Thursday, December 31, 2015

They Brought New Year Eve into Our Homes

The Ball Drop at Times Square has been part of the New Year's countdown ever since broadcasts began on TV.

Well, December 31 is New Year’s Eve.  It is a designated night of revelry, 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 family 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.
Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians at the Waldorf Astoria for another New Year's Eve.
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 Year’s 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 Year’s 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 by 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 Year’s broadcasts.  His brothers kept the orchestra together for a while and the show continued on CBS for two more years.

Dick Clark rockin' New Years in.
Dick Clark, already a well-established TV legend for his long running American Bandstand program launched his Rockin’ New Year’s 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 pre-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 on April 18, 2012 at age 82.  The program continued as Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve with Ryan Seacrest.  It still dominates all other Network counter programing.  This year featured artists include Alessia Cara, DNCE, Nick Jonas, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, OMI, Pentatonix, and Nathan Sykes, performers so hip and contemporary that I have only heard of two of them.  A major draw of the evening will be the premier of a new video by megastar Taylor Swift.  You will be glad to know I have heard of her.

Ryan Seacrest inherited the mantle.
Other networks and Cable stations have their own New Year’s programming.  CNN’s program has become a cult favorite because comedienne Katy Griffith is always expected to say something vulgar and outrageous while newsman Anderson Cooper cringes.
This year security in Times Square and at other big gatherings around the country will be super tight as ISIL/ISIS/ Daesh has threatened attacks on mass gatherings over the holidays.  In the past already tight security included welding manhole covers shut, removing all trash cans and mail Boxes, and even banishing port-a-poties for the over one million revelers who will jam the area.  There is extensive video surveillance and sophisticated facial recognition software will be used on faces in the crowd.  What new wrinkles are meant by heightened security are a closely guarded secret.
No wonder millions just stay home to watch the whole thing on the tube.
New Year’s is not quite the big night out it used to be.  Strict drunk driving enforcement has discouraged many drinkers from going out while publicity about highway mayhem deters moderate drinkers and teetotalers.  It has been surpassed as a party night out by both St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween.  But the evenings still is a huge money maker for hotels, nightclubs, and bars.  Many cities have midnight fireworks.  Non-alcoholic, family centered events called First Night have developed a following in many locations as an alternative to the traditional revelry.

My wife and my plans for the evening are still up in the air.  We may venture out for an early dinner and a drink or two before the parties kick into high gear.  We will certainly be home well before midnight and Kathy will likely be in bed.  I’ll probably catch the New York ball drop and stay around for coverage of Chicago celebrations.  Or maybe I’ll just find a good old movie to watch.


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