I was saddened at hearing about the passing of Dick Clark at the age of 82 last week -- and even a little surprised at how saddened I was. Perhaps the depth of feeling came from the fact that Clark's "American Bandstand" was a regular fixture on Saturdays in my formative years, or that in recent months I've found myself devouring multi-hour blocks of "$25,000 / $100,000 Pyramid" episodes on GSN, or even that I have long admired his show business acumen and consummate professionalism. Perhaps it was a combination of all those things. No matter the whys or wherefores, my heart sank at the announcement; it's sad to know that there likely won't be another Dick Clark coming down the pike for a long, long time.
One of the traits that I think made Clark such a success as a TV personality was how he always came across as a well-prepared, firmly-in-control host relishing the party he was throwing -- and that 99 percent of his happiness came from watching everyone else's fun. Sure, his programs were rigidly-structured and completely thought-through, but that level of thoroughness translated to comfort for an audience that realized he was trustworthy; he obviously cared about how the product looked and sounded and felt. (That kind of concern about the little details is why he was so incredibly successful behind-the-scenes as a TV producer, too.)
Take a moment, when you have one, to visit YouTube (www.youtube.com), where you can find what seems to be a metric ton (which is impressive, considering that they're nothing but electrons there) of short clips that illustrate Clark's way of managing the environments where he worked. From a game show studio to a discotheque-ish soundstage to the rapidly changing action of Times Square on New Year's Eve, he understood how to channel the experience through the screen and deliver it into living rooms from coast to coast, border to border, and beyond.
Clark also came across as a person who had a genuine interest in (and empathy for) other people, whether they were the carefree youngsters dancing on "Bandstand," slightly more life-experienced "Pyramid" contestants (and the celebrity partners, who were usually the fourth- or fifth-billed member of a network sitcom or drama series ensemble) or the deeply spirited folks of all ages waiting for the ball to drop on New Year's Eve. It's impossible (or at least next-to-impossible) to find a moment when Clark is talking to another person that he isn't fully engaged in the conversation, letting the other person speak their words, even if they were a little shaky when the cameras were trained on them.
The old "Bandstand" chestnut, "It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it," is a good example of how Clark would let his interview subjects simply respond without making them look foolish or seem to be coaxing an answer out of them. Sure, that phrase might seem trite or cliché now, but remember the circumstances that the words rose from -- normal, everyday young people had been plucked from the crowd for the "Rate A Record" segment, which was designed to provide instant (and pithy) music analysis about a pair of new singles to a nationwide television audience.
This was a rather bold concept. Clark gave young people a forum that offered a chance to speak straight-forward about the music that was being sold to them. (Occasionally, he would even insist on it; early on in a segment from a "Bandstand" episode from 1967 available on YouTube, he said to the teenage panelists, with a bit of a finger-wag in his voice, "Be very honest." There was a flash of tension, which Clark broke with a chuckle, then he added, "Sometimes it's painful, but do be honest.") But Clark never forced his opinions on them. Instead, he let the listeners' tastes dictate the segment, all while maintaining a relaxed conversational tone to keep everyone at ease.
So why would he do this? Well, for one thing, it made for good, basic television -- a kind of "man-on-the-street" interview, but based around music. Another benefit was that it gave the show legitimacy with the young audience; the kids rating those records were acting as proxies for the bulk of the viewership, the teenage boys and girls who were watching and listening and dancing along at home, whether they agreed or disagreed.
But perhaps the deepest -- and most remarkable -- thing about this segment was that it (whether by accident or design) stealthily moved forward the idea that the opinions held by youth had real power -- and not just in regards to music. Clark was, perhaps without knowing it, helping to empower young people coast-to-coast and border-to-border.
Dick Clark, leader of the youth revolution? Maybe not (heck, probably not), but he did help ground the lightning that was firing early and often during rock music's earliest days, and his genuine kindness and empathy with the kids on "Bandstand" didn't do him any harm with the audience of baby boomers (and Gen Xers) that would grow up watching him there, willing to follow him to a number of wildly different kinds of programs, from game shows to blooper clip parades to award presentations.
Clark's was a friendly face you were almost always glad to see; it was as much of a brand as the logo for his production company. It goes without saying -- but I'll say it anyway -- he will be missed. While his contributions to television, music and pop culture as a whole are tremendous and on-going, it is indeed more than a little sad that the man has passed, even for someone who only knew him through the glass of a television screen.
To borrow his famous sign-off: For now, Dick Clark, so long.