The sentence “Dick Clark died today” seems like a contradiction in terms. If there was someone who was supposed to be forever young, untouched by time, it was him: if not immortal, then at least amortal. He was a contradiction: one of TV’s longest-serving colossi, best known for shows that celebrated eternal youth (American Bandstand) and the march of time (New Year’s Rockin’ Eve), who himself was famed for seeming eternal and unchanging. Composed, sunny, gleaming and well-spoken, he was never exactly “The World’s Oldest Teenager,” as the cliché went, but he was a constant nonetheless—the world’s longest-serving cool uncle/chaperone, and a beloved one.
That forever-young facade was gone well before Clark died, reportedly of a heart attack, at age 82 today. He suffered a stroke in 2004, and while he made public appearances at New Year’s Eve and elsewhere, his illness was apparent. But he achieved cultural longevity well before then, beginning with Bandstand, the Philadelphia music show that the former DJ took to ABC in 1957.
(PHOTOS: Dick Clark: 1929 – 2012)
Before Soul Train, MTV or American Idol (and along with shows like Ed Sullivan’s), Bandstand permanently married American TV to American pop music. It was a hangout, a community dance, a chaperoned hangout on which American kids got exposed to new pop music—and to each other.
Because one significant thing about Bandstand was that it was as much about the kids, the fans, as the music they loved—Clark interviewed them, let them show off dance steps, asked them to rate new singles. (“It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it!”) Bandstand was a showcase for musicians, definitely, but it also celebrated the idea of pop music as a conversation that you were part of.
It was a party, and Clark made it a good and successful one by being a host in the true sense of the word. Hosting is maybe the most bizarre of TV jobs, one that in one sense is almost nothing—literally being yourself on camera—and yet that stymies most people who try it. Clark, like a good party host, became the dean of TV entertainment hosts because he didn’t let himself get in the way. He had personality—quick-witted, genial, always pleasant—and a way of connecting with everyday kids and artists, but he also managed that difficult balance of being a star yet a servant to his audience.
In the 1970s, Clark began the New Year’s Eve franchise with ABC—a natural fit after minding the punchbowl of America’s biggest TV party. And a generation that saw him as the constant face of their youth now saw him as the constant, cheerful face of the passage of time. With him, New Year’s became perhaps the first native TV holiday of television: watching the ball drop was a much a part of the ritual as champagne, countdowns and kisses at midnight.
I would be lying, however, if I said that either of those most famous gigs were what I will remember Clark most fondly from. As a kid of Generation X, I grew up watching Clark on sick days as the host of the addictive $10,000 (and other denominations) Pyramid. He worked on numerous other game shows and specials as well, but less apparent to the home viewer was his career as a behind-the-scenes titan: besides Bandstand, Dick Clark Productions produced a slew of game and reality shows, as well as music and awards specials.
The “Who will be the next Dick Clark?” speculation started years and years before today, and in the past few years, most people have concluded the title falls to American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest, who has co-hosted Rockin’ Eve for several years. But no one, however hard-working or well-coiffed, is really in a position to be Dick Clark anymore: not in the sense of presenting one face of youth culture to an entire country. That mass culture Clark represented, like Clark himself, could not really live forever. But for an impressively long run, Dick Clark kept the party going. RIP.