April 22, 2012

Baby boomers remember Dick Clark for "American Bandstand."

Baby boomers and everyone else who is old enough to stay up until the ball drops remember Dick Clark for "New Year's Rockin' Eve."

TV game show fans may well remember Dick Clark for rolling out "The $10,000 Pyramid."

In short, you'd be hard-pressed to find a resident of these shores who doesn't remember Dick Clark -- and for good reason. From the late 1950s until his death on Wednesday at 82, he left a series of indelible marks on American broadcast media.

The effects of diabetes, a stroke and, of course, age slowed him down considerably, but he never completely gave up the limelight.

And yet, the things Clark accomplished as an innovator and entrepreneur were far more impressive than his successes in front of the camera and the microphone. He was a font of creativity, a master communicator and a keen judge of talent and marketability.

He once told an interviewer, "I don't make culture. I sell it." That was misplaced modesty.

It’s tempting to claim Dick Clark owed it all to Central New York. The man who made “American Bandstand” a media phenomenon and trail-blazer for youth culture and racial integration grew up in the region. Clark was born Downstate in Bronxville, but moved to Utica with his family when his father was hired to manage a radio station. That’s where Clark got his first job at age 17 — in the mailroom.

Clark’s degree in business administration from Syracuse University certainly served him well, as did his on-air experience at SU’s WAER radio, WOLF in Syracuse and WRUN in Utica.

The media mogul invented and skillfully marketed programs from the American Music Awards and the Golden Globes, to the long-running “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes,” to his trademark “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” extravaganza — amassing a fortune along the way.

His game show “$10,000 Pyramid” grew into the “$100,000 Pyramid,” mirroring Clark’s own rising prosperity. “I get enormous pleasure and excitement,” Clark quipped in 1961, “sitting in on conferences with accountants, tax experts and lawyers.” No kidding.

Ed Sullivan mastered the post-vaudeville variety entertainment spectacle. Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson perfected the talk show. But no one could match Clark’s intuitive grasp of teen tastes, starting in the 1950s.

After taking over “Bandstand,” a local daily afternoon dance show in Philadelphia, in 1956, 26-year-old Clark used his clean-cut, “big brother” persona, engaging manner, knack for picking talent and unerring business sense to build a national juggernaut — based on light, airy entertainment, short musical acts and footage of teenagers dancing. The show ran until 1989. A decade later Clark said of himself: “I’ve been a fluffmeister for a long time.”

There was nothing fluffy about his decision to include black teenagers on the dance floor in the early years of the civil rights movement. Since many of the pop singers were black, Clark figured teens of color belonged in the picture.

Though Clark anticipated a backlash from southern audiences, and weathered threats from the Ku Klux Klan when he took “The Dick Clark Show” to Atlanta in 1958, this cultural milestone passed with remarkably little controversy. “We didn’t do it because we were do-gooders, or liberals,” Clark said later. “It was just a thing we thought we ought to do. It was naive.”

If the father and grandfather never outgrew his reputation as “the country’s oldest teenager” — even battling back from a stroke in 2004 — he was also one of its most cheerful ones, ever popular with teens and musicians alike. Central New Yorkers can claim him as their own, but he really belongs to all Americans.

His talents made him a shaper of the culture in ways both subtle and overt. The proof is that his ideas and his creations will remain influential -- and widely imitated -- for decades to come.

Goodbye, Dick! Thank you for all the fun, music and happiness.

Rest in peace!

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