Al Alberts, 87, the singing star who changed careers to champion thousands of youngsters on his TV show Al Alberts' Showcase, died this morning at his home in central Florida.
As she had been since their marriage in 1953, his wife, Stella, was at his side.
Stella Alberts said her husband had been ill for several weeks with circulatory problems in his legs but previously had been in good health. "All of a sudden, God took him," she said. His son Chris, a director for the New Candlelight Theatre in Wilmington, said the apparent cause of death was complications from kidney failure.
Mr. Alberts rose to fame in the 1950s as one of The Four Aces, whose hits included "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "Stranger in Paradise" and the Jule Styne number "Three Coins in a Fountain."
But generations of Philadelphians knew him as "Uncle Al," a tuxedoed fatherly figure with a white pompadour, blinding smile and infinite patience, as he gave screen time to young singers, hoofers, and comedians on Saturdays.
The program started on Channel 48 in 1968 and two years later moved to Channel 6. His show, which also toured local theaters, launched the careers of such performers as Andrea McArdle, Sister Sledge, Teddy Pendergrass, and Jarrod Spector.
"It was like going to church - a staple of life in Philadelphia," said McArdle, the first star of Annie on Broadway. She was 8 or 9 when she first appeared on the Showcase.
Mr. Alberts' wife was "Aunt Stella" to the show's performers: 6-year-old "Teeny Boppers," 7-to-14-year-old "Gold Nuggets" and 14-to-19-year-old "Show Stoppers." All had dragged their mommies to the monthly audition at J&A Caterers in South Philadelphia.
"To a wannabe thespian or entertainer, his show was our American Idol," McArdle said. "I just remember getting a spot on his show was, at the time, as big as getting Annie to me." To her, the Albertses were "extended family," and she later joined Mr. Alberts in his frequent charity appearances.
"He knew where his success came from - it came from the people," said Gerry Wilkinson, a historian with the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia. "The people loved him."
Steven Sacks, Mr. Alberts' longtime cameraman, said: "He had a way with children. If they didn't get something right, he would ask them over and over again."
W. Carter Merbreier, TV's Captain Noah, said Mr. Alberts "took great delight in any of them bridging the gap from his show to national fame. He could have made a business career out of squeezing them dry, but he didn't. He was behind them the whole way."
Mr. Alberts told an interviewer in 1985: "I have never gotten to the point during an audition where I said, 'OK, kid, that's enough.' I let them have their three minutes in the sun."
Mr. Alberts' own career began before World War II as a piano player and singer on The Horn & Hardart Children's Hour, a radio show.
He was born Al Albertini on Aug. 10, 1922. He was graduated from South Philadelphia High. Shortly after the war, Mr. Alberts, his Navy buddy Dave Mahoney, Sod Vaccaro and Lou Silvestri formed the Four Aces, who first performed in a Prospect Park milk bar downstairs from a bookie joint.
Their first hit single was called "It's No Sin" and was aimed at Delaware County college students before they left for summer vacation. Released on the group's own label, it sold more than a million copies.
"All the boy bands [today] call upon that tight harmony," McArdle said.
In 1958, with rock and roll crashing in on the Aces' style, Mr. Alberts left the Aces and toured as a solo act for 10 years. The group later lost the rights to the Four Aces name in a federal court decision.
"If he did miss being a big star, he didn't show it," said Sacks, the cameraman. "He loved being around Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Every once in a while, he did a nightclub act. That kept him fulfilled. . . . I think he chose this the way he wanted. He could have been on the road 10 times more, but that's not what he wanted."
The Albertses retired at the end of 1999 and moved to Florida shortly after. Even after his retirement, Mr. Alberts had a way of bubbling into the regional consciousness. Each year as Memorial Day approaches, Mr. Alberts' ditty "On the Way to Cape May" draws hundreds of requests, said Ross Brittain, who hosts the morning show on classic-hits WOGL (98.1): "It's the traditional summer song."
After Mr. Alberts left Channel 6, he also produced Harmony, a weekly big-band radio show.
Besides his wife and son, Mr. Alberts is survived by son Al Jr. and a grandson.
Stella Alberts said a memorial would be held in Florida at a later date. She said her husband's ashes would be scattered at sea.