August 13, 2023

FTV: Dick Clark


     Dick Clark may have left this mortal coil in 2012, but it is a fair bet if one hears the phrase, ‘America’s oldest living teen-ager’, his smiling face will come to mind.  Born on November 11, 1929, he was perfectly positioned to transition from the golden age of radio into that new fangled home entertainment medium called television.  When Clark and Richard Robinson wrote a book entitled Rock, Roll & Remember – America’s oldest living teen-ager brings back those happy days (1976, Thomas Y. Crowell Co.), they had no way to envision the monumental changes that would take place in the music and entertainment biz.  With MTV, music file sharing, the internet, Tic Tok, YouTube, and a multitude of streaming media sources far in the future, the authors were not concerned with predicting trends.  Their focus was definitely the previous thirty years when Dick Clark worked hard enough to become one of the most recognizable faces on the planet.  He also turned his passion into a very lucrative business empire.

     By the time Clark passed away in Santa Monica, California (April 18, 2012), he had three wives (the first two marriages lasted a decade each spanning the years 1952 to 1971) and established his signature company, Dick Clark Productions.  He seemed to radiate a squeaky clean image which might seem strange knowing his rise to fame came in the rough city of Philadelphia.  Dick proved he could more than hold his own in that environment as he cultivated the many talented stars who came out of the tough area known as South Philly.  Clark may have been a millionaire by the age of thirty, but make no mistake;  he worked hard for every penny.  He was not a child of privilege – he started on the bottom rung of the entertainment industry ladder and climbed to the top, one step at a time.

     Dick Clark grew up in Mount Vernon, New York idolizing his older brother, Bradley.  In June of 1943, just a week after his high school graduation, Bradley Clark enlisted in the Air Force.  Young Dick found life without his big brother around lonely.  He couldn’t imagine at the time how much deeper this loneliness would be when he found out Bradley was killed in a plane crash just before Christmas in 1944.  A fighter pilot, Brad was in the 371st Fighter Group and he  volunteered for a mission during the Battle of the Bulge.  He took off in stormy weather on December 23, 1944;  his plane was disabled and crashed.  Dickie found himself trying out for various sports teams in high school, perhaps trying to fill Bradley’s shoes.  Sports didn’t work out for him so he immersed himself in other activities.  Dickie spent a lot of time in his room and later said, “About this time I discovered the magic world of the radio.  In my room was a large Philco radio with a separate speaker that hung from the wall.  In the afternoons before supper and in the evening when I finished my homework, I’d sit, twisting the dial, finding an escape in the disembodied fantasy world that came out of the speaker.”

     The more Clark listened, the more things he found to capture his imagination.  WNEW from New York was a favorite with shows like Make-Believe Ballroom and Milkman’s Matinee hosted by Martin Block and Art Ford, respectively.  He especially liked what he referred to as ‘talkers’ like Garry Moore, Steve Allen, Dave Garroway, and Arthur Godfrey.  Dickie really liked Godfrey because, “He was the first to realize that a radio announcer does not talk to ‘those of you out there in radioland’;  a radio announcer talks to me as an individual,  Godrey knew that people listened to the radio one to one, so that was the way he treated his listeners.”  

     When his parents took him to New York City to see a live radio broadcast of the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Show, Clark had an epiphany:  “Wouldn’t this be a great way to make a living?”  He told his parents, “That is what I want to do.  When I write away for college catalogs, I’m going to find out which ones have a radio school.”  They encouraged him by suggesting he join the high school drama club.  It was a pivotal move as it boosted his confidence:  “Not only did I join, I wound up president of the club.  I gave speeches, went out of my way to make new friends and acted my heart out whenever the opportunity presented itself.”

     Clark’s uncle Bradley Barnard owned the newspaper in Rome, NY.  Around the time Dick graduated from high school, Uncle Brad decided to open a radio station in the area.  When his father accepted an offer to become the station’s sales manager, he quit his twenty six year career in cosmetics and the family moved to Utica, NY.  Having already been accepted at Syracuse University, Clark asked his father if he could get a summer job at the new WRUN.  His dad told him he would have to run it by his uncle, but Dickie was sure he was soon to be the next Martin Block.  Rightly so (as the new guy), he found himself on the bottom-most rung of the career ladder.  His first job was printing promotional flyers on the mimeograph machine.  The second week, Dickie was in the mail room stuffing envelopes and distributing interoffice memos.  He quietly shared his desire to work on the air while enthusiastically emptying wastebaskets and doing any chores handed to him.  Hardly a diva, Clark recognized the path to his dream job was to always work hard no matter what task he was told to do.

     The day his father told him he would be pinch-hitting for the vacationing FM announcer, Dickie was pumped.  FM was rather new and did not share the prestige of AM but that didn’t matter – he was about to become a real on the air radio guy.  When the time came, he had his weather forecast in hand and cupped his free hand over his ear until the engineer pointed at him:

“I lowered my voice to sound as resonant as possible.  My father told me later it sounded more like Shakespeare than the weather.”  By the end of the summer, Clark said, “I surprised everyone with the professional style I had developed.  They let me do station breaks and the news on WRUN-AM.  When fall came, I was off to school.  Many of the guys were twenty-five or twenty-six and just back from the war.  I was seventeen and floundering around, trying to drink my share of beer and get used to mature life.  I majored in advertising and minored in radio.”

