Monday, December 31, 2012

Celebrating New Year’s Vicariously with Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark et. al.

Well, December 31 is New Year’s Eve.  It is a designated night of revelry and semi-respectable over-indulgence and general tom foolery.  It is also considered amateur night by bartenders and regular imbibers, many of the latter actually avoid going out because the amateurs are rowdy, annoying, likely to puke on their shoes and frankly dangerous.
Like all holidays and celebrations, New Year’s Eve has its customs.  For those of us of a certain age, that included welcoming the New Year from home with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians first on radio and later on television.  Parents would let kids stay up—or try to stay up—and blow on noisemakers and drink sparkling grape juice at midnight in New York as the band struck up its traditional rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
Lombardo was born in 1902 in London, Ontario, Canada, one of five sons of an immigrant Italian family.  His father was an amateur singer and had each of his sons learn an instrument to accompany him in an informal home band. Guy’s first public performance was at a church party when he was 12 years old. Lombardo and his brothers formed their own orchestra and were playing professionally on both sides of the international border by 1920.
In 1922 Lombardo made his first recordings at the Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana.  Soon the orchestra, now dubbed the Royal Canadians, was ensconced in the Roosevelt Grill of New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel.  They played there for more than thirty years.  Like other big city hotel bands, Lombardo’s orchestra was soon making regular live radio broadcasts.  It was a dance band, only lightly touched by jazz.  While contemporaries like Paul Whiteman were adapting their music to the public’s developing taste for Big Band Swing, Lombardo continued to play what he called the Sweetest Music this Side of Heaven.  The band’s immediately recognizable signature sound was a lead saxophone section featuring a wide vibrato.
Lombardo first broadcast a New Years Eve program on CBS Radio on December 31, 1928.  He continued broadcasting from the Roosevelt Room until 1959, and then moved his base to the larger Waldorf Astoria.  In 1959 the New Years Eve program was first aired on CBS Television and continued on that network for 21 years. 
After the move to television, the show included coverage from Times Square for the countdown to the Midnight Ball Drop as described first by legendary broadcaster Robert Trout and then Ben Grower.  As soon as the ball would hit the bottom Lombardo would strike up the familiar strains of Auld Lang Syne and the cameras would cut between the proletarian mob in Times Square and the elegant revelers in tuxedos and evening gowns in the hotel ballroom.
Guy Lombardo died in 1977 having done 41 annual New Years broadcasts.  His brothers kept the orchestra together for a while and the show continued on CBS for two more years.

Dick Clark launched his Rockin’ New Years Eve broadcasts from Times Square on December 31, 1972 on NBC.  Lombardo was still the king of the night, but his music was old fashion even for most of his faithful adult listeners.  The first Clark broadcast included per-recorded performances by Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Helen Reddy and Al Green with cutaways to Clark in a studio overlooking Times Square for the Countdown. 
The broadcast moved to ABC after two years and has dominated the night ever since.  After Clark suffered a stroke in 2004 primary hosting duties were performed first by Regis Philbin and then by Ryan Seacrest, best known as the host for American Idol.  Clark returned for appearances on the program, although he remained somewhat impaired by the stroke. 
Clark died this year on April 18 at age 82.  The program will continue tonight for at least one more year as Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years Eve with Ryan Seacrest.  Tributes to Clark will be salted between the party line up of Carly Rae Jepsen, Flo Rida and Pitbull, Neon Trees, and Taylor Swift, artists so hip and today that I have never heard of most of them. 
Other networks and Cable stations have their own New Year’s programming.  CNN’s broadcast has become a cult favorite because comedienne Katy Griffith is expected to say something vulgar and outrageous while newsman Anderson Cooper cringes.
All of that is for the stay at homes.  New Years is not quite the big night out it used to be, but it is still a huge money maker for hotels, nightclubs and bars.  Many cities have midnight fireworks.  A non-alcoholic, family centered events called First Night had developed in many locations as an alternative to the traditional revelry.
I will be home tonight since I don’t have an overnight shift like some years.  I will probably be the only one in the house awake…and I just might miss the actual stroke of midnight if I am playing around on this electronic gizmo.


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