In Clark and ‘Bandstand,’ youth found a home

Posted: April 19, 2012

FOR BUNNY GIBSON, “American Bandstand” was a magical place.

She was a 13-year-old kid from Darby, unhappy with her home life, her school and her hometown, and looking for something wonderful to happen to her.

You had to be 14 to get on “Bandstand,” so she borrowed her mother’s makeup, stuffed rags down her front, played hooky from school that day in 1959 and went off to be part of the hundreds of other teenagers yearning to be among Dick Clark’s dancers at the old studio at 46th and Market streets.

She said that her knees were knocking as she approached the green doors to the studio. A girl in front of her was turned away and went sobbing down the street.

But Bunny’s disguise worked and she entered a “magical, wonderful place.”

“ ‘This is my new family,’?” she recalled thinking. “ ‘This is where I belong.’ That experience changed the course of my life.”

As it did the lives of hundreds of other teenage girls and boys who made the trek to West Philadelphia when “American Bandstand” was there from the late ’50s until it moved to Hollywood in 1964.

Bunny, who has had parts in TV series, was still tearful last night after hearing the news that Dick Clark had died of a heart attack in Los Angeles at the age of 82.

He was the man who helped put Philadelphia on the popular-music map, featuring wholesome, well-dressed, clean-cut teens dancing to rock ’n’ roll, which in many quarters of the land was still viewed as the “Devil’s music.” While famed as an entertainer, Clark also was a shrewd businessman, producing a number of hit shows, owning music publishing and recording through his Dick Clark Productions, and operating radio stations and a restaurant chain, among other endeavors.

And Philly gave him his start.

He gained national recognition when the dance show became ABC’s “American Bandstand” in August 1957. He was a fixture on New Year’s Eve telecasts through last year, despite impaired speech from a stroke in 2004.

He also hosted five versions of the popular game show “Pyramid,” and numerous other TV shows over the years.

Because of his youthful good looks, Clark was called “America’s Oldest Teenager.”

“He was very dedicated,” said Nicky Fiorentino, known as “Nicky Blue,” another of the “Bandstand” dancers. “I never saw anyone with more seriousness. He knew where he was going. There he was with a bunch of snot-nosed kids; how did he know he would become the star he was?

“He was my mentor in a lot of ways. Because of his example I stayed as a Teamster for 45 years. I was the Dick Clark of the Teamsters.”

Another dancer, Steven Colanero, said, “We were all too young to appreciate how lucky we were. There are great memories.”

Once, during a cab strike, Steve was riding the Frankford El when he came upon a scruffy, poorly dressed man who looked like a bum.

“It’s me, Dick Clark,” the man said. “Stay with me.”

Clark had had to ride the El, too, and didn’t want to be recognized.

Richard Wagstaff Clark was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Nov. 30, 1929. After graduating from A.B. Davis High School, in Mount Vernon, he began doing odd jobs for WRUN-AM in Rome, N.Y. The station was owned by an uncle and managed by his father, Richard Augustus Clark. Dick became the weatherman and news announcer.

While attending Syracuse University, he was a disc jockey on radio station WOLF, in Syracuse, and hosted a country-music show called “Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders.”

He moved to the Philadelphia area in 1952 and lived in Drexel Hill, where he was a neighbor of Ed McMahon, soon to become Johnny Carson’s longtime sidekick. He took a job as a disc jockey at radio station WFIL.

One of the station’s features was a show that used teenagers to rate the current music. Among the guest evaluators was Mary Ann Donio, then 16. Clark saw her chewing gum and told her that she couldn’t talk on radio while chewing gum.

“He made me put it on my nose,” said Mary Ann, now Mary Ann Federico. “We were judging a song by Fats Waller. I had to leave the gum on my nose.”

A WFIL-affiliated TV station broadcast a dance show hosted by Bob Horn in 1952. Clark was a regular substitute on the show, and when Horn, who was arrested for drunken driving, departed, Clark took over on July 9, 1956. He was 26.

When the show was picked up by ABC and aired nationally on Aug. 5, 1957, Clark was interviewing Elvis Presley.

Clark produced “American Bandstand” for syndicated television and later the USA Network, a cable-and-satellite-television channel, until 1989, when the show went off the air.

In 1972, Clark produced and became the host of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” It became a New Year’s Eve staple. Clark often stood in Times Square bundled against the cold, waiting for the ball to drop.

He had to skip the end of 2004 because of his stroke, but came back the following year as co-host with Regis Philbin. His speech improved each year, but he maintained a peripheral role.

Clark hosted a number of radio shows, the longest-running was “Rock, Roll & Remember,” named after his 1976 autobiography. It ran from 1982 to the time of his stroke in 2004.

He and his former neighbor, Ed McMahon, co-hosted the NBC series “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes,” in 1984. It ran until 1998.

Clark did a number of acting stints, including a part in a Perry Mason show, “The Case of the Final Fadeout,” in which he was revealed to be the killer. He was married three times. His first marriage was to Barbara Mallery in 1952. They had one son, Richard, and divorced in 1961. He married Loretta Martin in 1962. They had two children, Duane and Cindy, and divorced in 1971. His third marriage in 1977 to Kari Wigton lasted until his death. n

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or morrisj@phillynews.com.

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