Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Before Dick Clark...

The entertainment world is mourning the loss of Dick Clark, the consummate TV performer who kept Americans entertained for well over half a century. And, as Mr. Clark freely admitted, he forged an iconic career without being able to sing, dance, tell jokes, or act (although he did appear in a few films in the early 1960s, and subsituted for the male half of Paul and Paula when he walked out in the middle of a rock-and-roll caravan promoted by the "American Bandstand" host).

What Mr. Clark excelled at was hosting, the fine art of introducing other performers, game show contestants or even practical jokes, and enticing the audience to keep watching. As we've noted in other columns, fronting a TV game, beauty contest, variety show or a music program isn't as easy as it sounds. Ideally, the host should never over-shadow the other performers, while keeping the whole thing moving along and (when necessary) enliven the proceedings when it gets a bit dull.

It's a dying art, as anyone who's watched TV over the past 25 years can attest. Among the current crop, only Wheel of Fortune's Pat Sajak, Survivor's Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron of Dancing With the Stars and Ryan Seacrest of American Idol seem to have mastered the requisite skills. The rest seem to disappear into the background, or spend all their time trying to one-up the other acts.

And Dick Clark excelled in almost every format he attempted. He presided over Bandstand for decades; he gave Aud Lang Syne a hipper twist with his New Year's Rockin' Eve specials that began in the 1970s; he was the original host of The $10,000 Pyramid, and co-hosted TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes (with Ed McMahon) for years on NBC. At one point in the early 1990s, Clark was hosting shows simultaneously on CBS, ABC and NBC, making him one of the few performers in broadcasting history to hit the network trifecta.

But Clark was more than just a host. He became one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, packing countless awards shows and other programs under the banner of Dick Clark Productions. In fact, Pyramid was one of the few long-term gigs where Clark wasn't working for himself. At the time of his death, Mr. Clark's personal fortune was somewhere north of $200 million dollars, a testament to his shrewd business skills, and successful track record in knowing what TV executives--and the American public--wanted to see.

Of course, it was an empire built on "Bandstand." When Clark assumed hosting duties in 1956, it was a local show in Philadelphia. Most viewers assumed that Dick Clark was the original host, but that honor belongs to another local broadcaster, Bob Horn. By the time Dick Clark joined the announcing staff of WFIL radio, Horn was a well-established Philadelphia media personality, appearing on the station's radio and TV outlets. In fact, the 24-year-old Clark shared afternoon announcing duties on WFIL radio, allowing his colleague to appear on TV, as the host of Bob Horn's Bandstand. Clark's introduction to the show was as an occasional guest-host.

But all that changed in 1956. Horn had been squabbling with his bosses at WFIL, and they fired him after he was arrested for drunk driving and accused of statutory rape. Horn was acquitted on the rape charge and resolved the DUI case with local prosecutors. His career in ruins, Horn moved to Houston, where he was offered a job at a radio station owned by Top 40 pioneer Gordon McLendon. Using the on-air moniker of Bob Adams, the former Bandstand host rebuilt his career, eventually launching a successful advertising agency in Houston. Horn died of a heart attack while mowing his lawn in 1965, just one year after Dick Clark moved Bandstand to Los Angeles.

To his credit, Clark always acknowledged Bob Horn's contributions, including the famous decision to televise teenagers dancing while the latest hits played. It was hardly an original idea --Horn borrowed the concept from another Philly TV show of that era--but it gave Bandstand the boost it needed. By the time Clark became the host, Bandstand was a broadcast phenomenon, capturing up to 60% of the local TV audience on weekday afternoons. In 1957, Clark took the show national on ABC and became a star, while memories of the Bob Horn version quickly faded.

Obviously, Dick Clark benefited from being in the right place at the right time. But that doesn't take away from his tremendous skills as a TV producer and program developer. One of the cardinal rules of television is that you don't mess with a winning formula. Clark recognized that when he took over Bandstand, and kept refining the hit program, keeping it on the air for more than 40 years. It was an early indication that Mr. Clark would be remembered for much more than his appearances before the camera.

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