Dick Clark, 1929 – 2012

I don’t know what it was that I liked about Dick Clark, who died in Santa Monica, California, this morning, but I think it has something central to do with accessibility. Whether he was hosting American Bandstand on ABC and asking the questions you’d want to ask of the latest rock star or recording artist of your new favorite hit song, being happy about New Year’s Eve or reacting to some mistake or crucial error made on one of the inflationary incarnations of his game show The $10,000 Pyramid, Dick Clark, like his name, was always conveying openness. Access – to music, money won for clear thinking and spectacular performances – was his credo.

It all began, according to most of today’s voluminous obituaries, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he started hosting what became American Bandstand in 1957. His tenure there – the music and dance show ran on ABC until 1989, moving to Los Angeles, California in 1964 – parallels America’s post-industrial climax of the late 20th century. His Bandstand reign took us through energetic rock-n-roll, racial integration and an end to “whites and coloreds” and a superficial post-war economic boom until an abrupt end in the 1990s, which ushered in an era of rap, grunge, “people of color” political correctness and cultural nihilism, political disunity and economic hardship. Dick Clark kept doing his thing.

Besides being accessible, he was honest. I am too young to remember the early Bandstand years that my Baby Boomer friends recall with fondness, and frankly his annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was always a last resort in my home, but he was an underappreciated asset for both Bandstand and Pyramid. His rapport with teen-agers on Bandstand‘s Rate-a-Record segment was punctuated with sharp comments, wry retorts to sullen teens and his congenial manner shouldn’t obscure what were keen insights and intelligent questions of artists – top actors played on Pyramid and he often engaged them about their past and present performances, expressing sincere admiration for their works – and in this sense he was deeply influential in the culture.

Perhaps Dick Clark was primarily a businessman, adopting the Andrew Carnegie model for vertical business integration across multiple platforms and profiting from his various ventures. As he reportedly told the New York Times in 1961, “I get enormous pleasure and excitement sitting in on conferences with accountants, tax experts and lawyers.” I know firsthand that his Santa Monica screening room is one of the most cordial, friendly places to attend advance movie screenings; it bears the mark of his personal attention to detail. Clark started working in the mailroom of his father’s radio station at 17 and he went on to produce or have a hand in producing everything from scads of meaningless awards shows to Murder in Texas (1981) with Farrah Fawcett and Sam Elliott, director John Carpenter’s excellent television movie Elvis (1979) starring Kurt Russell, a 1973 TV special for singer Roberta Flack, The First Time Ever, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Dick Clark was a pioneer in racial integration. “We didn’t do it because we were do-gooders, or liberals,” he said, according to the Times. “It was just a thing we thought we ought to do.” His early broadcasting hero, he said, was Arthur Godfrey. “I emulated him,” Clark said. “I loved him, I adored him, because he had the ability to communicate to one person who was listening or watching. Most people would say, in a stentorian voice, ‘Good evening, everyone.’ Everyone? Godfrey knew there was only one person listening at a time.”

I think my favorite moment was a few years ago when he returned to the New Year’s Eve broadcast after a seriously debilitating stroke, an act of courage that was ridiculed by TV’s cynics and malcontents who unfortunately have taken his place on television. Though I’d never been a fan of his rockin’ eves, on that particular New Year’s Eve I wanted to stand up and cheer. Dick Clark, who made his living by being an attractive and articulate host, was parodied for being “America’s teen-ager” for being perpetually youthful, and died this morning at 82, said to hell with it and went before millions of viewers exactly as he was. That night, he told the viewer: “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, hard fight. My speech is not perfect but I’m getting there.” He added: “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

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