“California Dreams” may have been a hit 1990s sitcom, airing for four years on Saturday mornings on TNBC, but aside from a 2010 performance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” its cast has rarely come back together publicly in the almost 25 years since the band-within-the-show strummed its last note. But then came reboot and revival culture, and series stars Jennie Kwan and Kelly Packard got an idea for a reunion concert that Packard says became “our love project.”
As they tell it, Packard, who played bass player Tiffani Smith in the series, and co-star Kwan, who played vocalist Samantha “Sam” Woo, were at a concert for another popular 1990s entity when they saw the wild reaction of the crowd. Packard turned to Kwan to ask why they couldn’t do something similar. “I said, ‘We can, we just have to do it ourselves,’” Kwan tells Variety.
The result was a two-show, one-night only event held at Saved by the Max, the “Saved by the Bell” pop-up restaurant, in West Hollywood, Calif on Friday that celebrated the spirit — and of course the songs — of the classic youth programming.
“California Dreams” hailed from Peter Engel Prods. and NBC and originally starred Brent Gore and Heidi Lenhart as siblings who started a band with their high school friends played by Packard, Michael Cade and William James Jones. Although Gore and Lenhart’s vocals feature heavily on the soundtrack album released from the series, they both left the show before its end, opening the door for new band members Aaron Jackson, Diana Uribe, Jay Anthony Franke and Kwan.
For the reunion concert, Kwan and Packard recruited their old cast mates Cade, Jackson and Jones, but they also brought in special guests to be honorary members of the Dreams for the evening, including singer-songwriter Ryan Cabrera to act as front-man, Youngstown’s James Lee Dallas and actress-singer Ali Navarro. Franke, who played guitarist Jake Sommers, sent a video message since he could not be there in person.
The group went into the rehearsal studio the Wednesday before the show, and for many of them, they say it was like they had never left each other.
“I wanted to hang with my old friends,” Cade says. “It brought me back to 25 years ago. I felt like I was on set a couple of times. It was like time had not even passed. We’re kindred spirits for sure.”
In “California Dreams,” Cade played Sylvester “Sly” Winkle, the band’s manager, but for the reunion concert, he got his chance to be a rock star, too, performing a rare non-“Dreams” song: Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Cabrera also performed his hit single “On The Way Down,” but the rest of the set list were classics from the sitcom, including opening and closing with the theme song and quintessential numbers such as “Castles on Quicksand” and “One World.”
Because the full series is not available on DVD or a streaming service, Kwan “searched far and wide for all of the right songs on YouTube” and then spent time cutting them “so it would be a one-hour show that would be fit for the audience,” as well as creating special TV edits to play on a screen behind the band.
“Honestly it was root,” Jackson, who played keyboardist Mark Winkle, says of finding the sound again. “We lived these songs, so they’re in us. When we finished the show they gave us a CD of all of the songs, and for me, being across the country, that’s how I relearned them.”
Jackson may have flown a few thousand miles to be in California for the concert, but some of the fans flew from around the world. Cade and Jones say they met people during the pre-show meet and greet that came from as far as Germany. The audience also drew celebrity friends, such as “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” star Jonathan Angel.
“We’ve had so much love and support,” Kwan says of the process of putting together the event.
And for Jones, who played drummer Tony Wicks in the series, there was something extra special to celebrate: Aside from working alongside longtime friends, the day of the show was also the day he opened his new psychology practice.
“I have a different career going on right now, but this is a special part of my life,” he says. “It’s a sisterhood and a brotherhood so when the ladies called, I knew I had to make it happen.”
As for what’s next for the fictional band, Jackson says he hears from a lot of kids who are finding the show on places like YouTube and reaching out to say how much they enjoy it. While NBC has not quite come calling yet, Packard adds that the cast mates all now “see our vision” so “we’re all open to whatever is next.”