Why Dick Clark Can't Say 'So Long.'

Steve Pond has written about music and pop culture for Rolling Stone, Premiere and other national publications

He walks with a slight limp. In a twisted way, that's refreshing: At 67, a man should show some wear and tear, and when you're dealing with Dick Clark, you take that wear and tear wherever you can find it. Even if it's nothing more than the lingering effects of a mishap when he stepped out of an RV. * At any rate, Clark limps slightly as he mounts the stairs to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium. He's on his way to greet singer LeAnn Rimes, the 14-year-old country sensation who was born when Clark had already been a national celebrity for 26 years. Clark pulls a spritzer out of his pocket for a quick hit of breath freshener, chats with Rimes for a while, then wanders around the stage as crew members prepare for the American Music Awards, the yearly show produced by Clark's company.

Watch him from a distance and you'll see his usual demeanor--attentive and a little wary--frequently dissolve into a couple of other looks. There's the hearty one we've often seen on shows such as "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes," where he breaks into a big laugh, bends over from the waist, slaps his hand against his leg. More common, though, is a look of general exasperation: A slight, vaguely theatrical scowl will crease his face as he looks in the direction of some real or imagined slight and spreads his arms as if to say, why me? Perhaps because we've seen the first look so often, in circumstances that are obviously scripted, the second seems more genuine.

But he's not scowling when he returns to the seats to watch Rimes. With his unfailing radar for what's becoming popular in Middle America, Clark has zeroed in on the teen sensation, and he watches intently as she belts out her new single, "Unchained Melody." The song was a big hit for the Righteous Brothers in 1965, but Clark remembers back further. "I've lived through about eight different versions of this song," he says.

From a nearby production table, a staffer shouts, "Hey, Dick! Who did the original version of this song?"

"Al Hibbler and Roy Hamilton," Clark says, ". . . 1955."

"I knew you'd know that."

He should. Both artists appeared with Clark during the early years of "American Bandstand," the show that launched Clark's career and kept him visible for the next 30-odd years. (Les Baxter's instrumental version of the tune appeared at the same time.) "Al Hibbler was a blind jazz singer out of St. Louis," Clark adds. "Roy Hamilton had a beautiful baritone voice, and he died of tuberculosis." (Hamilton died in 1969 of a stroke.)

Clearly, there's a reason Richard Wagstaff Clark titled his 1976 memoir "Rock, Roll & Remember." (He's published no fewer than 12 books, among them "Dick Clark's Easygoing Guide to GoodGrooming" and this year's "Dick Clark's American Bandstand.") But then, you'd expect him to remember his pop music trivia; after all, the man's career is inextricably intertwined with the history of rock 'n' roll. The cliches have stuck to him for years; he's "America's oldest living teenager," the guy who made rock music safe for Middle America. He's a pop culture icon who has a movie about "Bandstand" in the works at Danny DeVito's Jersey Films, a deal with the Opryland USA Theme Park for a stage show called "Dick Clark's American Bandstand Classics" and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"Dick Clark was significant in transforming the record business into an international industry," reads the Hall of Fame's citation. "His weekly televised record hops--which predated MTV by 25 years--played an integral role in establishing rock and roll, keeping it alive and shaping its future."

But rock music is only the half of it. "He is the marriage of television and rock 'n' roll," says comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, who's written both for Clark the host (at the Miss U.S.A. pageant) and Clark the producer (at the Emmy Awards). "Those two things started at more or less the same time, and up to the point when MTV started, he was the most visible link between them, and the most powerful one."

"He's created a universe that's unique in this business," says Ken Ehrlich, who has known Clark for 20 years and who competes with him each year as producer of the Grammy Awards, which usually receives more respect but lower ratings than the AMAs. "I think he genuinely loves the music--and in terms of people who are not musicians, he's had the most impact on music of anyone. I never see him ahead of the trend, but he's always been good at being right there when it's happening.

"I don't see him as a visionary," adds Ehrlich, "but I don't think he'd want to be called a visionary."

