R.I.P. Dick Clark
Dick Clark—the venerable broadcaster, American Bandstand host, and television icon whose unflappable youthful enthusiasm carried him through several decades of entertainment and earned him the sobriquet, "America's Oldest Teenager"—has died, according to numerous news sources. Clark reportedly suffered a massive heart attack this morning and died at the age of 82.
For many generations of Americans, Dick Clark was the consummate idea of a “host,” his unfailingly upbeat persona and effortlessly gregarious way of engaging with people of all ages long serving as the exemplar for TV presenters. Most people knew him first and foremost from American Bandstand, the afternoon record hop in which teenagers shimmied to the latest singles, then ranked them according to Clark’s influential “Rate-A-Record” segment. Clark came to the program after serving several years as a disc jockey in Philadelphia, taking over for fired and disgraced host Bob Horn, who left amid drunk driving and prostitution scandals. The station was looking for someone more clean-cut to replace Horn, and they certainly got it in Clark: The man radiated Brylcreemed goodness, yet his ability to get down with the kids and talk to them about the groovy rock ’n’ roll they were digging never came off as patronizing—the key to any host’s success.
Over the course of the next three decades, Clark and Bandstand became a regular living room presence, tracking the shifting evolution of popular music from Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis to Madonna and Run DMC, with its one invariable being Clark, whose gradually lengthening hair and widening collars were the only hints that time was similarly passing for him. As Clark liked to say, the show played host to just about every important musical artist of the 20th century with the notable exception of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley—though even Elvis kept in touch, calling in for telephone interviews during his Army stint and even dropping the show a Christmas card.
But it wasn’t just the music: American Bandstand was the launching pad for most of the popular dances of the day, introducing teens everywhere to the Watusi and the Twist, then turning them into national crazes that inspired their own sub-genres of songs. And as Clark also liked to point out, the sight of a stage full of teens of all colors, twisting together in harmony, heralded the dawning of a new era of racial equality. Though others have since downplayed that claim, there’s no question that Clark’s musical taste was colorblind, and he would go on to make even greater efforts to tap into multicultural markets by producing the Buster Jones-hosted Soul Unlimited. (And while that series deepened a rift between Clark and Soul Train creator Don Cornelius, the two would later make amends and co-produce several specials featuring black artists.)
What Bandstand unquestionably did was foster the growth of rock ’n’ roll. It had the power to turn singles into genuine sensations, and it inspired kids in Everywhere, America to seek out the new sounds and new haircuts that pissed off their dads. It also helped Clark carve out his own corner of the music industry: Clark began investing in record labels and publishing as early as the 1950s—though he deftly sidestepped the payola scandal by divesting once investigations began—while also finding fame as the host of myriad Top 40 countdown radio shows, beginning with 1963’s ahead-of-its-time early experiment in syndication, The Dick Clark Radio Show, continuing through his famous “Rock, Roll & Remember” oldies program from 1982 through 2004, and eventually leading to hosting and producing shows on his very own radio syndication group, Unistar. For over half a century, Clark’s voice could be heard introducing the songs of today and yesteryear on some medium, the ever-with-it uncle of pop.
But of course, it was television where Clark truly dominated, a reign that, for several years in the 1980s, saw him hosting three top-rated shows across all of the major networks: ABC’s American Bandstand, CBS’s Pyramid, and NBC’s TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes. Second only to Bandstand, Pyramid was Clark’s longest gig, taking over as host of The $10,000 Pyramid in 1973 and sticking with the celeb-aided word association game through several of its inflation-aided incarnations, including The $20,000 Pyramid, The New $25,000 Pyramid, and The $100,000 Pyramid. And even on versions not hosted by Clark, he served as sort of a benevolent overseer, lending hosts Bill Cullen, John Davidson, and Donny Osmond support by appearing as a celebrity guest or taping pre-recorded videos offering his well wishes.
Bloopers teamed Clark with Ed McMahon, a longtime associate from his Philadelphia broadcasting days (and according to McMahon, it was Clark who first put him and Johnny Carson together). The show was a pairing of Clark’s successful TV’s Censored Bloopers special and McMahon’s Television’s Greatest Commercials special, with the two uniting in 1984 to present an even more successful weekly round-up of goofy ads and pranks pulled on unsuspecting celebrities, supplemented with man-on-the-street interviews conducted by the likes of David Letterman and Robert Klein, while Clark and McMahon played out a lightly teasing faux-rivalry on stage. The show, believe it or not, is still going: Clark continued to produce some version of Bloopers specials through 2004, while a full-on revival is scheduled for this fall.
And of course, for most TV-watching Americans, there hasn’t been a New Year’s without Dick Clark since about 1972. That was the year Clark first launched Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, a special that has become as indelibly identified with December 31 as the Times Square ball drop (which the show helped introduce to the country at large) and timing your drinking so you don’t pass out before Clark does his countdown. Clark presided over that holiday to ring in every year until 2004, when a stroke left him unable to walk or talk. But the ever-indomitable Clark was right back out there in 2005, co-hosting alongside his heir apparent (and self-proclaimed acolyte) Ryan Seacrest for every Dec. 31 thereafter through 2011, his speech slightly slurred and his face visibly aged, yet still determined to remain Rockin’ Eve’s rocksteady constant.
That sheer will to stay on the air at all costs—not to mention his mysteriously youthful looks, which were the subject of years of jokes about his being immortal (or sometimes, in league with the Devil)—it sort of makes the news of Clark’s death hard to believe. But Clark actually did achieve immortality, not only through his own media mogul legacy, but in the vast number of things there are with his name on them. There are and will likely continue to be scores of TV shows stretching back to 1957 stamped with the familiar Dick Clark Productions logo, ranging from the American Music Awards (which Clark created) to So You Think You Can Dance. Meanwhile, his chain of music-themed restaurants, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, has locations scattered all across the country, while his eternally smiling face adorns scads of CD oldies collections.
And of course, there’s the incredible mass of hours and hours that Clark himself was on the air—approximately 7,500 hours, according to the Museum Of Broadcast Communications, an impressive tenure that also included hosting game shows like The Challengers and Scattergories, co-hosting the short-lived View competitor The Other Half, and popping up (often as himself) in shows like Perry Mason, Dharma And Greg, The Simpsons, and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. Throughout all those years and across untold numbers of stages, Clark remained a reassuringly stable presence in American lives, the promise that you would see him again very soon embodied in his signature sign-off, “For now, Dick Clark… so long.” This goodbye is, sadly, much more permanent.