Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick Clark

Well, Dick Clark is dead. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I remember Bandstand. Not that I watched it more than one or two times in my life. But I passed through it.

Until 8th grades I lived in West Philadelphia, 47th and Osage for most of the time, in the penumbra of the Penn campus some 15 blocks to the east. It was white then and not run down, with alleys for playing ball, and corner drug stores for playing pinball and very occasionally sitting at the soda fountain and discovering a cherry coke, and inside the houses we sat down for Leave it to Beaver dinners with no TV. From 4th through 8th grades the Shenkin kids deserted the local public school Henry C. Lea Elementary and Sayre Junior High in favor of suburban Friends’ Central School out on City Line. In the morning we would either take a green station wagon school bus, or my mother would drive me and my three siblings to school. The route was always the same, and we listened to Ed McMahon on the radio with my mom, or we would talk and have our little games in the station wagon. Kids can be a little ghoulish, and just a few blocks north of 63rd and Market Streets, as we passed a long, low sign on a grassy front lawn, we would recite in low-pitched sonorous unison, “J. McCullough, Undertaker!” And laugh at our own impertinence.

But that doesn’t have anything to do with Dick Clark, yet. That was saved for the ride home. By 7th grade I could come home by myself after late afternoon sports, taking a bus, the El, and another bus. You could do that then and parents wouldn’t fear for you. The Red Arrow suburban bus from the school to the 69th street terminal was populated by school kids with important conversations. I remember telling Richie “Boop” Reinhart that I had discovered that “fuck” was a dirtier word than “shit,” because after all, everyone had to shit. It seemed perfectly clear at the time.

At the 69th Street Terminal I would walk from the bus terminal at one end to the El (elevated train) terminal at the exact opposite end, punctuated in the middle by the donut shop, with big, glazed donuts staring me in the face as I passed. I disciplined myself not to stop because I knew they weren’t good for me, and also the fact that donuts cost money I think was also in there somewhere. Two Friends’ Central girls seemed to hang out there, one small, blond, freckled, slightly coarse and loud; the other taller, darker, shyer, and to me much more attractive. There were guys from other schools around there with them. They were racy. But while I looked, I don’t think I stopped more than once or twice, just to get a donut.

OK, still no Dick Clark. The El had stops at 63rd street, 60th, 56th, 52nd, and 46th. I was 46th. While the train worked its way there I diverted myself by trying to hold my breath between the stops, from doors closed to doors opened. Usually I think I had to take one or two breaths, or maybe I made it without breathing between 63rd and 60th. One time I read the other side of the Daily News someone was reading and saw banner headlines, Bannister Runs Four Minute Mile!

At 46th Street is where Dick Clark comes in. I climbed down the stairs to get the bus that would take me from Market Street to Osage. At 46th and Market were the studios and offices for WFIL, the ABC local outlet. I knew it because my brother and I and best friend Arnold Bernstein had gone there on various Saturdays in the past to be in the little audiences for Pud’s Prize Party (Pud was the rotund character for Fleer’s Double Bubble Gum), and Tom Morehead’s radio kids sports show, where I was once an interviewee plucked from the audience to aver that I liked playing defense better than offense in football, which was a surprise to me as I said it, having never been asked before, but true. That was about all I said. I was probably picked for interviewing because he saw me talking loud and laughing in the audience pre-show, or because we kept coming week after week. But beyond “defense,” I don’t think I said too much, gentle as Tom was in urging me forward and filling the verbal space, but what can you do with stage fright?

But that was before I commuted. Later, in the midst of my commute, coming down from the El, I would see a snaking line outside WFIL, filled with kids from West Catholic and maybe some from West Philly, and other high schools, waiting to get into Bandstand. The “American” came later. At first it was to be hosted by Bob Horne, but when he was discovered taking girls from the show home with him – understandable but regrettable – he was replaced by squeaky-clean Dick Clark.

A friend who was another passenger in the school station wagon reciting “J. McCullough, Undertaker,” recounts how he was 27 blocks away from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention watching one of the most famous and influential events of the 20th century on TV, just the same as he would have been watching in Tulsa. I can say that I passed by the pimpled crowd from West Catholic, as a good private school boy heading home, in much the same fashion. I knew what I should be doing, and I got on that bus to go over to Osage Avenue and home. Bye bye Dick Clark.

OK, I have to admit, that’s not much of a brush with celebrity. But in fact I did see Dick Clark in the flesh once. We had moved out to Wynnewood and I was a senior at the great Lower Merion High. American Bandstand had guest schools for some of its shows, to leaven the West Catholic crowd, and I heard from my friend Lynn Sherr that it was our turn. She tried to organize a group of us to go down there, but actually only a few of us actually went. I was one of them. I don’t think I was one of the dancers the cameras focused on. I hope not. We were definitely out of place.

But I did see Dick Clark. As I lurked nearby, he introduced a new act, a guy named Chubby Checker (this was the era of Fats Domino, so I think the hefty Chubby was not using his real name.) Clark introduced him as a great new talent and only 18 or 19 years old or so. Then afterward I heard their private conversation.

Chubby said to him, with come distress, “I’m not 19, I’m 23!”

Clark patiently but firmly and I think pedantically explained to him, “The public likes youth!”

Chubby took it and didn’t argue back.

Right there you could see the beginnings of Clark’s later, greater career as a producer. But me, I really didn’t think about it or analyze it. I just remembered it. I was headed to college and medical school.


Budd Shenkin