If Clark has a vision he's proud of, it is clearly the financial foresight that led him to create a music business empire by the age of 30 that made him a millionaire, and then to start over, rebuild and diversify when a television network and a congressional subcommittee forced him to give up his initial holdings. "I'm basically a businessman," he says. "I'm not in it for the glory."

Privately, some colleagues say he clearly is in it for money and the glory. "Why do you think he did 'The $25,000 Pyramid' [initially 'The $10,000 Pyramid' and then 'The $20,000 Pyramid'] for 15 years when he didn't even own the show?" asks one. "Dick has always needed to see his face out front." Not long ago, in fact, Clark willingly crossed the street from his Burbank offices to serve as the butt of a nationally televised joke. Appearing on the "Tonight Show," actor Vince Vaughn (from "The Lost World") promised Jay Leno that he had a real dinosaur in his trailer; when he opened the door, out came Clark--or, as Leno shrieked, the "Dickasaurus."

Even Clark's detractors concede that the man knows how to make money. "I think a lot of us have very conflicted feelings about Dick, because he is so middle-of-the-road, and so omnipresent in this business," says a television producer. "But he is a great businessman."

The response of Academy Awards producer and fellow Syracuse University alumnus Gilbert Cates is typical: "He is one hard-working mother."

Forbes once estimated Clark's wealth at $180 million, and he's been on the move since then. The most recent financial report from his company, Dick Clark Productions, marks the 17th consecutive profitable quarter for one of the few remaining independent production companies with clout in television. The publicly traded, 800-employee company produces award shows (the Golden Globes, the American Music Awards, the Daytime Emmys, the Academy of Country Music Awards), more than 100 episodes of "Bloopers," game shows (including the recently cancelled "It Takes Two," on the Family Channel), TV movies ("Elvis," "Murder in Texas"), a string of American Bandstand Grill restaurants and the occasional feature film. At a time when the demand for original television programming is voracious--especially for fare that will play well overseas--Clark's company is well-positioned.

And fronting it all is the pop-culture icon, but also the driven moneymaker behind it. To many, Dick Clark is rock 'n' roll; to others, he's a businessman so shrewd that pop music seems little more than the means to his end.

It's a split personality, and Clark relishes it. Earlier this year, he recalls with pride, there were a couple of days in which he addressed the Massachusetts Legislature, taped 15 episodes of a game show, oversaw an awards show production meeting, met with bankers to raise several million dollars to finance his upcoming cable and wireless ventures in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, celebrated the first anniversary of one of his restaurants and did "a million" radio and television interviews about his various projects.

"It's a fascinating life," he says with a shrug. "And it's a reflection, probably, of my odd nature. I'm a case study for a Type A personality. I have a short attention span, I love activity, I'm into all sorts of strange and wonderful things."

*

Clad in a tuxedo and black sneakers, Clark stands quietly beside a red carpet behind the Shrine Auditorium, microphone in hand, a camera aimed his way. In front of him, artists and guests walk toward the Shrine's backstage. It's two hours to air time at the AMAs, and Clark is here to do some selling: five brief interviews on five local ABC newscasts around the country. The first chat is with the affiliate in Philadelphia, and as the interview begins, he snaps to attention and shifts into his best pitchman mode. "We have it all tonight, live!" he enthuses. "We have Garth Brooks to Motley Crue."

"And, oh," he adds, feigning surprise, "you can't miss this: We've got a 14-year-old country singer, LeAnn Rimes, you've never heard a voice like this in your life . . . ." He shows off his sneakers and mentions that they're made by L.A. Gear (a sponsor of the show), then he throws in a pitch for the "Bandstand" movie.

For the station in Detroit, Clark and the ABC publicists orchestrate a "surprise" appearance by Sinbad, the AMA's host--though when the comedian starts rambling and plugging his own projects during their short stint on the air, Clark quickly reins him in. "Sinbad, this is the news," he says, never losing his broadcast-quality grin. "They've only got 30 seconds. Say something intelligent."

