Like Ryan Seacrest, who began the “American Idol” telecast Wednesday saluting his New Year’s Rockin’ Eve boss, Dick Clark, who died at 82 Wednesday, was a conduit to pop culture.
A cheerful and rather bland entity in himself, he was smart enough to put teenagers on TV to dance to the music they liked and present many of the artists whose songs they liked.
At first he did this in a black and white show that emanated from Philadelphia every afternoon. I am old enough to remember this and it fascinated me as a child.
When it moved to Saturday afternoons, it capped cartoons just as junior high followed elementary school: More grownup concerns, but just barely.
Clark was an amiable presenter of the music, but you never got a sense who he liked best or how much he really liked rock ‘n’ roll.
He’d have kids rate a record and use a countdown chart like the one “Wayne’s World” would use later. But most of the show, he let those kids dance, sharing their moves and sense of style with a rapt teenage nation.
There were a lot of highlights over the years, but few landmark ones. As he said once in a clip during the obituaries, he had everybody on his show, with the exception of Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. (Pretty big exceptions). But there were some cool moments, such as this one of the Jackson 5, showing what made them an early sensation.
Then in 1980 there was this gem, perfectly showing the shambles of rock and roll at the time in the person of Johnny Rotten, fronting Public Image Ltd., who was so bored that he turned the convention of lip synching on Bandstand into some kind of performance art.
Clark made a mint becoming a producer of TV shows and specials, moving behind the scenes after Bandstand faded, only to come out annually for New Year’s Rockin’ Eve when he wasn’t ably hosting a game show like his $10,000 Pyramid.
The last time I talked to Dick Clark it was to promote his 2002 American Music Awards, a trophy show he invented to distinguish itself from the Grammys.
“This is not a blue-ribbon panel telling you what you ought to like,’” Clark said. “That’s why this show goes like a bat out of hell, with wall-to-wall entertainment. It isn’t stodgy, boring or pontificating.”
That was the year he was suing the Grammys for trying poach Michael Jackson for its own show. “Some said I’m doing this as a publicity stunt,” he said. “Look, I’ve been in show business 55 years. If I wanted publicity, I’d have filed suit two days before my show, not a month before.”
Instead, “I wanted to throw some light on a dark corner of the music business,” Clark says.
“We characterize it as blacklisting — as bullying tactics,” he says. “Over the years, I kept turning the other cheek to this, but I ran out of cheeks. I got fed up.”
The matter got settled somehow. But while Clark was a bigger player as a producer, his iconography as “American bandstand” host grew in popular culture through the TV show “American Dreams,” about teens who meet as his Philadelphia show. An afternoon TV dance show was the basis, too, of “Hairspray,” the movie and later the musical.
Without Clark, there’d be no Rockin’ in New Year’s Eve. His newfangled New Year’s Rockin’ Eve when it began put a fresh spin on what had been an outmoted ballroom event by Guy Lombardo.
It became a model for other network shows that set up shop at Times Square and cut to performances by acts of the day.
Clark had to skip a year following a stroke in 2004. But when he returned a year later, his speech slurred, and his longtime youthful looks suddenly failing, he seemed a cautionary presence during the celebration.
Unfortunately that is how many young people today will remember him – not as the Seacrest of his era.