     Clark’s advisor told him to not take any radio courses until his sophomore year so he sought out the three studio,  WAER-FM.  This student run station was located in a Quonset hut in the middle of the campus.  Like most new DJs, he started with a short time slot (in his case, interviewing foreign students, many of whom spoke little English) and progressed through a variety of shows.  The final semester of his senior year, he applied for a job at local station WOLF – he began there as weekend relief but was soon working full time in radio while finishing school.  The dollar and hour wage and the desire to not be the permanent host spinning country music on The WOLF Buckaroos, Dick returned to WRUN hoping to get a full time slot.  It did not take long before he realized he didn’t want to be seen as the guy who got the job working for his dad.  It was time to strike out on his own.

     His next stop was at a local Utica TV station, WKTV where he picked up some tricks of the trade that would help advance his career.  Dick wanted to be a news announcer but started his TV gig writing ad copy, moving scenery, and (again) hosting a country music show, Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders.  Passing a monitor one night, he stood in awe watching newscaster Bob Earle deliver the news while looking at the camera –  it was almost like he had the script memorized.  When Clark inquired how he did this, Earle showed him his secret helper, Elmer.

     Elmer was a tape recorder located in a room next to the studio.  Earle explained, “I record the news on tape before the broadcast.  I run a cable to an earphone and play the tape when I do the news.  That way I repeat it as I hear it in my ear.  I do 15 minutes of news without batting an eyelash.”  When Dick became a newscaster at the station, he did Earle one better.  He got his own ‘Elmer’ and rigged it with a foot switch so he could turn it off and on from his spot at the desk.  During a break, Clark would pass the earphone to Stu, the sports guy, who had recorded his part at the end of Dick’s tape.   On one occasion, Stu altered the news feed to include some salty language supposedly uttered by President Truman.  Dick didn’t recognize the passage coming through the earphones and when he saw Stu grinning from ear to ear, he ended up ad libbing his way out of the newscast without getting them both fired.

     Clark’s next step up the ladder came when he was given an audition at WFIL-TV in Philadelphia by program director Jack Steck.  Steck handed Dick an announcer copy and told him to go over it before the audition.  With Elmer set up at the side of the studio, Dick recorded the  copy that purposefully included tongue twisters like, “And here’s Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazde”.   Having announced classical music selections in college, this did not rattle him at all so he waltzed through the script.  When he did it ‘live’ for Steck (with Elmer’s help, of course), the PD’s jaw dropped as he stood in the control window staring at Dick for a few seconds.  Steck wrote a memo about the audition he shared with Clark years later:  “The kid is good, and despite his college education he seems to be smart.”  Steck didn’t have any openings in the WFIL-TV staff but he did offer Dick a summer replacement job on WFIL radio.  Dick thought it over and decided WFIL was closer to New York than his other TV offer in Schenectady so he called Steck back and took the job.

     Contrary to what many people think, Dick Clark did not invent American Bandstand, the TV show he is most remembered for.  He started his WFIL radio gig doing station breaks between Mary Margaret McBride and Tennessee Ernie Ford.  He also spent a lot of time in the announcer’s lounge smoking, reading the paper, and listening to the ABC radio network feed.  This is how he described his job at WFIL as a twenty-one year old:  “For about six months, I did this old form or radio.  Occasionally, I got the chance to do one of the voices in a radio drama or narrate a local origination.  Most of the time I did station ID’s, commercials, and newscasts.”  He also got a Saturday off in early June to wed his longtime girlfriend Bobbie who had recently graduated from college.

     When WFIL-TV and radio studios consolidated into a new facility, Clark was offered the chance to host a radio program called Dick Clark’s Caravan of Music.  The station wanted to develope more of their own shows so they would be more local and less dependent on network programming.  While the music Clark played was dated and not likely to attract a young following, he did hone his skills as a pitchman selling everything from pots and pans to Mrs. Smith’s pies.  Bob Horn had a radio show called Bob Horn’s Bandstand, a concept WFIL had ‘borrowed’ from an similar show on WPEN.  Like the WPEN show, Horn would spin ‘younger’ tunes and let kids in the studio to dance and occasionally tell him where they went to school.  WFIL-TV decided the old English movies they played in the afternoon were not making the grade, so they asked Horn to turn his radio show into a similar TV program simply called Bandstand.