In half an hour, the five interviews are done--and you can see why, 40 years ago, Advertising Age took note of Clark's "Bandstand" ads for Beechnut gum and made a prediction. "He may replace Arthur Godfrey," the magazine wrote, "as the No. 1 personal salesman."

*

"What's your angle?" says Clark. "Do you have one? Have they given you any background?"

This afternoon, the product Clark is selling is himself, and he wants to know how to tailor his pitch. He's in the Burbank office of his company, one of the few people still around on a Good Friday afternoon. Most of the companies he does business with are closed today. He gave his more religious-minded staffers the day off and told the others to come in and catch up on work that they don't have time to do on busier days. He's spent the morning cleaning his closet, something he hasn't had a chance to do for years.

"He has no time," says an entertainment executive who has done business with Clark in the past. "He'd come into meetings and say, 'What's going on?' And when we'd start to tell him, he'd say, 'Stop. I'm way ahead of you.' He'd ask a few very specific questions, make very quick comments, boom-boom-boom, and then he'd leave."

Accompanied by his third wife, Kari, whom he employs as his personal assistant, Clark walks toward his spacious but astonishingly cluttered office. (He has three grown children: Rac Clark, from his first marriage, and Duane and Cindy from his second.) The room is furnished with dark, heavy, carved-wood desks, bookcases and chairs and decorated with a cavalcade of memorabilia, from a Snoop Doggy Dogg hat to an autographed photo from Michael Jackson to Playboy Playmates baring their breasts. Some of the collection is clearly valuable; much of it, though, is made up of promotional items whose only real worth is sentimental. "He's always bringing up examples of things he shouldn't have passed up and ways he could have made more money," says writer Bruce Vilanch. "But if all it meant to him was the money, that wouldn't be an office--it would be a Planet Hollywood."

Clark settles into a chair and spots an office door ajar. "Look, someone left the door open," he says. "I'm surrounded by idiots." He sighs about an upcoming charity gig: "It's for some children's hospital or something in Nashville. They conned me into giving a speech. Second to root canal work, there's nothing I hate more than giving a speech." He yells for staffers to hold it down. "This is the nature of the beast," he says in a conspiratorial tone. "Everybody sits in the hallway and yaps at my wife." Then he looks at the tape recorder sitting in front of him. "Is that on?" he asks. "Yikes."

When he's not speaking for public consumption, Clark's easygoing manner can turn impatient and irascible. "He's very charming," says a former employee, "and very, very demanding." Talk to people who've worked with him and you'll hear about his meticulous preparation, his unerring sense of what works. You'll also hear about his temper, his shouting, his anger when things aren't done the way he wants them done. Louis J. Horvitz, who got his start as a cameraman on Clark's series "Where the Action Is" and has gone on to direct many shows for Clark, puts it simply. "When you work with Dick," he says, "you do it Dick's way. It's like being a ballplayer and working for George Steinbrenner or Al Davis. You do it his way because he has what Mack Sennett had in the movie business: a tremendously keen sense of what people want to see."

But when he knows he's on the record, Clark's impatience fades; he becomes a smooth but guarded raconteur who says he was brought up on a simple dictum: Be polite. He'll talk about the "Bandstand" performer who urinated on the wall and treated the staff rudely, but he won't give the guy's name (except to say that he has a very famous brother); he'll mention the time funk singer Rick James yawned on camera after another singer's pop ballad, but he won't tell you whom James insulted. And before he gets into any of that, he offers up the angle he'd like to focus on this afternoon. "Particularly here in Los Angeles," he says, "most people that I run into say--and this is probably the single most aggravating thing that anybody could say to me--'Now that you're retired, what are you doing?' "

He shakes his head. "I don't do the 'Bandstand' anymore, so they think I'm sitting under a palm tree. Well, once I bite my tongue and say, 'I'm kind of busy,' I discover that nobody really has any more idea than a billy goat what I've been doing all my life, other than playing records for kids dancing and the things you see me do on television. Which is now about 10, 15 percent of what I do every day. We're in the television business, the radio business, the motion picture business, the restaurant business. I'm personally in the wireless telecommunications business in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I would like to have people know that there's more than meets the eye."

