30-year party On the radio, on the dance floor, "Mr. Saturday Nigh" Bob Pantano's hits keep on comin'. DJ Bob Pantano's Saturday nights are a 30-year party

Posted: March 07, 2007

Saturday night, if 30 years is our guide, Bob Pantano will be holding a microphone while hundreds of people dance in front of him.

Pantano has not missed one of his Saturday Night Dance Party shows since Jan. 12, 1985 - and that was because he was getting married the next day. A broken leg 12 years ago couldn't stop him.

From 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., 800 to 1,000 people will pass through Benny the Bum's in the Holiday Inn on Packer Avenue in South Philadelphia, and upward of 30,000 people will tune in on WOGL (98.1) and on the Jersey Shore station WILW (94.3).

Pantano used to work five nights a week, but recently cut back to four - Wednesdays at the Springfield Country Club in Delaware County, Thursdays at the Adelphia in Deptford, and Fridays at Benny the Bum's.

Only four? "I've been married 22 years, and I like to keep it that way," he says.

His wife, Debbie, works the door, a job she picked up after the death of his father, Paul, in 1985. "It all comes around," Pantano says of Benny the Bum's, which was Cahoots when he and Debbie were married at the hotel, then a Hilton.

They'll get home in Gloucester County about 3 a.m. Sunday, and by noon he'll be back on his feet as an usher at Church of the Holy Family in Washington Township.

Pantano, 58, who grew up in South Philadelphia, went to Bishop John Neumann High and joined WCAM in Camden after graduating from Temple in 1971. Then as now, Pantano was a club DJ.

"I asked myself, 'How can I be different?' " he says. By the mid-1970s, disco was developing. He started a Sunday-night dance show from the old Library in Bala Cynwyd.

Valentine's weekend 1977, the dance party went on the radio - but Pantano hosted from the Bala Cynwyd studio of 98.1, which then called itself "Fascinatin' Rhythm."

In 1982, Pantano took the radio show on remote to the Ripley Music Hall, then on South Street. Been out ever since.

Though the dance party has changed clubs - and radio stations, for a time - "our success is the consistency of the format," Pantano says: "Motown, Philly sounds, disco." Donna Summer. McFadden & Whitehead. The Jackson 5. The Bee Gees. Pantano's musical oeuvre is on pause somewhere around 1980.

"There's a huge singles population, especially among the baby boomers," Pantano said as Benny the Bum's filled up on a recent Saturday, shortly after his 30th-anniversary broadcast. "They want to go out and relive their youth. They danced to this the first time around."

His top crowd are those celebrating 40th birthdays - grade-school kids, really, when many of these hits came out. Next are 50-year-olds, followed by 30-year-olds.

Countless couples have met amid the thumping bass. Eight years ago, CBS3 weatherman Tom Lamaine was visiting Pantano's show, then at the Coral Reef in Bellmawr. "I'm ready to leave when I literally bumped into Donna," Lamaine says. Donna Ruggiano, he learned, was a civilian employee with the Navy. He's a retired naval fighter pilot. They were married three years ago.

"He's an icon to be able to do what he's been doing consistently for 30 years," Lamaine says.

Pantano travels with four CD players, a soundboard, and cases of discs. His music for each show is plotted on dog-eared 3-by-5 cards he keeps at his left hand, arranged week by week to minimize repetition.

Each card bears the name of a hit and the CD it's on.

Pantano has his favorites, of course. But he wouldn't feel too bad if he never had to spin "The Electric Slide" or Abba's "Dancing Queen" ever again. "If they want to dance to them, I'll play them."

His own tastes include Frank Sinatra, classical music, and what he calls "new age traveling music."

It's hard to stop the dance party. In March 1983, the city was shut down by a blizzard. Fortunately, Pantano lived at Seventh and Federal. He and longtime producer Tony Harris shlepped the records to the Ripley, and "500 people showed up," he says.

He and Harris worked through a fire at the old HB's nightclub - "we just moved to the other end of the bar." At West L.A. Cafe, they spun nervously through a bomb scare. The night of July 31, 2004, sends a chill through Pantano and Harris. The Coral Reef seemed awfully warm that night. On his way to his Ventnor home after the show, Pantano got a call that the club was on fire. It burned to the ground. "The fire was burning in the walls while we were still there," Pantano says.

Think of that the next time he queues up "Disco Inferno."

Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.

To see video of the Saturday Night Dance Party, go to http://go.philly.com/pantano

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