Whether Dick Clark, who died this week, was hosting American Bandstand and asking the questions you’d want to ask of the latest recording artist for your favorite new song, being excited about New Year’s Eve or commenting on one of the inflationary incarnations of his game show The $10,000 Pyramid, he was always cordial—a real professional.
It all began, according to most of this yesterday’s voluminous obituaries, in Philadelphia, where he started hosting what becameAmerican Bandstand in 1957. His tenure there – the music and dance show ran on ABC until 1989, moving to Los Angeles in 1964 – parallels America’s post-industrial rise and fall in the late 20th century. His Bandstand reign took us through energetic rock-n-roll, racial integration and an end to “whites and coloreds” and what turned out to be a superficial post-war economic boom until just before the 1990s, which ushered in an era of rap, grunge, “people of color,” political correctness and cultural nihilism, political disunity and economic decline. Dick Clark kept doing his thing.
Besides being accessible, he was honest. I am too young to remember the early Bandstand years that my Baby Boomer friends recall with fondness, and frankly his annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was always a last resort in my home, but he was an underappreciated asset for both Bandstand and Pyramid. His rapport with teen-agers on Bandstand’s Rate-a-Record segment was marked by sharp comments, wry retorts to sullen teens and his congenial manner shouldn’t obscure what were keen insights and intelligent questions of artists. Top actors played the Pyramid game and he often engaged them about their performances, expressing sincere admiration for their work, accentuating the positive. In this sense, he was very American.
Perhaps Dick Clark was primarily a businessman, adopting the Andrew Carnegie model for vertical business integration across multiple platforms and profiting from his various ventures. As he reportedly told the New York Times in 1961, “I get enormous pleasure and excitement sitting in on conferences with accountants, tax experts and lawyers.” Clark started working in the mailroom of his father’s radio station at 17 and he went on to produce or have a hand in producing everything from scads of awards shows to the excellent television movie Elvis (1979) starring Kurt Russell, a TV special for singer Roberta Flack in 1973 and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Dick Clark was also a pioneer in racial integration. “We didn’t do it because we were do-gooders, or liberals,” he said, according to the Times. “It was just a thing we thought we ought to do.” His hero, he said, was Arthur Godfrey—and the admiration for the legendary broadcaster reflected Clark’s individualism. “I emulated him,” Clark said. “I loved him, I adored him, because he had the ability to communicate to one person who was listening or watching. Most people would say, in a stentorian voice, ‘Good evening, everyone.’ Everyone? Godfrey knew there was only one person listening at a time.”
My favorite moment was a few years ago when he returned to the New Year’s Eve broadcast after a seriously debilitating stroke, an act of courage that was ridiculed by TV’s cynics and malcontents who have unfortunately and gradually taken his place on television. Though I’d never been a fan of Dick Clark’s rockin’ eves, on that particular New Year’s Eve I wanted to stand up and cheer. Dick Clark, who made his living by being an attractive and articulate host, was parodied for being “America’s teen-ager” for being perpetually youthful, and died this week at 82, said to heck with it and went before millions of viewers exactly as he was.
That night, he told the viewer: “Last year I had a stroke. It left me in bad shape. I had to teach myself how to walk and talk again. It’s been a long, hard fight. My speech is not perfect but I’m getting there.” He added: “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
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