He stops, glances around the room, then frowns. "When I say I would like to have people know, I don't really care," he clarifies. "But when somebody thinks I'm sitting on my butt doing nothing, that annoys me."

Apparently, he never did. "America's oldest living teenager" may be the once-and-future nickname, but it never really fit. Clark wasn't ever carefree enough to make a convincing teen. A native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., he began to immerse himself in the fantasy world of radio shortly after his older brother was killed in World War II. By the time he was 15, he'd set his sights on a radio career. After graduating from high school, he got a summer job at a station owned by his uncle, and before the summer was out he had a regular slot on the air. Stations in Syracuse and Utica followed before the 21-year-old moved to WFIL in Philadelphia.

There, he did both radio and television--and when the regular host of a daily afternoon music show called "Bandstand" was arrested on drunk-driving charges, Clark replaced him. It was the summer of 1956, rock 'n' roll was beginning to take over the pop charts, and the show was insanely simple: a batch of new records, a studio full of dancing teenagers, a couple of stars on hand to lip-sync their latest songs, and a host who knew enough to stay out of the way. The following August, the show moved to the network as "American Bandstand"; it wouldn't go off the air until the fall of 1989.

"If you lived in a small town, Dick Clark was your lifeline to music and fashion and dance," says VH1 president John Sykes, who grew up watching the show in Schenectady, N.Y., and has lately been airing vintage "Bandstand" shows on his network to considerable success. "There was really no mass media that addressed the youth culture. If you wanted to hear your idols speak and see them perform, or just see what teenagers from other places were like, you watched 'Bandstand.' "

The show was essentially a two-man operation for Clark and producer Tony Mamarella, and not a lucrative one. "We got $1,500 a week, total, to produce 71/2 hours of network television," Clark says. "So I went into music publishing and management and record pressing and record dances and every conceivable way of making money."

At the time, many record companies--including the ones in which Clark had a financial stake--routinely paid disc jockeys to play records. Clark says he was making too much money to be tempted by that kind of offer himself, but his show did profit from a system of indirect kickbacks: The artists who performed on the show were supposed to be paid by "Bandstand," but in many cases their appearance fees were paid by their own record companies.

Then Congress got involved. In late 1959, a House of Representatives subcommittee held hearings that focused on the widespread industry practice of "payola," which wasn't yet illegal, so New York state's commercial-bribery laws were invoked to destroy the career of pioneering disc jockey Alan Freed, among others.

As rock 'n' roll's cleanest and most visible champions, Clark and "American Bandstand" were inviting targets, and he was grilled by the subcommittee. But while he admitted to irregularities--to accepting gifts of fur and jewelry for his wife, and to receiving unearned songwriting credit on some classic songs, including "Sixteen Candles"--he steadfastly denied ever receiving money to play a specific record. Clark's partner, Mamarella, did admit to accepting payola and resigned.

The real fallout for Clark came from the dizzying ways in which he'd been making money. He had a financial interest in 33 separate companies, earning more than $500,000 per year, that could conceivably profit from the records played on "Bandstand." In the end, at the insistence of ABC, Clark divested himself of all outside interests, the subcommittee pronounced him "a fine young man" and he was free to go back to work on "Bandstand."

"It's kind of a shame," he says now. "It was deemed to be a conflict of interest, and all I wanted to do was keep my job. Television was my job, so I stayed with television. But had I been Lawrence Welk, who was allowed to do both . . . . " His voice trails off; then he picks up again, more quietly: "Can you imagine what that record and music empire would be worth 40 years later?" He whistles softly. "Holy moley!"

His real problem, he insists, was guilt by association with rock 'n' roll music. "You put the rock 'n' roller out in left field, and you let the acceptable adult music purveyor continue," he says. "It's very prejudicial and unfair. Mr. Welk was a talented and wonderful individual, and they didn't deem he had a conflict. That's the way the chips fall. You can't spend a lot of time thinking about that."

