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TV Legend Dick Clark Dies at Age 82

10:26 PM, Apr 18, 2012   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) - Bell-bottoms came and went and came back again.

But Dick Clark? He never left. With his toothpaste-ad smile and a microphone always ready, Dick Clark was a fixture in our pop culture for decades.

Maybe you hear his name and think New Year's Eve stalwart, or American Bandstand host, or "World's Oldest Teenager," a nickname he picked up from TV Guide years ago, but Dick Clark was much more than any of those single images.

Clark, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2004 and died Wednesday of a heart attack, was a shrewd entrepreneur who built a small empire for himself in the entertainment industry.

He was 82.

Teen dance shows, prime-time programming, specials, games shows, made-for-TV movies, and even feature films and restaurants, the ambitious Clark made Dick Clark Productions into a thriving business that touched the worlds of music, television and film.

From Bandstand in the 1950s to his three decades of New Year's Rockin' Eves, Clark was particularly adept in the melding of music and TV.

"Music is the soundtrack of your life," he was quoted as saying, and yet, he wasn't ever the one shimmying on the dance floor. And his favorite music? "Disco," he said in more than one interview. Clark was all about the smooth running of the production, not so much the joy of music. "I don't make culture," he once said. "I sell it."

In fact, the life of Richard Wagstaff Clark is a classic mailroom-to-boardroom Hollywood story. He was a broadcast salesman from start to finish.

The Mount Vernon, N.Y.-born Clark began his career in 1945 working as a teenager in the mailroom of WRUN-AM in Utica, N.Y., a station owned by his uncle and run by his father. He worked his way up to weatherman and newsman.

At Mount Vernon's A.B. Davis High School in 1947, Clark was voted "Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge."

After getting his business administration degree from Syracuse University in 1951, clean-cut Clark used his stint in radio to move into a newscasting job at WKTV in Utica. But it was in 1952, when he went to work for WFIL radio and television in Philadelphia, that his career really began to take off.

That summer WFIL decided to follow the new trend of having radio announcers play records over the air. Shortly after, the station decided to try the trend on TV.

Teenagers were invited to come and dance while the records were played by host Bob Horn. The show was called Bob Horn's Bandstand. When Horn went on vacation, Clark filled in for him, and when Horn was arrested for drunken driving in 1956, Clark got the job permanently.

What made him a success was his rapport with the teens and his non-threatening image to their parents. He knew what to sell. But he deserves credit for doing something bigger than just putting on a show.

In 1957, American Bandstand went national, and Clark began introducing the American public to rock and roll. He was, in some ways, the Carson Daly of his day.

American Bandstand was important to the music world. Not only did it show worried parents exactly what their kids were interested in, but when Clark changed the name of the show, he also ended its all-white policy and began introducing black artists, a hot-button issue of the time. American Bandstand provided the first national exposure for Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Chubby Checker, among others.

"The man was big. He was the biggest thing at the time in America at that time. He was bigger than the president!" Hank Ballard, who wrote The Twist, once said.

But Clark, while breaking ground for black acts, shied away from grittier fare. He basically ignored the British Invasion, figuring The Beatles would never be big, and gravitated to the tamest pop acts he could find. He was diehard mainstream - always keeping his eye on what would sell in America and therefore ensure his success.

"I'm not gonna sit here and tell you I did this solely to keep music alive," he once told Rolling Stone. "To perpetuate my own career first and foremost, and secondly the music."

By 1959, American Bandstand was broadcast by 101 affiliates and reached an audience of 20 million.

The music industry quickly realized that once a new song was played on the show, it became a hit the next week. Soon the power of the show became a concern within the business.

In 1959, the U.S. Senate began investigating the practice of "payola," or record companies paying radio personalities to play new records. Clark admitted he accepted a fur stole and jewelry and held financial interests in artists and songs that were frequently on American Bandstand. Even though Clark was cleared of any wrongdoing, he was ordered to either leave ABC or sell his interests; he sold.

