Dick Clark; built show business empire with ‘Bandstand,’ ‘New Year’s Rockin’ Eve’
Dick Clark, whose unwrinkled longevity as host of “American Bandstand’’ earned him the nickname “America’s Oldest Living Teenager’’ and whose shrewd business sense earned him millions as an entertainment mogul, died Wednesday at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 82.
Paul Shefrin, Mr. Clark’s agent, said the cause of death was “a massive heart attack.’’
There was much more to Mr. Clark’s success than “Bandstand.’’ He became a minor show business institution, at once pervasive and ephemeral: hosting game shows and the annual “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve’’ broadcast, producing films and television series, appearing in commercials, and promoting concerts. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff once hailed him as “the McDonald’s of television.’’
“I was an entrepreneur,’’ Mr. Clark said in a 1992 interview on the Nashville Network. “I used every single opportunity I could to make money. I managed artists. I pressed records. I did tours, I owned labels. I did everything I could think of to turn a dollar.’’
Although a stroke in 2004 slowed Mr. Clark, he eventually returned to the New Year’s Eve broadcast, solidifying his reputation as the rock era’s Guy Lombardo. Ryan Seacrest, Mr. Clark’s younger counterpart in many ways, handled most of the hosting duties, with Mr. Clark taking care of the year-end countdown.
“I idolized him from the start, and I was graced early on in my career with his generous advice and counsel,’’ Seacrest said in a statement Wednesday. “He was a remarkable host and businessman and left a rich legacy to television audiences around the world. We will all miss him.’’
Mr. Clark is the only person to have shows simultaneously running on three networks. In 1984, he hosted “Bloopers, Commercials, and Practical Jokes’’ on NBC, “The New $25,000 Pyramid’’ on CBS, and “Bandstand’’ on ABC.
“Bandstand’’ was Mr. Clark’s special claim to fame. At the beginning of rock ’n’ roll, when the idea of something like MTV was unimaginable, there was “American Bandstand.’’ Mr. Clark hosted the show from 1956 to 1989. Chuck Berry paid tribute to the show in “Sweet Little Sixteen’’: “Cause they’ll be rockin’ on ‘Bandstand’/In Philadelphia, P.A.’’ (the show originally broadcast from there).
Teenagers danced while singers lip-synched their latest release. Between songs, Mr. Clark interviewed members of the studio audience, who rated the records.
The format was simple, the impact great. If Elvis Presley appearing on the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows was the great beachhead in the rock ’n’ roll invasion, it was “Bandstand’’ that helped secure the conquest of young America’s ears. Five afternoons a week rock ’n’ roll was there for the listening under the aegis of Mr. Clark. Eventually, the show cut back to one broadcast a week, on Saturdays.
Mr. Clark served as middle man between middle America and rock ’n’ roll. His clean-cut amiability provided cover for a music that many adults considered unsavory or even subversive. Mr. Clark’s well-scrubbed image was “150 percent deliberate and well thought out,’’ he said in 1990 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Never hip, never cutting edge, he was safe and reassuring - and, as such, indispensable. He was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1993.
Of course, Mr. Clark’s advocacy owed more to profits than proselytizing. He was first and foremost a businessman. “I don’t make culture,’’ he liked to say, “I sell it.’’ Not that good artistic sense can’t also be good business sense: Among performers who made their national television debut on “American Bandstand’’ were Berry, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Talking Heads, and Madonna.
In 1960, Mr. Clark’s profit-seeking nearly ended his career. He was called to testify before a congressional committee investigating the payola scandal, which involved record companies paying radio announcers to play their songs.
It was revealed that Mr. Clark partly owned two record companies, an artists management firm, and two music publishers. Mr. Clark conceded that he had a financial interest in 27 percent of the records performed on “Bandstand’’ over a 28-month period, but he denied having ever taking payments in return for playing records.
Mr. Clark’s squeaky-clean image was smudged, but that was all. He sold his music-related holdings, at ABC’s behest, and took up where he had left off. Continuing to host “Bandstand,’’ he began to pursue opportunities in film and television production. He even acted in several films, including “The Young Doctors’’ (1961) and “The Savage Seven’’ (1968).
Richard Wagstaff Clark was born in Bronxville, N.Y., the son of Richard A. Clark and Julia (Barnard) Clark. Mr. Clark’s father worked as a middle manager in a cosmetics firm. Later, he would become a radio executive in Utica, N.Y. - a job switch that would benefit his son.
Mr. Clark’s high school classmates voted him “Man Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge.’’ After graduating from Syracuse University in 1951, he went to work as a summer-replacement announcer at his father’s radio station. He soon shifted to the city’s one television station, then got an announcing job at Philadelphia radio station WFIL.
That it was that station, and in that city, proved crucial. WFIL also had a television outlet, which shortly after Mr. Clark’s arrival began broadcasting an afternoon show called “Bandstand.’’ When that show’s host was fired, in 1956, Mr. Clark got the job.
Phil Spector, the legendary rock producer, once described Philadelphia during that time as “the most insane, most dynamic, the most beautiful city in the history of rock ’n’ roll.’’ Proponents of Memphis or Liverpool might disagree. Even so, Philadelphia provided an almost-perfect setting for a show like “Bandstand.’’ Its population was large enough to generate significant new musical trends, and its predominant ethnic groups, Italians and African-Americans, made it likely that many of those trends - such as doo-wop and R&B - would prove popular. Its proximity to the nation’s media capital, New York, made it easily available to touring national acts.
In his memoirs, “Rock, Roll & Remember,’’ Mr. Clark said he had “only a foggy notion of what the kids, music, and show were really about’’ when he became the host of “Bandstand.’’ Mr. Clark caught on soon enough, and within a year the show was being broadcast nationally as “American Bandstand.’’ Mr. Clark wasn’t the only one who needed to catch on. When the show was first proposed to ABC, an executive said, “I hesitate to put on this show because it’s just kids dancing!’’
In 1964, Mr. Clark moved “Bandstand’’ to Los Angeles and formed Dick Clark Productions.
The ’60s were hard on the show. Mr. Clark’s being so squarely in the mainstream ceased to be an asset. When the Doors appeared on “Bandstand’’ (their network debut), Mr. Clark wanted Jim Morrison to wear a tie.
The rise of disco, with its emphasis on dancing, gave “Bandstand’’ a boost in the ’70s. It also inspired the show’s most successful imitator, “Soul Train.’’
“We’ve always realized that we were doing ‘American Bandstand,’ ’’ Don Cornelius, the show’s creator and longtime host who died in February, told The New York Times in 1995.
That year, Mr. Clark gave his original “Bandstand’’ podium to the Smithsonian Institution. The original “Bandstand’’ studio, in Philadelphia, had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Mr. Clark leaves his wife, Kari (Wigton) Clark; a son from his first marriage, Richard; and a son, Duane, and daughter, Cindy, from his second marriage.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.