Then he admits he sometimes does. "I see what happened to some of my friends," he says. "I'll leave them nameless, but a couple of them are multi, multi, multi, multi, multi multimillionaires, and there's one billionaire in the group. And it all happened by just sort of hanging around the music business."

Lest his money woes get too unseemly, Clark stops. "Life," he says with a shrug, "has not been unkind to me."

*

"Bandstand" picked up steam after the payola scandal, thriving during the days of teen idols such as Fabian and Frankie Avalon and dances such as the Twist. The Beatles took Clark by surprise--"She Loves You" having scored a lowly 73 on the show's rate-a-record segment--but after moving to Los Angeles and changing to a once-a-week format, the show still had the clout to attract such unlikely participants as the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Even in the '80s, punk avatars such as John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten) would appear, determined to be ironic but rarely making much headway in the face of Clark's benign acceptance.

At the time of the move to Los Angeles in early 1964, Clark also acquired ownership of "American Bandstand." Instead of working for the network, he controlled the show and licensed it to ABC (just as he currently licenses it to VH1). And he kept diversifying, staging concert tours and making inroads into music-oriented television production. "I was basically an entrepreneur," he says. "I figured ways to make money. Not a bad attribute. However, in the '60s it was frowned upon."

In the late '60s and early '70s, Clark began working on game shows, producing awards shows (beginning with the American Music Awards) and even a handful of feature films, from B movies such as "Psych-Out" and "Savage 7" to slightly more upscale projects. Made-for-television movies came later, beginning with the 1979 hit "Elvis," which typecast Clark as a producer of biopics until "Murder in Texas" typecast him as a "based on a true story" kind of movie maker.

These days, his company is working on several dozen projects. The television movie "Deep Family Secrets" recently aired, as did five episodes of "Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?"--an anthology drama series for Fox. "The Weird Al Show," a CBS morning show for children starring Weird Al Yankovic, is due to start in August. Also in the works, perhaps, is a talk show hosted by Donny and Marie Osmond. His company's programs may not receive much respect, but he gets them on the air.

"With the changing climate of television and film, we have to figure out how to maintain a company of this size when all these giant conglomerates are becoming the octopuses of the entertainment business," says Clark, who admits he's had feelers from some of those conglomerates but has no plans to sell at the moment. "The truth is, we're probably better off now than we've ever been, because we have so many buyers. Instead of three or four customers, we have 30 or 40."

And he intends to keep working to supply those customers as long as his health permits. "I don't think he'll ever retire," says Louis Horvitz. "He likes to make pictures, and he likes to make money, and he's always looking for ways to expand his empire. I've never known him not to be working. And I understand that attitude." Horvitz laughs. "However, if I had $600 billion, like he does, I can tell you right now that I'd be on my boat."

The one thing Clark no longer works on is the show that started it all. There are now eight "American Bandstand"-themed restaurants scattered throughout the country, but the show itself, after moving from ABC to TNT to the USA Network, ended its 37-year run (33 of them with Clark) in late 1989.

Earlier that year, Clark, approaching his 60th birthday, had finally relinquished his hosting chores to a young unknown, David Hirsch. But the show, filmed outdoors at Universal Studios to save money, was faltering. Clark says the network gave him a choice: Continue for another six months, or fold the tent. "And I said: 'Geez, the show is not to my liking, and you're not overjoyed with it--let's just let it go.' In retrospect, I should have kept it on for another six months, or even three months. Because it then would have played in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. I wasn't thinking."

Of course, "Bandstand" is playing in the '90s, in reruns on VH1 every Saturday. Clark has taped new introductions for each of the old episodes--and, says VH1's Sykes, he's kept a close eye on his product. "He's really careful to keep the AB logo on everything that goes out having to do with 'American Bandstand.' He's still a great promoter, and he still has tremendous pride of ownership." A 24-hour "Bandstand" marathon that aired on New Year's Day 1996, says Sykes, is still VH1's highest-rated weekday ever.

