Live From New York, And on the Mend

He's back: A recuperating Dick Clark poses with Mariah Carey in Times Square on
He's back: A recuperating Dick Clark poses with Mariah Carey in Times Square on "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2006." (By Heidi Gutman -- Abc Via Getty Images)
By Tom Shales
Monday, January 2, 2006

Viewers who tuned in ABC's coverage of the annual New Year's Eve ceremony from Times Square on Saturday may well have been hoping the famous giant ball was the only thing that would drop before the night was over.

Dick Clark, longtime host and co-producer of the event, looked seriously debilitated during several much-ballyhooed but extremely brief appearances scattered throughout the show. Clark, 76, suffered a stroke late in 2004 and missed that year's broadcast but, in a gesture likely to strike some observers as courageous and others as morbid, he vowed to go to New York and preside over Saturday night's telecast, "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2006."

Clark, whose life in television began in the 1950s, has built a career on boyish agelessness, or at least the appearance of it. But New Year's Eve he was seen seated behind a desk, immobile, with no close-ups allowed. Virtually his only movement occurred during a poignant moment when his wife swooped in to give him a "Happy New Year" kiss just after midnight.

In a photograph published Thursday by the New York Post, Clark was seen walking with a cane, his facial features somewhat distorted. The picture accompanied a story headlined "Sick Dick's Fight," in which reporter Bill Hoffmann wrote that while Clark "has to struggle to move his body, and his efforts are full of aches and pains," he was "completely unfazed about the world seeing him in this frail condition."

Clark's voice was also affected by the stroke, a fact he acknowledged to viewers when he finally appeared on the air shortly after 11:30. "Last year I had a stroke. I was in bad shape," Clark said. "My speech is not perfect, but I'm getting there." Clark was on camera for a mere 26 seconds when the director abruptly cut to shots of the Times Square crowd as it huddled against the cold and waited for midnight to strike.

Most of the actual hosting chores on ABC were handled by Ryan Seacrest, emcee of the Fox network's popular "American Idol" series. Oddly or not, and perhaps sensing ABC's competitive vulnerability (last year's "Rockin' Eve" ratings were down), Fox mounted its own Times Square show this year with Regis Philbin as the buoyant, bouncing host. Philbin's daily talk show is produced by the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, and it appears on ABC affiliates in major markets that include Washington and New York. It was as if on this New Year's Eve, auld acquaintances were forgot, or at least suspended.

Clark's return to "Rockin' Eve" was promoted as if he were going to make his entrance aboard a chariot of fire, or perhaps balancing the legendary 1,070-pound crystal ball on his head. Seacrest made repeated references to the Great Event during a companion prime-time special that aired from 10 to 11 p.m., promising viewers "the return of Mr. New Year's Eve himself, Dick Clark!" But Clark didn't appear until the 11:30 portion of the show, which aired after local 11 o'clock newscasts.

ABC filled up the prime-time hour with recorded performances by pop stars including Green Day, Bon Jovi and the elderly Neil Diamond. Naturally, this being a Disney production, there were also perfunctory and obligatory remote pickups from the Disney theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined Seacrest to open the 11:30 telecast, declaring that "it just would not be New Year's Eve without Dick Clark." Many of those watching were too young to remember, but during television's earlier days, the performer most identified with New Year's Eve was bandleader Guy Lombardo, who conducted an orchestra called the Royal Canadians. Each year at midnight on Dec. 31, Lombardo would lead his band in a sentimental rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" as the chimes rang out.

Lombardo once jokingly appeared on NBC's hit comedy series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" to declare into the camera, "My name is Guy Lombardo, and when I go, I'm taking New Year's Eve with me."

For the record, Clark hasn't made any such threats himself, not even in a similar spoofing spirit.

During a six-second on-screen appearance about 20 minutes before midnight, Clark told ABC viewers that this year's telecast was historic in another way. It would feature "the first live music performance in Times Square in 34 years." Because of the cold and the tsunami of noise, the venue is hardly ideal for even the loudest of rock bands or rap acts.

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