Gene Seymour: It seemed that Dick Clark would defy physical laws, last forever
Clark was known for New Year's show, but more so for "American Bandstand"
Seymour: Show was a must-see for kids in the '50s and '60s; it endured even till the '80s
Seymour: Clark was smooth and with staying power; his loss points out our vulnerability
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.
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For decades, we had doubted he would ever grow old.
This past December 31, you watched and listened as he counted backwards for yet another year, missing no numbers on the short path to 2012. And you thought to yourself: This man cannot be stopped. Like the promise of the U.S. Postal Service: reliable, no matter what the weather, no matter what time of day, month or decade. For almost 60 years, excluding the one immediately after his 2004 stroke, reliable and unstoppable was what Clark was.
That is, until Wednesday, when Clark died at age 82. For those of a certain age, writing those last six words seems so improbable that you’re not sure you want to expose them to light. Acknowledging them is like sealing a door to youthful paradise when what’s now old and obsolete is forever sexy, frisky and fun.
Some of you may find this bewildering. You’re likely among those who knew Clark only as somebody your parents and grandparents watched on TV, hovering in a booth over Times Square every New Year’s Eve, interrupting some pop music acts to tell people the Ball Was About to Drop on whatever the last calendar year was. As indelible as this gig was, it was only one of many Clark had as game-show host, restaurant-chain proprietor, media mogul and music impresario on “American Bandstand.”
It was in that latter role that most of us born after World War II cherish him the most. Between 1952 (when he was a frequent substitute for regular host Bob Horn when it was just called “Bandstand”) and 1988 (the year before he yielded hosting duties in the show’s final year to Dave Hirsch), Clark presided over “American Bandstand,” the most enduring and iconic of television programs, on which teenagers danced to popular records and watched pop stars – from Chuck Berry to Chubby Checker, from Bo Diddley to Bobby Darin, from Jackie Wilson to Annette Funicell – lip-synch their hits.
First broadcast from Philadelphia, the show went from local to national in August 1957 and every weekday afternoon from that month until 1963, Bandstand was probably the only thing you saw on television between school and supper. Call it the mid-20th century manner of containing multitudes. And, for generations of kids, of marking time.
And we kept marking time with “American Bandstand,” even as it moved from weekdays to Saturday afternoons and then to California, losing much of the funky charm of its Philadelphia days. Yet its format remained as predictable and comfortable as an old sweater. Kids still danced, records were still rated and pop acts from the Beach Boys to the Beastie Boys still came to play.
Clark had begun building his empire in the late 1950s with a weekly Saturday night program of live, lip-synched performances, “The Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech Nut Show.” It didn’t last long, but Clark, as noted, was unstoppable. He had another spinoff series, “Where the Action Is,” in the 1960s and soon became as unavoidable as the weather by hosting “The $10,000 Pyramid” (which grew in other versions to $25,000 and $100,000) and co-hosting with one-time Philadelphia colleague Ed McMahon, “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.”
He invented the annual “American Music Awards” and “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” (first broadcast in 1972). These and other Clark productions enjoyed longevity that seemed as inexplicable and impregnable as Clark’s youthful glow.
Clark’s personality throughout these years never wavered. Even as his entertainment empire grew to include radio shows (“Rock, Roll & Remember”) and restaurants (“Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill”), he remained the personable young man keeping the party from getting out of hand.
He seemed born knowing the secret of lasting long on TV: No idiosyncrasies, no temperament and no fretting. If you can keep your personality as smooth as your complexion, nobody will ask you to leave their living rooms, not even if the friends you bring along with you have strange hairdos and make even stranger music. And if you can adapt such a persona to places where such exotic personages as Little Richard and Jim Morrison hang out, you can carry it anywhere for a long time, making it look easier than it likely was.
It was only in those last years, when Clark insisted on dropping by our homes despite his frail condition, that it looked harder. And even here, there was a kind of stoic grace that touched you, even if you started to wonder, if for only a second, how much longer he could continue. Now we know. Another myth, a grail of durability, drifts away, leaving us all feeling a tad more vulnerable – and, maybe, much emptier – than we did last New Year’s.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.