April 21, 2012 in City

‘Bandstand’ memories fond link to Dick Clark

Spokane resident, sister were dancers on show in ’70s
Jacob Palmer The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Mark Wilhelm, of Spokane, holds his autographed phonograph album signed by Dick Clark in 1977. Wilhelm said his favorite musical guests on the show were singer Blondie and disco queen Donna Summer.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The news of TV legend Dick Clark’s death Wednesday had an especially deep impact on Mark Wilhelm, of Spokane.

Wilhelm, 52, was a regular dancer on Clark’s signature show, “American Bandstand,” along with his sister, Elizabeth Godert-Wilhelm, for nearly five years in the mid- to late 1970s.

“I heard ‘Bandstand Boogie’ (by Barry Manilow) on the radio on my way home from work Wednesday and I just knew,” Wilhelm said. “My heart dropped, because they never play that song on the radio. I just knew (Clark) had passed.”

Wilhelm got his start on the show through sheer persistence.

For a “year straight,” the Southern California teenager sent the producers letters requesting an opportunity to dance on the set of the popular Saturday afternoon show, with no results.

“My Irish temper really got up, and I called ABC Studios to demand some answers,” he said. “Because of my 16-year-old wisdom, I sounded off on the person who answered the phone. That secretary forwarded me on to someone else who turned out to be Mrs. (Kari) Clark.”

Clark invited the Wilhelms to try out at the Big Event in the summer of ’76, when they were “sized up” to see if they were good enough for the show. Two months later Mark and his sister were dancing on the “American Bandstand” set in Burbank, Calif.

“We were lucky enough to be on the show during the disco era – even though I did look like a bush monster,” Wilhelm said in reference to his perm.

Wilhelm remembered Clark as “always the perfect gentleman” and a “father figure to all of us dancers.”

“If you wanted to be on the show, you were not on drugs, you were not involved with alcohol,” Wilhelm said. “We didn’t do that stuff because of him – and this was the ’70s!”

The dancers received no compensation except the free swing lessons and Kentucky Fried Chicken the Clark production company provided during breaks between shooting.

The highlight of Wilhelm’s time with the show came when he and his sister came in second place in the 1979 American Bandstand Dance Contest. Their prize was a year’s supply of Stridex acne pads, a package of Candies products for Elizabeth and a collection of Angel’s Flight clothing for Mark.

“Picture that white outfit John Travolta wore in ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ but in many other colors,” Wilhelm said, describing his prize. “By the time I got them, the suits were out of fashion.”

Wilhelm stopped dancing in 1980 to pursue a career with the military. He retired 28 years later as a chief warrant officer 2, spending time with the Marines and the Navy, including time as a crew member with the Blue Angels from 1992 to 1996.

He described his experience on Clark’s show as the “last bastion from the ’70s that made a huge impact on me.”

Upon hearing of Clark’s death, Wilhelm said it was a “bittersweet moment,” saying that he will always remember where he was when he heard the news.

Wilhelm stays connected to the disco era by DJing “three to four times a month” at clubs around Spokane. The style of music is making a quasi-comeback due to the popularity of techno music, which is essentially disco music sped up, according to Wilhelm.

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