Dick Clark and His Bandstand Empire

I recently re-watched a favorite movie of mine, Wild in the Streets (1968), whose nightmare satircal scenario is that people under 30 get their wish and take over the world, The career of Dick Clark (1929-2012) feels like partial inspiration. Clark was a radio professional by the time he was a teenager, and got his first national television show (upon which he built an empire) when he was 28. Many cite him as the guy who built the youth culture of rock ‘n’ roll, though that’s too much to lay at the feet of one man, however pivotal.

Clark’s father and uncle had a radio station in Rome, New York. Dick started out working there, and at stations in Utica and Syracuse. His good looks and excellent broadcaster voice rapidly elevated him to local television. He moved to Philly in 1952, where he began hosting a local show called Bandstand. It went national on ABC in 1957 as American Bandstand.

I can’t tell if American Bandstand had one of the best logos of all time, or if I love it so much because I spent so many hours looking at it. Yes, I am old enough to have watched American Bandstand. Because it didn’t go off the air until 1989. Back in the day, there had been many similar shows, where a bunch of kids were brought in to dance to the current radio hits of the week. But American Bandstand was the only one of those programs that was still going when I was a kid (the 1970s.). At that time, it was shown on Saturday mornings, right after all the cartoons. In retrospect it seems very primitive, but back then it was the only game in town. Long before Youtube, or even MTV, this was the best way for kids to see many of the top pop acts of the day. And you’d just watch other kids dance for an hour, making fun of the weird ones, ogling the good-looking ones. For many years, the “Bandstand Boogie” was its theme music. At the height of the disco craze in 1977, Barry Manilow recorded a new version of his own and that became the version that was used on the show.

American Bandstand and Clark became national institutions. He rapidly parlayed his success into more. From 1958 through 1960 he had a prime time variety program called The Dick Clark Show. He starred in a couple of movies, Because They’re Young (1960) and The Young Doctors (1961). He began buying his own broadcasting stations and producing other shows. In 1968 he co-produced the movie Killers Three with AIP. He made guest appearances as an actor on shows like Lassie and Adam-12.

In 1972 and 1973, just when I was discovering American Bandstand, Clark became even more ubiquitous with two additional high profile gigs. In 1972, he started putting on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, providing youth oriented competion to Guy Lombardo’s annual CBS telecast. Lombardo only had a few years left in him at any rate, so Clark’s version became the only game in town. The following year, he became the host of the popular game show The $10,000 Pyramid. As the years went on the prize amounts kept going up. He did this show until the late ’80s. John Davidson later hosted a reboot.

For most of my life, the joke was that Dick Clark was some sort of vampire or mummy or that he had made some kind of deal with the devil. After decades in the spotlight, he never looked like he’d grown any older. Then, in 2004, at the age of 74, he grew old all at once. Diabetes and then a stroke hit, and after that his TV appearances grew less frequent, and somewhat sad. He died in 2012.

To learn more about show business history including radio and television variety please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous