Posted Wednesday, April 18, 2012, at 6:46 PM
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Dick Clark, who died on Wednesday at the age of 82, wasn’t quite one of a kind. There’s another man who rose to prominence in the 1950s as a disc jockey and the host of a teen-oriented music showcase, then moved on to host game shows. When I reached him this afternoon, Wink Martindale told me that Clark influenced him greatly as he launched his career. Later in life, when they became good friends, the television staple extended him kindness after kindness. “He was just a nice man,” the 77-year-old Martindale says, enunciating each word in his soothing, golden-age-of-radio voice.
Martindale got his start in Memphis hosting a show called Top 10 Dance Party. A personal friend of Elvis Presley—the King dated Martindale’s future wife Sandy before he married Priscilla—the Tennessee native made his name by conducting an extensive early on-air interview with Elvis. Though Martindale has heard that he was under consideration for hosting duties onAmerican Bandstand in 1956, that job went to Clark, who held on to it for more than three decades.
“He was all powerful,” Martindale says. The best examples of Clark’s star-making ability, according to Martindale, are Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell, all of whom became overnight teen idols after being shepherded onto the air by Clark and his producer Tony Mammarella. “Before cable, there was American Bandstand,” Martindale says. “That’s where Justin Bieber—is that his name, Justin Bieber?—that’s where he would [have gone].”
In 1963, Clark expanded his on-air empire, hosting a guessing game called The Object Is. A year later, Martindale made his own quiz show debut with What’s This Song? As in the Bandstand era, Martindale and Clark competed for the same gigs. In 1972, Martindale beat out Clark to become the host of the CBS blackjack game Gambit. Losing that job, however, allowed Clark to land Pyramid. “It just seemed so perfect for him,” Martindale says. “In that first level of the show, before a person got to go over and try to win the big money, he just seemed at home, more than on any other show.”
Martindale says Clark’s game show success came because—like Bill Cullen and Art Linkletter—he could talk to anyone. “If you just gravitate to people, then you’re going to be a good host,” explains the emcee of High Rollers and Tic Tac Dough and The Joker's Wild, and he would know.
Clark’s hugely successful television career came with personal consequences. When Bandstand was at its height, “it seemed like he was on the air everywhere for 24 hours a day. It cost him his first marriage—he was never home,” Martindale says. Clark was absent from his own house because he was busy spending time with every other American human. Back when there used to be a mass culture, Clark was the one who presented that culture to us with a smile and a wave of his hand. And, if you were really lucky, he might present you with something even better: $100,000.