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Obituary: Clark Race, Popular radio DJ and host of KDKA-TV's 'Dance Party'

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Clark Race's radio career dovetailed perfectly with the golden era of pop music in the late '50s and throughout the '60s. He became one of the most influential and popular local disc jockeys, with a keen ear for what makes a hit record.

Mr. Race, 66, of New Wilmington, Lawrence County, suffered a heart attack and died yesterday morning following surgery and a lengthy battle with throat cancer.

For many area residents in the '60s, Mr. Race's radio and TV shows were the place to tune in the hit music of the day.

He hosted a hugely popular show on KDKA Radio, and KDKA-TV's "Dance Party," which was a local version of "American Bandstand."

The Hudson, N.Y., native started his radio career doing baseball broadcasts in Albany, N.Y. One day, the station manager told him to play some music, so he went out to a record store and simply bought a bunch of music he liked. Listeners liked it, too, and the concept caught on.

A year later, Westinghouse Broadcasting heard what he was doing and offered him a job at KDKA-AM. The 26-year-old came to Pittsburgh in 1959 to host a radio show that lasted until 1970.

At its peak, Mr. Race's show captured more than 50 percent of the audience -- a rating that is unheard of today. There was no formula, no Top 40: He simply played what he thought listeners would like. He was one of the first to bring the music of black artists to a wider and more mainstream audience.

He's credited with helping to make hits, including Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes" and the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy and the Red Baron."

Bobby Vinton went on record as saying that Mr. Race broke his first hit, "Roses Are Red." In those early days of his career, Vinton was shopping the record himself and went to KDKA. Mr. Race was in the studio.

"He said, 'That's nice. I'll put it on the air,' " Vinton recalled in a 1991 Pittsburgh Press interview.

After meeting Beatles manager Brian Epstein, he was invited to go to London with legendary New York City DJ Murray the K and meet the Beatles.

In 1963, KDKA-TV launched "Dance Party." The weekly Saturday show featured local teens dancing to the hit parade songs, along with live performances by top acts.

"Back in those days, he was the biggest thing in town. He was the Dick Clark of Pittsburgh," said KDKA-TV floor director Victor Vrabel, who at the time was the director for "Dance Party."

"His show brought in the major talent of the time: the Supremes, Buddy Holly, Chubby Checker."

Bands traveling through town performed on what is now KDKA's evening news set. For area teen-agers, it was considered a status symbol to be seen on "Dance Party." The show ran until 1966 -- a victim of the shift away from locally produced TV programming.

"He was one of the giants in Pittsburgh radio. He had tremendous appeal to young people. He had his finger on the pulse of what people wanted to hear," said Aviva Radbord, KDKA-TV weekend assignment editor and public affairs producer.

"His name had been so well known to me when I was growing up and listening to the radio," said Radbord, who joined KDKA after Mr. Race had left. "I found him to be so approachable and kind. I kept in touch with him and his wife, Diane, and found them to be a lovely couple."

After Mr. Race's radio show ended, he left for the West Coast, where he worked at KMPC in Los Angeles, which was owned by Gene Autry, and at stations in San Francisco and San Diego. He also hosted a Chuck Barris-produced TV game show, "The Parent Game."

He came back to Pittsburgh in 1986 with a new venture that was completely outside of the broadcasting field: He and Diane opened a bed and breakfast in Sewickley, fulfilling a longtime dream.

In 1993, the couple bought Gabriel's Bed and Breakfast in New Wilmington. The romantic getaway is an angel-themed B&B in Lawrence County's Amish country. The couple made guests feel welcome, and were known to drive tourists unfamiliar with the area around the back roads.

Diane Race said one of her husband's last hopes was that he could discourage others from smoking. Mr. Race's throat cancer was attributed to his longtime tobacco use. He recently wrote to broadcasting colleague Joe DeNardo offering his personal experiences for use in an anti-smoking campaign.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Race is survived by sons Mark of Palmdale, Calif., Michael of Ruther Glen, Va., and Harold of Oakdale; daughter Ragen Race Wagner of Leetsdale; sister Zelma Beebe of East Greenbush, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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