Once it became obvious that the ripples from the emerging congressional investigation into disc jockey payola threatened to swamp American Bandstand, the network’s daytime programming jewel, ABC-TV network officials came to a critical decision — someone would have to keep an eye on Dick Clark down there in Philadelphia.
They settled on a recent hire, Chuck Barris.
Barris seemed uniquely suited to the task. He was a native Philadelphian, the son of a dentist and a graduate of Lower Merion High School and Drexel Institute of Technology, where he had been an all-East lacrosse player and a columnist for the student paper.
Following college, Barris had worked at a U.S. Steel Foundry before moving on to a production company where he edited football film. Then he moved on to New York, where he landed a job as a page at NBC-TV. He soon moved into a management training program at NBS, which was mostly populated with Ivy League graduates, thanks to a bit of subterfuge.
“I went to the public library and I looked up who the board members were for the Radio Corporation of America who owned NBC. I used them as references and I got right in,” Barris said in an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2010.
After completing the program, Barris was assigned to daytime TV sales before the entire department was wiped out a few months later in an efficiency move. He knocked around Europe for a few months, tried selling Telleprompters for a bit and took a temporary gig promoting an Ingemar Johansen-Floyd Patterson heavyweight fight, but was unable to find steady work.
Even his marriage to Lyn Levy, the niece of CBS co-founder William S. Paley and whose father served on the CBS board, didn’t help. Barris had even applied for work as a spy with the CIA around the same time he was hired by ABC. When the payola investigation broke widely, ABC’s head of daytime television, Julian Bercovici, recruited Barris to keep an eye on Clark.
It would only be for a few weeks, Barris was told. You can commute down there every day and report back to us on what you see. So, outfitted in a new, corporate suit bought for him by the network, Barris began his daily commute — an hour and 45 minutes each way by train — a commute, that would last several months.
Clark and his boss, George Koehler, knew why he was there, but the rest of the WFIL staff was unclear as to what Barris’ duties actually were. Since Barris spent time with Ed Yates in the control room and with Walt Beaulieu in the remote truck, some thought he was in training to become a director. Since he spent time talking to sales people and setting up commercials, some thought he was some sort of advertising coordinator.
But mostly he just hung around, playing chess with announcer Charlie O’Donnell or engaging guests in conversation.
Announcer John Carlton, who often drove Barris to the train station in the evening, found Barris to be engaging with a “delightful sense of humor,” but conceded that “he was a little bit off to the side.” Ad man Les Waas found Barris’ presence to be annoying since they were about the same size and wore similar clothing. “People were always confusing us,” Waas said.
Barris, who actually enjoyed his daily train rides because it gave him a chance to catch up on his reading or catch a quick nap, was grateful for the job but found his hours in the American Bandstand studio to be largely a waste of time.
“It was so ridiculous,” Barris said in the Archive of American Television interview. “If I left at 6 o’clock, what’s to say [Clark] couldn’t be doing nothing nefarious after 6 o’clock? It was so silly. I spent my time writing these dumb little reports every day. … They piled up in cartons.”
Plus, Barris said, “everybody in the studio hated me. They thought I was Benedict Arnold, a major spy that had come to spy on them, but Dick loved me because he knew I was his lifesaver.”
Excerpted from Bandstandland © 2014 Larry Lehmer