Guru of pop compares three decades of rockin' teens
New York — A 40-year-old today is thinking much younger than a 40-year-old of the '40s and '50s,'' says Dick Clark. ``That's a function of having been loosened up in their perspective. They think younger and kids think older.'' If anyone should know, it's Mr. Clark, one of pop culture's indelible figures. Millions of middle-aged people can mark their youth with an image of him as the boyish TV host of ``American Bandstand,'' deftly presiding over a generation of high school couples as they danced their way through a social revolution.
``In those days kids were musically not as sophisticated as they are today,'' Clark observed as we chatted here, ``so everybody could like the same thing at the same time. Now it's 17 different kinds of popular music, and classical and jazz.
What changed was that from 1955 on -- and for 30 years thereafter -- you have people who grew up with music and developed a fine taste.''
Clark has now become one of the most visible faces on today's TV -- the only personality, in fact, to be host of series on all three TV networks simultaneously. He's also a hugely successful media entrepreneur. Tonight, for instance, ABC-TV will be airing a three-hour live special -- ``American Music Awards'' -- produced by Mr. Clark's company. And he looks forward -- rather zestfully -- to further adventures in film and series TV production.
Most important, Clark is still host of ``Bandstand,'' now in its 34th consecutive year on the air -- an astonishing record in the face of shifting TV fortunes. During that time, he's watched rock take over, musical tastes become fragmented, and social attitudes reversed.
Because of these changes, he says, ``today there are no huge stars like Elvis Presley. As big as Bruce Springsteen is, not everybody is a Springsteen fan. In Presley's time you didn't dare not to be a fan of his, because you were part of a club. Now you can say I prefer Billy Joel or Tina Turner, or someone else. It's all fractionalized. Nobody will ever approximate the impact that Presley made, or Sinatra.''
Yet ``the only startling difference that you see on the show today, as opposed to 33 years ago,'' he notes, ``is that we are all now -- unfortunately -- more sophisticated, jaded. You've got to remember we were living in a world where certain words were verboten. I could never turn to a guy and a girl and ask, `Are you going steady?' That was absolutely a no-no -- it was the Eisenhower period and no parent wanted their kid going steady, so it wasn't a thing that you could endorse as proper behavior on the air. But there was a secret-service language you would use. I would say, `Are you going together?' Then everybody knew I meant `Are you going steady?' It seems so naive. It's hard to conceive.''
``Bandstand'' took what Clark calls ``an extraordinary leap forward'' in the mid-'50s: ``The first time that black and white kids got on the dance floor together on social occasions,'' he asserts, ``was on that show. It was a very segregated society that we lived in, yet this step was an inevitability. It wasn't anything terribly startling -- it had to be done. The only frightening thing to us about national TV exposure was whether it would cause any disquiet in the South. It didn't. It didn't cause one peep. I don't know what you sociologically learn about this, but if you just quietly do it and don't make a big thing about it, you don't rouse those latent angers.''
When the show gracefully navigated rock's onslaught in the '50s, ``every kid in the country was into it,'' Clark recalls. ``It was their own show and it was their own music and it was universally hated by every adult. So rock had a huge impact. Anything that the older generation hates is usually loved by kids. Nothing much changes -- that still continues today.''
Clark's original viewers -- now the older generation -- have remained fans since he took over ``Bandstand'' in 1956. What is it that gives so many Americans their deep and lasting personal link to the program? After all, it's just young people on a dance floor, with Clark presiding and introducing singers.
``When it started, it was the the only thing out there for the kids,'' he points out. ``It happened before the youth culture was recognized. They were being treated, if not as second-class citizens, at least as unrecognized citizens. Then by the mid-'50s, they got their own music and began to show their purchasing power, so they got recognition.''
But why has the show remained virtually intact over the decades?
``The program is a window that allows you to look at the flow of fashion, the morals, the changes in language,'' he says. ``It's people-watching: You're watching how they do this movement, which is dancing, and you're watching what they wear. Although the framework doesn't change over the years, the content does.
``It would be like standing and looking out this window here,'' he says, pointing at the commanding view from his penthouse in the ultra-high-priced Trump Tower building. ``That building out there wasn't there a year ago, but it's here now, and that bridge will eventually not be there.''
During these changes, ``Bandstand'' gave an impressive list of singers and groups their first important exposure. But it was big-band records that caught the ear of Dick Clark as a boy.``We used to listen to an old wind-up Victrola in the hallway of my parents' room,'' he recalls. Broadcasting was already his goal by the time his family moved from his birthplace in Mount Vernon, N.Y., to Utica when Clark was a teen-ager. He did news and worked as a disc jockey at Utica radio stations before, during, and after graduating from Syracuse University, then made a crucial move to Philadelphia's WFIL. He took over the local ``Bandstand'' TV show in 1956, and the next year it went network.
The rest may be pop-culture history, but it is by no means the whole of Clark's show-business career. He's best known these days -- outside ``Bandstand'' -- as co-host of ``TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes'' and host of ``The $25,000 Pyramid'' (and of two syndicated TV shows). But he and his company are also the producers of many TV and theatrical films and prime-time TV shows, and of several weekly radio shows (he is host of two of them).
In addition, he produces and is host of a live stage revue that tours the country, and he has written syndicated newspaper columns and several books -- the latest one being Ballantine Books' ``The History of American Bandstand.''
How does he manage this staggering schedule? In large part, with the help of his wife, Kari, a charming woman who bustled into the apartment during our talk laden with packages.
``If I had to think about what I was going to do every day, I'd be a raving lunatic,'' Clark says. ``There's the work of five or six people involved. She takes care of it. I know we'll go to Philadelphia tonight, but I don't what we're going to do there -- we're going to have dinner with somebody. She's told me and I forgot. I sat down at a luncheon the other day with a friend of mine who's a production competitor, and he said, `I look at you and I see time management.' And there are still a lot of things I want to do in my life before I'm called away.''
``Personally, I'd like to visit every corner of the earth. But,'' he adds a bit wistfully, ``I don't know as I'll ever be able to accomplish that.''
Then why does a man noted for his personal wealth do so much?
``I've reflected on that the last few years. I'm not a workaholic. I love to take vacations -- we take one every three months. We work very hard in the interim.
``The real truth of it is, the money stopped being the motivation about 25 years ago. It's the activity, it's the play. That's the same reason a lot of people do what they do. Once you get enough money to live on, that's all you need.
``But the money does change your attitude a little bit. It's not an extraordinarily easy business. It's very competitive. When I was a kid I was very competitive, and I still am. But now it doesn't hurt so much to lose something, or give something away. It's not laziness, it's maturity, to know that you just can't do everything, nor are you equipped to do it. That sometimes takes a little time to figure out.''