A living legend celebrates 50 years in show biz.
The arrangement was unconventional, though.
“At that time WCAM was city-owned, and you could barter,” Blavat says over dinner at Mustard Greens, one of his regular spots. “They had the Italian hour, the Polish hour, the Russian hour. You could do anything you wanted if you came up with money. So I bought radio time for $125. I went out and I sold 15-minute blocks for $60.”
To this day, it’s the same deal: When Blavat is on the air—on Cruisin’ 92.1 weeknights, or on The Geator’s Rock ’n’ Roll Rhythm ’n’ Blues Express on WXPN on Saturday nights—he’s never collecting a salary.
“I do it because I want to do it,” he says. “It’s a labor of love. I don’t need the money. How you gonna pay me when I’m happy? It’s a travesty. They don’t tell me what to play.”
That independence, he says, is what’s allowed him to maintain programmatic freedom. And it lets him promote his other endeavors: his weekly live appearances, his biannual Kimmel Center rock ’n’ roll revue shows (the next one is this Saturday night), his club in Margate. Every piece is a shrewd advertisement for another piece.
“You have to have the balls to do it,” he says. “They’ve tried to stop me. I’ve had program directors, general managers who wanted to change me. They’re not in radio anymore.”
In his words and music, Blavat constantly harkens back to what he calls “the old Philadelphia,” a simpler time when people knew and relied on their neighbors. It’s a misty-eyed view that’s nostalgic, almost sad—because it doesn’t exist anymore, and it probably never will again.
“Back then,” he says, shifting deeper into his Souf Philly accent, “who lived in the house next to you, you knew. Who lived in the house up the street, you knew who they were. If you stepped out of line, you didn’t have to worry about your parents—it was your neighbor who said, ‘If I tell your mother, No. 1, I’m gonna kick ya in the ass. And I want you to go tell your mother I kicked ya in the ass because I saw you robbin’ hubcaps.’ The neighborhood was sacred. This is our neighborhood; don’t disrespect this neighborhood.
“It’s gotta go back to that,” he adds quietly. “Gotta go back to that.”
“I don’t think we’re ever gonna go back,” chimes in David Raezer, Blavat’s longtime friend who dines out with him three nights a week. The two have a few spots they frequent; they bring several bottles of fine wine and rarely order off the menu—the chef just brings them something special.
Blavat doesn’t seem to hear Raezer’s pessimism. “When I grew up on McKean Street,” he continues right on, “my grandmother owned the house. When my uncle got married, he owned a house around the corner. When my other uncle got married, he owned a house around the corner. So it was the family that lived in that neighborhood. And you knew everybody. Everybody.”
“ Come on, Herb! Let’s go! ” the Geator calls out over the mike.
Back at Parx Casino, the dance floor is packed.
“ Love you, Frances! Ladies and gentlemen, Julio is in the house! ”
With its illuminated checkerboard floor, the flashy semicircular 360 Bar exudes an updated ’70s vibe, with slot machines ringing around on all sides. Behind the Geator, who’s perched high on a stage, giant flat-screens project ads for upcoming shows. And the floor, lit up in red, yellow and orange, turns white when your feet touch it—like old dance-step diagrams showing how to jitterbug, box-step or cha-cha.
“ I’m here at the Parx, looking at a beautiful woman named Frances, who’s looking for a new husband! Look how beautiful she is! ”
As the Supremes blare over the speakers, 50-, 60- and 70-year-old heels click the floor in two choreographed lines. Men and women cha-cha opposite each other, except where some women dance together. As the song ends, the Geat pushes it a little harder into “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and almost immediately the assembled dancers move into a perfectly formed grid, touching the floor totally in sync.
“ Hello, Joan! Let’s go, Joan! Don’t be shy, Joan! ”
Around 5:30 he stops the music to talk about his upcoming Kimmel Center show, with Darlene Love, Jay Black, Shirley Alston Reeves and others. It’s an important plug—these dancers are Blavat’s core audience—but seems risky at first. Before stopping the music, the dance floor was completely full, with dancers grinning ear to ear; how will he pick it back up?
The answer comes resoundingly as the brisk one-two intro to “Heat Wave”—the Geator’s theme song—jumps out of the speakers, and as always, he starts rapping along to the beat:
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide