A Last Dance With Dick Clark
“American Bandstand’ is rock ‘n’ roll history,” Chubby Checker said this week as he considered the role that the seminal teen dance show--the longest running show on television--has played in the rise of rock.
“When you talk about rock ‘n’ roll dancing, it goes back to ‘Bandstand,’ ” the “Twist"-meister said of the show, which helped boost his career in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. “Just like the phone starts with Alexander Graham Bell.”
At approximately 4 p.m. today, that history takes a turn.
In a Hollywood TV studio, Dick Clark, who has presided over “Bandstand” for 33 years, will pass his microphone to the man he has picked to succeed him: David Hirsch, 26, formerly a segment producer for Clark’s “Camp Midnight” series.
In today’s “Bandstand” taping, which will air April 8--the first outing on its new USA Network home--Hirsh will preside over the familiar trademarks of the American TV institution, including the spotlight dance and rate-a-record segments.
Clark, who at 59 is still known as “America’s Oldest Teen-Ager,” is stepping aside to concentrate on the other tentacles of his huge entertainment empire.
Besides “Bandstand,” which Dick Clark Productions will continue to produce, Clark has his hands in other television production and syndication packages, concert tour packages and other holdings that, as of 1986, had boosted him onto the “Forbes 400" list of wealthiest Americans with an estimated worth of more than $180 million.
Neither Clark nor Hirsch would comment about the transition, but to many associated with the show over the years, today’s taping represents nothing less than the end of an era.
“Dick Clark leaving ‘Bandstand’ just doesn’t seem right,” said Joe Bonsall, a member of the Oak Ridge Boys country group who, in the late ‘50s, sometimes danced on “Bandstand” broadcasts in Philadelphia. “Sometimes when something lasts so long, you think it will always be there.”
The show began as a daily 2 1/2-hour local program in Philadelphia in 1952. Clark took the host job in 1956, and ABC picked up the series in 1957. Clark moved the operation to Hollywood in 1964, from where the it has originated, once a week, since.
To Kent Ferguson, who like Bonsall dressed in a suit and tie and stood in line outside the Philadelphia studio hoping to be accepted for the show in the late ‘50s, “Bandstand” and Clark will always represent a lost time of innocence.
“Around the corner from the studio was a soda shop, and the guy who ran it was really named Pops,” recalled Ferguson, who now is headmaster of the Santa Barbara Middle School. “That was the hang-out, where the in-crowd went after school and before the show.
“Today it’s so different. All during that time, every Saturday night there would be a dance you could go to. There would be no liquor or cigarettes and of course no drugs. And this was all the impact of ‘American Bandstand.’ Clark really impacted a generation. I think it’s sad today that kids don’t have a wholesome dance environment without all that other crap.”
The history of “American Bandstand” isn’t all quite that Norman Rockwell-ish.
In 1960, Clark--along with disc jockey Alan Freed--was called before a congressional committee investigating payola and conflict of interest in the music industry. For Freed, the scandal ended a brilliant career; he died a broke alcoholic in 1964 at 43. Clark, though, emerged unscathed after divesting his interests in record and publishing companies. Many in the industry speculated that Clark’s smooth, clean-cut image helped him escape the taint of scandal that destroyed the more abrasive Freed.
Over the years there have also been stories about Clark being a dictatorial, egotistical boss--though most associated with him speak glowingly of his fathomless loyalty to those who have helped him and worked for him.
More recently, the luster of “Bandstand” itself has faded. MTV certainly supplanted it as the primary television outlet for pop music and “Bandstand’s” ratings dropped to the point that, in 1987, ABC would not guarantee a set spot on its Saturday daytime lineup and asked for it to be cut from one hour to half an hour.
Clark then took the show to the less-visible world of syndication. And the new move to cable, with or without Clark, leaves industry observers uncertain about the show’s value as a place to expose artists.
A recording company publicist, who asked not to be identified, said that it is no longer economical to place artists on the show because the program requires that the artist pay all transportation and union fees.
However, a publicist for another record company, who also asked not to be identified, said “Bandstand” remains part of the regimen of promotional outlets, though it’s far from the dominant force of old.
“I don’t think in the ‘80s there’s anything aside from repeated MTV airings of a video that has the impact ‘Bandstand’ or ‘Ed Sullivan’ had in the ‘60s. But every little bit helps.”
For Deon Estus, who will be the first recording artist to appear on the new “Bandstand,” the change doesn’t lessen his thrill.
“I was raised on ‘Bandstand,’ like we all were,” said the musician, whose song “Heaven Help Me” is a hot item on the black and dance music charts. “To me it’s as exciting as it would have been 20 years ago.”
And Chubby Checker insists that it’s pointless to mourn the changes time has brought to the show.
“It’s like this,” the still-active singer said. “The wheel has already been invented, so what’s the big deal? Dick Clark taught everybody how to do it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And dancing is still going on.”