Dick Clark, who died April 18 from a heart attack at the age of 82, was a fixture of American pop culture for decades. We look back once again on his legacy, as he discussed with us in this American Profile cover story from 2004. —Neil Pond, Editor in Chief
As he’s done for 33 years, Dick Clark will board a plane this week, leaving his balmy beachfront surroundings in Malibu, Calif., for the cold streets of New York City.
Perhaps no living person is more closely associated with a national holiday than Dick Clark, whose Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC has become as much a New Year’s tradition in many homes as champagne and an off-key rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Although the show is in its third decade, it remains hotter than ever: Nearly 21 million people watched last year’s show, the third-largest audience ever.
"It never gets old because you never know what’s going on," says Clark, 75. "I get the headset on, and they’re screaming and yelling, ‘Do this! Do that!’ I don’t want to destroy the illusion, but it is not all that much fun for me.
"I’m working, trying to put pieces together and integrate things. You’ve got to pretty much be on your toes for that. I’ve been up since 5 or 6 a.m. I do hundreds of radio and television interviews all around."
Clark is hoping this New Year’s Eve broadcast is peaceful and uneventful, except of course, for what happens onstage. "I remember one year, we were going through the Iran hostage crisis, and the man who owned Number One Times Square from where we drop the ball had darkened the whole building and would not drop the ball," he says. "I had to go to him and plead, ‘For God’s sake, don’t do this. It will draw attention to the fact that there are hostages in Iran. You’re going to destroy people’s party. That’s only part of our world.’ I had him turn the lights down for a period of time and let me talk about it (on air)."
So why doesn’t Clark just hand the microphone to someone else and take the holiday week off? He says, "The fact that people will invite you to what is a special occasion in their lives, like a wedding, birthday or anniversary. It’s nice that this event belongs to everybody. To see somebody in June and have them say, ‘Hey! See you on New Year’s,’ is nice."
An ordinary childhood
As a child, Clark and his older brother, Brad, celebrated special occasions with their father, a cosmetics salesman, and their mother, a homemaker, in Bronxville (pop. 6,543) and Mount Vernon, N.Y. (pop. 68,543). "My parents were always very diligent and hard-working," he says. "It was an ordinary childhood—not rich, not poor. It was comfortable. I can remember saying to one of my principals, ‘If I can make $10,000 a year, I’ve got it made!’ And in those days, that was a comfortable life."
He got bit by the broadcasting bug at age 13, when his father took him to a live radio broadcast of Garry Moore and Jimmy Durante. "I just thought, ‘That looks like fun and I’d like to get involved in that somehow or another,’" he says. "I had no idea I’d ever stand in front of a microphone."
After Brad was killed in World War II when Clark was about 15, Clark’s father accepted a job managing a Utica, N.Y., radio station so that he could help his only surviving son achieve his broadcasting dreams. "I can remember my father saying to me at one point, ‘If you’re still a disc jockey when you’re 30, you need to find another line of work,’" Clark recalls. "He would find it amusing that now I’m in my 70s and I still do seven or eight hours a week of disc jockeying."
Clark, a Syracuse University graduate, landed his first broadcasting position in 1947 at WRUN in Utica and served as a TV newscaster on WKTV in Utica-Rome before moving to Philadelphia radio station WFIL in 1952. On July 9, 1956, Clark was named the new host of American Bandstand at WFIL-TV in Philadelphia.
The American Bandstand Era
The show, which was aired nationwide in 1957 and quickly became the nation’s highest-rated daytime show, provided a national TV debut for acts such as Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chubby Checker and Jackie Wilson.
"We had 10,000 musical performances on that show, so it would be very difficult to pinpoint one or two favorites," he says. "The two or three that occur to me all the time are when Michael Jackson took the microphone away from me or when Madonna was there and we heard how she was going to be a star. Also, the first time Barry Manilow appeared, and he made an impression. Then they go back to when Chuck Berry first appeared and said, ‘I’m gonna dance.’"
Clark was working seven days a week and was once on all three major TV networks in syndication simultaneously. "Most of my activity nowadays is backstage, which is the way I planned it when I was a kid. When I first got a good break doing Bandstand, I set up a corporation to be a production company, figuring that the on-air thing wouldn’t last long, and eventually if I wanted to stay around the business, be involved in the production process."
American Bandstand moved to California in 1964, where it remained until 1989, when the 59-year-old Clark stepped down as host, and the show was soon cancelled. Clark announced recently that Bandstand will return to television in September. It will still feature teenagers dancing, lip-synched performances and the rating of records, but it also will have a contemporary "reality" twist of revealing the dancers’ personal lives and allowing the audience to vote for their favorite couples. In addition, footage from the 1960s can now be seen on the NBC show American Dreams, which Clark co-produces.
Considered one of Hollywood’s most successful independent producers, dick clark productions is responsible for shows such as Bloopers, the American Music Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards and the Golden Globes. Clark’s wife, Kari, whom he married in 1977, works with him (and they bring their three dogs to the office every day); his son, RAC, produces the country awards show. Son Duane has directed or written shows such as CSI and Boston Public, and daughter Cindy is an independent producer and writer.
"I try to do things that ordinary people will like a lot," Clark says. "That’s basically my philosophy, and as a producer, I try to appeal to the widest stroke of audience."
Clark, who concedes that "work absorbs me," has no plans of retiring. "I’d love to keep doing what we’re doing," he says. "Hopefully, we’ll have a couple of new projects in the works and maybe a film. Possibly someday, I’d like to produce a Broadway show. I’ve tried a couple of times and failed, but I’ve had the opportunity of late to try that again."
Although Clark remains a cultural icon who is just as famous as the musical superstars he introduced to the nation decades ago, he’s too busy planning for the future to reminisce about his early years.
"I’m most proud of not only being around, but being able to maintain for so many years," he says. "It’s incredible. There are just a handful of people that you could point to who have been able to do that.
"People say to me now frequently, at least once or twice a week, ‘Thanks for being part of my life.’ That’s about as nice as it gets. If you spend your life enjoying what you do and getting paid enough to do it and having fun, the added issue of people saying thank you can be nice."