Clark, who started Dick Clark Productions in 1957, moved his headquarters to Los Angeles in the 1960s.

During that time, he became friends with an up-and-comer named Chuck Barris, who went on to host The Gong Show, and Ed McMahon. Clark was responsible for McMahon meeting Johnny Carson.

Clark is a "wonderful guy," McMahon told Newsday in a 2003 profile of Clark. "He's a businessman, just like I am. And the fact is, he's very efficient and very well-organized when he does something."

In 1965 Clark produced Where The Action Is for ABC-TV. Hosted by Paul Revere and the Raiders, it was a Bandstand-type show. Clark continued to host American Bandstand after it left ABC-TV and went into syndication. When he quit hosting in 1989, it had become the longest-running television variety show of all time.

In 1973 Clark took on a new production, The American Music Awards, which offered an alternative to the Grammys. It became a battleground for loyalty in the music industry.

In 2001, that battle came to a head. Clark filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles, alleging that Michael Greene, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, maintained a "blacklist" policy that prevents stars - including Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Toni Braxton- from performing on both Greene's Grammy Awards and Clark's American Music Awards. The suit sought $10 million in damages.

The suit was withdrawn when Greene announced his resignation in April 2002 after a sexual harassment probe. With Greene gone, Clark felt the problem was gone.

In 2001, Clark sold Dick Clark Productions for $137 million to a group of private investors but stayed on as chairman and chief executive, producing various shows and cultivating other parts of the business, such as Dick Clark Restaurants.

"Awards shows are the variety shows now because there are no more variety shows," Clark told The Los Angeles Times in 2004 before his 31st edition of the AMAs aired.

But Clark was also a big believer in game shows.

In 1973, he became host of the game show $10,000 Pyramid. From 1985 to 1988, Clark hosted both the CBS $25,000 version and a daily $100,000 Pyramid in syndication. Clark's daytime version of Pyramid won nine Emmy Awards for best game show.

And in 1984, Clark discovered a new franchise for himself. He produced and hosted the NBC series TV Bloopers & Practical Jokes, which ran through 1988 and continues in specials hosted by Clark (first on NBC, now on ABC).

In the 1990s he produced made-for-TV films as well as theatrical movies.

Clark's company also produces The Golden Globes awards show, and created the mid-2000s television series American Dreams about a Philadelphia family in the early 1960s whose daughter is a regular on American Bandstand.

Clark was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1994, he announced he was battling Type 2 diabetes.

Whenever he was asked about how he retained his youthful, teenage looks, Clark would always says, "I've got the pat answer - select your parents carefully, get the good genes."

On Dec. 8, 2004, he was hospitalized with what was described as a "mild" stroke and missed ringing in 2005 on his New Year's Eve show. Regis Philbin substituted for him on the show, saying: "It's an American television tradition."

Clark was back for that tradition when 2005 turned to 2006. His speech was slurred and he looked gaunt as he sat in the ABC studio in Times Square and told the audience the stroke had left him "in bad shape."

When the new year was rung in, the camera cut to Clark kissing his wife, Kari.

Clark and Kari Wigton were married on July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) in a ceremony that started at 7 p.m. (His P.O. Box address in Burbank at that time was #7777.)

She was his third wife. Clark married Barbara Mallery in 1952. They had one child and divorced in 1961. He married Loretta Martin in 1962 and they split in 1971. They had two children.

Kari doubled as his executive assistant, always making sure things went smoothly for her husband.

Clark's early post-stroke countdowns were marred by slurring and some confusion, but his appearance and delivery gradually improved.

"I enjoy the annual appearance, though I wish my delivery was as easy as it used to be," he told USA TODAY in an e-mail interview last December. "I'm encouraged by the many people who tell me I'm an inspiration to them," he said, adding that he tried to keep a positive attitude "and attack every day with the thought things are going to get better."

 

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