Which means that Clark is once again on television playing records and interviewing acts, and once again he finds himself facing questions like, "Who's your favorite 'Bandstand' performer ever?" He won't answer that one; in fact, he won't even name a single song in the jukebox at his Malibu home. "Privately, if we were having dinner some night, I'd be very dogmatic and out with it," he insists. "But to this day, it embarrasses me if somebody says, 'What's your favorite record?' or 'Who's your favorite artist?' "

Viewers shouldn't even read too much into his television ads for the local easy-listening radio station KOST, he says, even though those ads seemingly imply that he likes that style of music. "Oh, that's a paid job," Clark says quickly. "That's an endorsement of KOST, where I've had a radio show that plays that kind of music for 10, 12 years."

He laughs. "The funny thing about it is the number of people who think I own that radio station. I wish I did. I mean, that thing's gotta be worth a couple hundred million dollars." (Later, a publicist will call to say that Clark is worried about his answer to the KOST question. "He didn't mean to say that it was just a paid endorsement. Of course he likes the music . . . .")

Still, Clark constantly guards against letting people know the music he really prefers. There was a recent night in a New York City restaurant when Rob Reiner, the first celebrity contestant ever to appear on "The $10,000 Pyramid," was sitting in the next booth. "Midway through dinner," Clark recalls, "my wife says, 'Here's a dollar, go play something on the jukebox.' So I'm standing at the jukebox, and in a loud voice Rob says, 'All right, let's see what he's gonna play.' I spent an inordinately long time debating not what I wanted to hear but what I ought to play."

In the end, though, he did punch a few buttons. "They weren't my choices," he says. "They were things that I thought, if people are gonna critique what I played, they were reasonable choices." Just don't ask him to tell you what those reasonable choices were.

*

A few weeks later, another awards show has come to town. This time it's the Academy of Country Music Awards, which Clark is producing at the Universal Amphitheatre. The day before the show, he walks down the aisles, stopping to chat with Clint Black's wife, actress Lisa Hartman, then with Reba McEntire's manager, then with a writer who wants to sell an upcoming book about the American Music Awards through artist fan clubs, the way he did with an earlier book on the ACMs.

"It won't work," Clark says, "because pop fan clubs don't have as much influence as country fan clubs. The only pop fan club with any kind of influence is Barry Manilow's. Why don't you try the Home Shopping Network?"

Then Clark leaves the auditorium and heads for the Country Star restaurant, where more than three dozen participants in the ACMs will conduct television and radio interviews. Trailed by a security guard from the show who keeps a discreet distance ("He doesn't like it to look like he has security with him," says the guard), Clark stops to pose for pictures with a few fans. When he gets to the restaurant, his publicist tells him that the event has been delayed. "Then what the hell am I doing here?" Clark snaps. But he quickly finds ways to utilize the time: hobnobbing with LeAnn Rimes and her father, taking a quick business meeting at a back table, doing an interview with Mike Burger from the Family Channel's "Home and Family" show.

When Burger moves on to interview Patti Page and others, Clark hangs around within earshot, occasionally jumping into the shot for some spontaneous tomfoolery. Finally, Burger snaps, albeit playfully: "Dick, you've been in the business 50 years! Is it too much to ask that you go home?"

Clark wanders away. He's chatting with a couple of publicists when the members of the new band Ricochet, in the middle of their own interview with Burger, sing "Happy Birthday" to one of their members. Clark joins in the applause for their tight five-part harmonies, then shakes his head.

"You know the ironic thing?" he asks. "Some old lady gets paid about $250 now. If they just hummed the song without singing the words, she wouldn't get anything. (To the astonishment of many, but certainly not Clark, "Happy Birthday" is a copyrighted work.)

"But they sang it," Clark adds, "so she gets paid. In five years, that song has made about $20 million. It's the most valuable copyright in the world."

With that, Clark turns on his heels and heads back into the crowd, in search of another camera, another pitch, another deal.

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