     They set up the show’s template and got Horn a partner named Lee Stewart.  The show worked but the partnership did not – there was no chemistry.  Once they dumped Stewart, they paired Horn’s show with Clark’s radio show.  Horn would start his radio Bandstand with a couple of songs, then cut away to do the TV version with Clark filling the three and a half hour gap between the beginning and the end of the Bandstand radio show.  Clark got his first chance to fill in for a vacationing Horn on the TV Bandstand and knew right away he could really progress in his career if he could only get out of the radio side and work the TV version.  Fate intervened when Horn was arrested for drunken driving and landed in jail.  With WFIL’s owner, the Philadelphia Inquirer, conducting a high profile campaign against drunk driving, Horn all but wrote his own termination letter.  With Horn exiled from radio and television, Clark’s soon to be partner, Tony Mamarella, filled in as the Bandstand host before it was offered to Clark.  Tony would become the producer and Clark was on board when ABC finally decided to try running the program nationally, hence the name change to American Bandstand.  Everything you probably remember about Dick Clark’s American Bandstand began to take shape in July of 1956.

     When the payola scandal investigation was started by a congressional commission in 1960, the focus seemed to be aimed directly at Dick Clark.  When the scope of the ‘pay to get your record played’ (hence, ‘payola’) scandal came to light,  ABC made it clear that Clark would have to divest of any of his musical sidelights to continue on their network.  His ties to music publishing and production (he owned shares of a record pressing plant at that time) were severed so he could continue to work on TV.  He figures it cost him somewhere around $8 million in 1960s dollars – a huge but necessary sacrifice to keep his day job.

     Clark never took a dime or twisted anyone’s arm to get their records on his show.  Unfortunately his producer Tony did (unbeknownst to Dick) which no doubt made Clark ‘guilty by association’ in the investigator’s minds.  When the congressional hearings began, it was obvious they were gunning for Dick Clark.  Their charge seemed to have less to do about money changing hands than the cultural impact of his show.  In their opinion,  payola was putting inferior music (rock ‘n’ roll) on the air to the detriment of ‘good music’ (think Perry Como, etc).

     One of the representatives grilling DJs and music executives was John Bennett of Michigan.  Born in Garden and raised in Watersmeet, Michigan, Bennett operated a law firm in Ontonagon for many years before being elected to the House of Representatives.  By the time Clark went before the committee, Bennett was ready to string him up from the nearest yardarm for diluting ‘popular music’ with his distasteful payola practices.  One of the commissioners went so far as to start referring to the problem as ‘Clarkola; as if he had invented a form of musical graft that predated both Dick Clark and rock and roll.  The hearings grew almost as intense as the McCarthy anti-communist hearings until one of the representatives (who had actually been to Philadelphia to witness AB in person) spoke up in defense of the music and the kids who prefer it to the ’good music’ previously mentioned.  After all was said and done, cooler heads prevailed when it was demonstrated that American Bandstand was not promoting the music only Clark would profit from but music teens wanted to hear.  

     There were many fascinating side stories in Rock, Roll & Remember, too many to relate here.  For instance, Johnny Carson did not like Dick Clark because the network inserted a game show Carson was hosting in the middle of AB.  Clark never called out Do You Trust Your Wife? by name, but he did remind viewers to tune back in to his show when Carson’s was over.  Carson took it personally.  Dick Clark may never have been on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and yes, Carson was one to hold grudges), but he did steer his former neighbor Ed McMahon to Carson’s game show when he heard Johnny needed an MC.  It worked out pretty well for Ed.

     When songwriters were beginning to write more to the R’n’R crowd, an acquaintance seeking an opinion on a song brought it to Clark.  Dick’s contribution was a small rewording of the title and lyric.  DC told the songwriter, At the Bop sounded old fashioned.  Clark played host to sock hops nearly every weekend (so named because coaches insisted that dancers remove their shoes so they would not damage the gym floor) so he suggested they use At the Hop instead.  He not only got a writing credit for the suggestion, but he also cemented the song as one of the iconic tunes of the early rock and roll era.  Clark’s book is available at the Ontonagon Township Library if you would like to hear more details about Dick Clark’s remarkable career.

     In late 1963, Dick was offered a chance to host a game show.  The only catch?  It was being produced in Los Angeles.  Clark made the jump and took the American Bandstand franchise with him.  It is probably a good thing because the game show bombed.  People back east still refer to February 8, 1964 as the day music died in Philadelphia.  In the early 1970s, one of Clark’s employees pitched him the idea of inviting old fifties artists back for a nostalgia show.  Dick hated the idea of living in the past, but he did agree to MC one of these shows his (now) former employee organized at Madison Square Garden.  It went so well, he launched his own oldies show in Las Vegas that opened  in July 1974.  Clark only had to be himself and introduce the acts, but he found it to be a tremendously rewarding experience.

     At the end of each show, Clark would stand in the spotlight at center stage and propose a toast to his audience:  “We’ve all sort of grown up together . . . so here’s to you . . . Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay / They said it wouldn’t last.  You’ve gotta live for today / You can’t live in the past.  Those good times won’t come ‘round again / But one thing for sure, my friend . . .  We shared some happy days!”


Top Piece Visdeo:  What says American Bandstand more than Dick Clark and At the Ho/?