Dick Clark, ‘American Bandstand’ TV Show Host, Dies at 82

Dick Clark, ‘Bandstand’ Host, Television Producer
TV personality Dick Clark attends the 37th Annual Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards in Las Vegas, on June 27, 2010. Photographer: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ATI

Dick Clark, the television impresario and host of the “American Bandstand” rock ‘n’ roll dance show whose permanently boyish looks earned him the nickname “the oldest living teenager,” has died. He was 82.

He died today of a heart attack, according to a statement released by his agent, Paul Shefrin. Clark had entered St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, last night for an outpatient procedure, the statement said. In 2004, he suffered a stroke that impaired his speech and movement.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, “American Bandstand” had an impact on popular culture on par with today’s “American Idol.” Local Philadelphia-area teens who danced on the program became national celebrities; songs they said had “a good beat” during the “Rate-a-Record” segment shot up the pop charts.

“He pretty much invented teenagers as a social unit, and when he plugged a song on ‘Bandstand,’ the record was more than likely to go gold,” People magazine wrote in 1989.

Clark’s clean-cut appearance and strict dress code for “Bandstand” -- jackets and ties for boys, skirts and no tight tops for girls -- helped make rock ‘n’ roll music acceptable to middle America. He was also daring: His insistence on allowing black couples to dance alongside whites gave U.S. viewers one of the first mainstream images of ethnic diversity.

During the show’s 30-year run on ABC, Clark interviewed more than 10,000 guests and showcased artists from Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chubby Checker to the Doors, Madonna and Prince. He almost single-handedly made stars of Bobby Darin, Connie Francis and Neil Sedaka.

Dick Clark Productions

Behind the scenes, Clark was one of the savviest entrepreneurs in television history. Founded in 1957, Dick Clark Productions Inc. created “The Golden Globes,” “The American Music Awards,” “The Academy of Country Music Awards,” “‘Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” the “Bloopers” franchise and “The $10,000 Pyramid” game show and its many spinoffs.

At one point in the 1980s, Clark was hosting shows on all three major networks and in syndication.

He bristled when critics attacked the low-brow appeal of his 1980s specials such as “Hollywood’s Private Home Movies” and “Superstars and Their Moms.” He always maintained that his job was to give viewers what they want.

Clark’s squeaky-clean image received a blemish in 1959 when the U.S. government investigated a possible conflict of interest between his broadcasting career and his investments in publishing and recording companies. He was forced to testify before Congress during its probe into payola, the then-widespread practice of paying disc jockeys to play songs.

‘Witch Hunt’

Clark admitted to accepting jewelry and a fur from a record company. Though he wasn’t found to have done anything illegal, ABC executives handed him an ultimatum: sell his outside interests or leave “Bandstand.” Clark chose to divest his publishing and recording holdings. He later referred to that period as a “huge, trumped-up witch hunt.”

After watching Clark ring in the New Year for more than 30 years, viewers were stunned in December 2004 when a stroke forced him to miss the annual telecast. A year later, Clark was back on the air, counting down to 2006 as the ball dropped in Times Square.

“This is just the happiest time of my life,” he said on the air that night. “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 fight. My speech is not perfect, but I’m getting there.”

Inspiration to Others

Some viewers found it disconcerting to see the handsome host in an impaired state. Others, especially stroke victims, lauded his courage and called him an inspiration. Clark continued co-hosting New Year’s telecasts along with Ryan Seacrest, who did most of the talking.

“I do the best I can and have been encouraged to continue because I hear it serves to inspire many others,” Clark told USA Today just before the 2010 celebration.

Via e-mail, he told the New York Times before what would be his final celebration at the dawn of 2012 that for many viewers, it’s “comforting to see a familiar face who has been there for the past 40 years.”

Among many awards during a half-century on the air, Clark was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. He was given a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994 in addition to four other Emmys.

A tribute at the 2010 Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony featuring Checker, Tony Orlando and Marie Osmond brought Clark to tears. In videotaped remarks, longtime “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell said, “Without Bandstand, without Dick, there would be no ‘American Idol.’”

Brother Killed

Richard Wagstaff Clark was born on Nov. 30, 1929, the second son of Richard Augustus and Julia Barnard Clark, in Bronxville, a small village north of New York City. His father was a sales manager for a New York-based cosmetics firm. In 1933, the family moved to nearby Mount Vernon.

Clark’s older brother, Brad, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, was shot down and killed during the Battle of the Bulge. He was 20.

Clark became interested in radio after his parents took him to New York to watch a live broadcast of the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore show. Fascinated by the performers and the behind-the-scenes activity in the control room, he decided to pursue a career in radio.

Mailroom Start

He got his start in 1947 when his father hired him for a mailroom job at WRUN, an ABC-affiliated radio station in Utica, New York. Clark’s uncle, Bradley Barnard, owned the station and had hired Clark’s father away from the cosmetics business to be promotions manager.

Clark attended Syracuse University, where he worked as a disc jockey and newscaster at the campus radio station. He also landed a job at WOLF, a Syracuse station, hosting a country music show.

After graduating in 1951 with a degree in business administration, Clark returned to Utica to take a summer job at WRUN.

As Dick Clay -- he changed his name to distinguish himself from his father -- he was hired by television station WKTV in Utica, where he emceed a country music program called “Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders,” which became the training ground for his later work on “Bandstand.”

With help from his father, Clark landed a job at radio station WFIL in Philadelphia, where -- now back to using his real name -- he hosted “Dick Clark’s Caravan of Music.” WFIL’s sister television station carried an afternoon teen dance show called “Bandstand” that was hosted by Bob Horn. After Horn was arrested for drunken driving in 1956, Clark replaced him.

Clean-Cut Image

“Clark’s clean-cut boy-next-door image seemed to offset any unsavory fallout from Horn’s arrest, because the show increased in popularity,” according to a history of the show provided by the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Clark persuaded ABC network executives to include the show in its national lineup. The newly renamed “American Bandstand” made its debut on Aug. 5, 1957, becoming one of the first locally originated shows to be broadcast nationally. Within months, the show, which led into ABC’s “Mickey Mouse Club,” was the top-rated daytime program in the U.S.

Performers on “Bandstand” would lip-synch the words to their latest songs. Teens would rate the latest records -- “I like the beat” became a catchphrase -- and local dancers like Bob and Justine or Kenny and Arlene became national stars.

‘Original Reality Show’

“It was the original reality show,” Clark told CNN’s Larry King in 2004.

The show ran on weekdays through 1963, when ABC switched to a weekly broadcast on Saturdays. The next year Clark moved the program to Los Angeles, which gave him closer access to the recording industry and an opportunity to develop other shows. Clark’s dress code eventually gave way to the fashion styles of the 1970s.

In 1972, he hosted the first “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special from Times Square, providing a youthful contrast to the annual broadcasts of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. The following year, he started his first game show, “The $10,000 Pyramid,” which ran in various incarnations until 1989.

With the rise of cable channels MTV and VH-1 in the 1980s, “American Bandstand” fell out of fashion. ABC canceled it in 1987, though Clark continued to produce it for syndication and later the USA Network until 1989.

Clark’s production company was sold for $175 million in June 2007 to Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins football team. The deal included Clark’s shows as well as his vast library of musical performances.

Clark and Barbara Mallery married in 1952 and had a son, Richard, before divorcing in 1962. Clark and his second wife, Loretta Martin, had two children, Duane and Cindy. That marriage also ended in divorce. He married his third wife, Kari Wigton, in 1977.

Clark found a decidedly adult way to make sure there would never be another “oldest living teenager.” He trademarked the nickname.

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