is the CEO of that production company? None other than Mike Nise, the shows’ producer.
“They’re stalking our Facebook pages,” says Day, referring to Nise and his associate at Omni, Chrystel Eberts. Day claims that even behind-the-scenes videos shot by friends on their own hand-held VHS cameras have been yanked offline. “These videos are harmless. They used people, and now they are stabbing us in the backs. It’s petty. They’re being jerks.”
Regulars like Bobby Catalano, Lillian Narodowski, Liz Jacobs, and Romeo King tell the same kind of stories.
Before the videos are pulled down, the regulars say, Nise’s team downloads them and posts them on Omni’s own page, Dance Party USA/Dancin’ On Air, which goes out of its way to say that it is “the only official group” commemorating the shows.
Recently, Narodowski, a 46-year-old mother of two and licensed manicurist, took to her Facebook fan page to challenge Nise:
Well Well Omni 2000 and Mike Nise,
I got a notification that I am along with a few other regulars, somehow infringing on YOUR rights….since when is MY image and MY personal videos an infringement on you??…
Besides alienating just about everyone that showed up for you daily and didn’t receive a single penny and made your show possible, and the success it was, How do you even feel right about this? You are putting a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, including the thousands of viewers that you brag about daily that tuned in, that enjoy the memories just like those who were a part of it…
It’s very unfortunate that this is the way you want to leave a legacy to everyone that loved and appreciated that time in our life.
But I’m sorry Mr. Nise, if it wasn’t for all those people that journeyed each and every day to the studio… Honestly, you wouldn’t of had a show if it wasn’t for us….
YOU NEEDED US TO MAKE IT HAPPEN!!!
However, it’s not just videos on Facebook that have been targeted by Nise and his crew. A few years back, Romeo King and other regulars decided to host an alumni party at Dave & Buster’s that would double as a breast cancer benefit, because one regular had recently been diagnosed with the disease.
King and the others formed a group called Dancin’ Party Alumni. According to King, the benefit did not plan to charge admission and rather sought to raise funds through silent auctions and other fundraising efforts. Nise’s Bala Cynwyd attorney sent King a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that Dancin’ Party Alumni’s logo and other aspects of the group and event infringed upon Nise’s rights.
“They don’t allow us to enjoy our past,” observes King, who works as an emcee with Huntingdon Valley’s All Around Entertainment, a company he cofounded. “It all unfortunately comes down to money — as if we’re making any on anything. But, really, what they don’t understand is that we are the only ones keeping it relevant.”
THOUGH THE REGULARS say they have been hearing complaints from Nise and Eberts for a while, things certainly ramped up after the January debut of a newly produced series of Dancin’ on Air episodes for the website of cable channel Fuse. Nise and Eberts are behind that show, though they were only nominally involved with a reality show, Saturday Morning Fever, that followed the exploits of the show’s host and six of the dancers, and actually aired on the network.
After a handful of episodes, the last of which streamed in early March, Nise says he’s not sure that the new show will continue. He’s more interested in working on a new concept that he wouldn’t tell us more about that will, in his words, “put Dancin’ on Air and Dance Party USA to rest.”
Even though it doesn’t sound like the new Dancin’ on Air has much of a future, if it ever did, Nise and Eberts both say that they don’t want to dilute the brand with all of these “unofficial” Facebook pages and shares. “When there are 50 sites that say ‘Dancin’ on Air,’ how are you supposed to know where to go?” asks Nise.
Eberts wasn’t around back when the original shows were on the air. Nise hired her for another television production he was involved with in the late ’90s, and she’s been with him ever since — but just professionally, says Nise, contradicting the suspicions of some of the regulars. In any event, it’s clear that Eberts is calling a lot of the shots these days.
“She’s very involved,” says Nise. “She’s my right-hand woman. She’s protecting me from lawsuits and all that kind of stuff. She has a good legal mind.”
“We own these videos,” says Eberts, who goes on to confirm that she has, indeed, been downloading the footage shared by the regulars and then reporting it. “The new dance show is targeting the millennials and the teens and tweens, and they aren’t interested in this ’80s stuff, so we don’t want to alienate them.
“I have been called a terrorist and gotten a lot of nasty messages and even death threats from some regulars, but these people need to get a life. They’re upset that Michael got a new TV show about millennials and that nobody is interested in 40-somethings. It’s a personal vendetta.”
But with Nise’s doubts that the new show will even continue, and now that he’s set his sights on a new mystery production, why bother? Why make enemies out of your old, once-loyal friends, most of whom worked for free or next to nothing?
“It could be that they’re disappointed in their own lives,” Nise offers when we ask for his reaction to the bad feelings cropping up among the group. “They used to call me their ‘TV dad.’ Now, there are maybe ten people out there who missed their chance for fame. But instead of trying to beat us, they should join us.”
Nise says he’s told all of the regulars directly: Instead of sharing the clips on your personal Facebook pages, share them on my official page. He also points to a licensing agreement he made a decade ago with a company called Historic Films, which he says is the only entity other than Omni that’s allowed to share and distribute even a single frame of content from the old shows.
“They want to collect and control everything,” says Heather Day.
IN THE END, it doesn’t sound like Nise and his former “TV kids” are going to be reconciling or collaborating on anything again anytime soon, and certainly not in time for this week’s 30th anniversary of Dance Party USA.
Talk of a 30th event did recently come up on Facebook (where else?), and the since-deleted thread devolved into name-calling and one fan accusing Nise of being the one behind all this conflict. Nise asked the fan for an apology, and the fan said he wouldn’t apologize for being passionate.
Nise’s response is pretty indicative of where things are at in this bizarre world of never-quite-famous TV personalities, and it just goes to show you how Facebook makes all of us — no matter our age — act like we were in high school again, and not in a good way.
“Hitler had passion,” wrote Nise. “Genghis Khan had passion. ISIS has passion, but that’s no justification for bad behavior, threatening lives and bodily injury, or creating websites. What’s the real problem here?”
Nise says he actually wasn’t the one to write that message, explaining that Eberts handles a lot of their social media, including some posts on his own Facebook profile.
“All these people are just bitter and being driven by ego, and frankly, I’m getting really annoyed with it,” Nise tells us from his Fairmount apartment on a recent Saturday morning. “When you’re in the spotlight, everybody thinks you have a ton of money, and everybody wants some of it. But I don’t have nothing. It’s all gone.”
Nise sounds sad for a moment, reflecting on it all. But then he perks up and says that he is very excited about the upcoming, as-yet-unnamed and as-yet-unwritten project.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he promises. “The kids, they want us.”
Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/04/10/dancin-on-air-dance-party-usa/
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