By Lynn Elber
ABOVE PHOTO: In this undated publicity photo from ABC, Dick Clark brings in the New Year from New York’s Times Square. Clark died last Wednesday, April 18, 2012 of a massive heart attack. He was 82.
(AP Photo/ABC, Donna Svennevik, File)
LOS ANGELES — Dick Clark stood as an avatar of rock ‘n’ roll virtually from its birth and, until his death Wednesday at age 82, as a cultural touchstone for boomers and their grandkids alike.
His identity as “the world’s oldest teenager” became strained in recent years, as time and infirmity caught up with his enduring boyishness. But he owned New Year’s Eve after four decades hosting his annual telecast on ABC from Times Square. And as a producer and entertainment entrepreneur, he was a media titan: his Dick Clark Productions supplied movies, game shows, beauty contests and more to TV, and, for a time in the 1980s, he boasted programs on all three networks.
Equally comfortable chatting about music with Sam Cooke or bantering with Ed McMahon on TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes, Clark was listed among the Forbes 400 of wealthiest Americans. Clark, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at a Santa Monica hospital, also was part of radio as partner in the United Stations Radio Network, which provided programs — including Clark’s — to thousands of stations.
“There’s hardly any segment of the population that doesn’t see what I do,” Clark told The Associated Press in a 1985 interview. “It can be embarrassing. People come up to me and say, ‘I love your show,’ and I have no idea which one they’re talking about.”
One of his later TV projects, American Dreams, served as a fitting weekly tribute to Clark’s impact. Airing from 2002 to 2005, this NBC drama centered on a Philadelphia family in the early 1960s and, in particular, on 15-year-old Meg, who, through a quirk of fate, found her way onto the set of Clark’s teen dance show, American Bandstand.
The nostalgic American Dreams depicted a musical revolution, which Clark so reassuringly helped usher in against the backdrop of a nation in turmoil. While never a hit, the series was embraced by older viewers as a warm souvenir of the era that spawned Clark, and as an affectionate history lesson for their children and grandchildren.
President Barack Obama noted the nostalgia. “More important than his groundbreaking achievements was the way he made us feel — as young and vibrant and optimistic as he was,” Obama said in a statement.
Clark bridged the rebellious new music scene and traditional show business. He defended pop artists and artistic freedom, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said in an online biography of the 1993 inductee. He helped give black artists their due by playing original R&B recordings instead of cover versions by white performers, and he condemned censorship.
He joined American Bandstand in 1956 after Bob Horn, who’d been the host since its 1952 debut, was fired. A year later, Clark integrated the show with black dancers.
“It still wasn’t acceptable for them to dance with white kids, so the blacks just danced with each other. We were waiting for the explosion, but it never happened,” Clark told Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine in 1998. “The wonderful part about our decision to integrate then was that there were no repercussions, no reverberations, no battles at all — it just happened right there on a television screen in front of millions of people.”
Under Clark’s guidance, “Bandstand” went from a local Philadelphia show to a national phenomenon, introducing stars from Buddy Holly to Madonna. It was one of network TV’s longest-running series as part of ABC’s daytime lineup from 1957 to 1987.
“I played records, the kids danced, and America watched,” was how Clark once described the series’ simplicity. In his 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry sang that “they’ll be rocking on Bandstand, Philadelphia, P-A.”
As a host, Clark had the smooth delivery of a seasoned radio announcer. As a producer, he had an ear for a hit record. He also knew how to make wary adults welcome this odd new breed of music in their homes.
Clark endured accusations that he was in with the squares, with critic Lester Bangs defining Bandstand as “a leggily acceptable euphemism of the teenage experience.” In the 1985 interview, Clark acknowledged the complaints. “But I knew at the time that if we didn’t make the presentation to the older generation palatable, it could kill it.
“So along with Little Richard and Chuck Berry and the Platters and the Crows and the Jayhawks … the boys wore coats and ties and the girls combed their hair and they all looked like sweet little kids into a high school dance,” he said.
PHOTO: Dick Clark, executive producer of the “American Music Award” telecast (right), goes over production notes with singer Teddy Pendergrass during rehearsal Saturday at the Shirne Auditorium in Los Angeles, January 25, 1986.
Clark suffered a stroke in 2004 that affected his ability to speak and walk. That year, he missed his annual appearance on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”
He returned the following year and, although his speech at times was difficult to understand, many praised his bravery, including other stroke victims.
“I’m just thankful I’m still able to enjoy this once-a-year treat,” he told The Associated Press by email in December 2008 as another New Year’s Eve approached.
Ryan Seacrest, who subsequently took over main hosting duties on the countdown show from Clark, said in a statement Wednesday that he was “deeply saddened.”
“I idolized him from the start,” Seacrest said. “He was a remarkable host and businessman and left a rich legacy to television audiences around the world.”
Record executive Clive Davis called Clark “a true pioneer who revolutionized the way we listened to and consumed music. For me he ranks right up there with the giants of our business.”
Friends on Wednesday recalled a patient, encouraging man. “He was there for every crisis of my life and there were many,” Connie Francis said in statement. “Without Dick Clark there would have been no career because I was ready to abandon it. Dick was the most principled man I ever met in this business and treated everyone the same way, even if you were the little guy.”
Said Pat Boone: “Careers grew because of Dick Clark.”
Clark was honored at the Emmy Awards in 2006, telling the crowd: “I have accomplished my childhood dream, to be in show business. Everybody should be so lucky to have their dreams come true. I’ve been truly blessed.”
He was born Richard Wagstaff Clark in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1929. His father, Richard Augustus Clark, was a sales manager who worked in radio.
Clark began his career in the mailroom of a Utica, N.Y., radio station in 1945. By age 26, he was a broadcasting veteran, with nine years’ experience on radio and TV stations in Syracuse and Utica, N.Y., and Philadelphia. He held a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University. While in Philadelphia, Clark befriended McMahon, who later credited Clark for introducing him to his future “Tonight Show” boss, Johnny Carson.
Clark kept more than records spinning with his Dick Clark Productions. Its credits included the Academy of Country Music and Golden Globe awards; TV movies including the Emmy-winning “The Woman Who Willed a Miracle” (1984), the “$25,000 Pyramid” game show and the 1985 film “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” Clark himself made a cameo on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and a dramatic appearance as a witness on the original “Perry Mason.”
In 1974, at ABC’s request, Clark created the American Music Awards after the network lost the broadcast rights to the Grammy Awards.
He was also an author, with “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand” and such self-help books as “Dick Clark’s Program for Success in Your Business and Personal Life” and “Looking Great, Staying Young.”
His unchanging looks inspired a joke in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” the 1986 comedy starring Kathleen Turner as an unhappy wife and mother transported back to 1960. Watching Clark on a black-and-white TV set, she shakes her head in amazement, “Look at that man, he never ages.”
He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1994 and served as spokesman for the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
Clark, twice divorced, had a son, Richard Augustus II, with first wife Barbara Mallery and two children, Duane and Cindy, with second wife Loretta Martin. He married Kari Wigton in 1977.