Dick Clark, host of ‘American Bandstand,’ dies at 82
By Becky Krystal,
Dick Clark, a television host and entrepreneur who sold rock-and-roll to Middle America on the dance show “American Bandstand” and counted down the new year with millions of TV viewers as emcee of an annual celebration in New York’s Times Square, died April 18 at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., after a heart attack. He was 82.
The death was confirmed by his publicist, Paul Shefrin.
The seemingly ageless Mr. Clark, with his wholesome appearance and ever-present grin, was promoted as “America’s oldest teenager” and was among the most powerful arbiters of pop-music taste for 35 years.
He was regarded as a man with an unerring sense of what Americans wanted to hear and see, and he achieved his greatest renown for an ability to connect with the tastes of the post-World War II baby-boom generation.
From 1952 to 1987, Mr. Clark hosted various incarnations of “American Bandstand,” first over the radio in Philadelphia and later on national television. The program was a sensation because of the prominent role it gave teenagers — who were always shown clean-cut in jackets, ties and sweaters — to vote on their favorite song.
Record industry executives paid attention to the young tastemakers, who were not always perfect in their judgment. The teens in 1963 had given the Beatles a thumbs down for “She Loves You” and their mop-top hairdos.
By the show’s 30th anniversary, almost 600,000 teenagers and 10,000 performers had appeared on the program. Among those to make early national appearances included Buddy Holly, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and Simon and Garfunkel. Dance crazes such as the Twist and the Watusi could be traced to the “Bandstand” studio.
“Dick Clark was significant in transforming the record business into an international industry,” read the citation in 1993 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The citation went on to say that “his weekly televised record hops — which predated MTV by 25 years — played an integral role in establishing rock-and-roll, keeping it alive and shaping its future.”
Although the citation called him affable and magnetic, critics were less kind. Washington Post TV writer Lawrence Laurent called him a bland mediocrity, adding that Mr. Clark “was final proof that one need not be handicapped by performing talent to succeed in television.”
After “American Bandstand” ended its run on ABC in 1987, Mr. Clark took it into syndication for two years and then handed it over to a new host, David Hirsch. It went off the air shortly thereafter.
Despite his prominence on camera, Mr. Clark said the vast majority of his work was done behind the scenes as a producer.
His self-titled production company was a force behind a slew of made-for-TV movies, beauty pageants, game shows and awards shows, including the American Music Awards and the Daytime Emmy and Golden Globe awards ceremonies. The private equity fund of Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder acquired Dick Clark Productions in 2007 for $175 million.
Dick Clark Productions provided ABC with the “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” TV spectacular every year since 1972. Mr. Clark had initially pitched the show as a hipper alternative to the long-standing broadcast tradition of airing Guy Lombardo’s big band playing “Auld Lang Syne” from New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Mr. Clark drew in audiences that inaugural year with performances by Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy, Al Green, and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Mr. Clark missed the 2004 show after a stroke, promoting TV personality Ryan Seacrest to serve as a co-host the next year. Mr. Clark continued his signature countdown of the final seconds before the clock struck midnight.
Richard Wagstaff Clark was born Nov. 30, 1929, in Mount Vernon, N.Y. As a teen, he staffed the mailroom of a Utica, N.Y., radio station where his father was a manager, and eventually became a weather announcer there. At his high school, he was class president and involved in the dramatics club. He was voted “Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge.”
He majored in advertising at Syracuse University, where he also worked at the campus radio station. Soon after graduating in 1951, he was hired by the Philadelphia station WFIL, which operated a radio and TV outlet.
Mr. Clark said his boyish looks led him to flop at reading “world-shaking news” on the TV station’s evening newscast. Nor was he a success while moonlighting in New York doing beer commercials on TV; the brewery owner balked because he looked like an underage drinker.
He wound up emceeing the radio version of WFIL’s televised “Bandstand” teen dance program. When Bob Horn, the host of the TV “Bandstand” program, was arrested on drunken driving in 1956, Mr. Clark, who had long eyed Horn’s job, became the replacement. Mr. Clark’s youthful, clean-cut image had finally enhanced his appeal.
He also was a married man, although his first and second marriages, to the former Barbara Mallery and Loretta Martin, respectively, ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, Kari Wigton, whom he married in 1977; a son from his first marriage; and two children from his second marriage.
Although various cities across the country had their own versions of a bandstand program, Mr. Clark persuaded ABC to pick up his Philadelphia-based show for national broadcast in 1957. ABC aired “American Bandstand” every weekday afternoon until 1963, when it moved to a Saturday afternoon slot.
Mr. Clark used the show to reap a fortune and launch his production career. “I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I did this solely to keep music alive,” he once told Rolling Stone magazine. He added that his chief goal was to “perpetuate my own career, first and foremost, and secondly the music.”
Mr. Clark’s influence helped bolster his business dealings in the music industry, making him a target of congressional skepticism looking into payola, or bribes, paid to disc jockeys in exchange for play over the airwaves. The payola scandal had already broken the career of DJ Alan Freed by the time a U.S. House committee turned its attention to Mr. Clark in 1959.
Mr. Clark, who owned partial rights to about 150 songs and had business links to recording companies and music publishers, said he would divest himself of such conflicts of interest. He also went before Congress in 1960. News reports of his testimony remarked on his trademark unflappable demeanor, frustrating representatives with his consistent denial of engaging in illegal activities.
Rep. Steven B. Derounian (R-N.Y.) replied, “You got no payola, but you got an awful lot of royola.”
Mr. Clark admitted to receiving royalty payments from a friend who recorded a hit song, as well as a ring, fur stole and necklace from a record manufacturer. But he avoided prosecution. One of his business partners admitted to accepting payola and resigned, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Clark was a millionaire by 30, describing himself as having an interest in 33 businesses, ranging from music publishers to, as the New York Times reported, an operation that made and sold a stuffed kitten for sale on “American Bandstand” called the Platter-Puss.
His other enterprises included the book “Dick Clark’s Easygoing Guide to Good Grooming” (1986) and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, his dance-show-themed restaurant.
Mr. Clark made an unplanned appearance in Michael Moore’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine” (2002) when the filmmaker tried to approach him about the restaurant’s alleged policy in Michigan of employing welfare-to-work mothers at low wages, in return for which the business received tax breaks.
Although he ordered a car door slammed in Moore’s face, Mr. Clark later said he felt unfairly “ambushed. . . . He puts a camera in my face and asks me about something I have nothing to do with. I don’t work in the restaurant.”
The sheer scope of his business ventures did not allow it. In addition to his musical programs, Mr. Clark also hosted “The $10,000 Pyramid” (later versions offered $20,000 and $25,000) and a series of “blooper” shows that featured everyday people in mildly embarrassing situations.
He sniffed at those who called his professional work trivial. “I am in a commercial business,” he once said. “What is wrong with giving people what they want, what they enjoy?”