He took New Year's with him

Curt Smith

December 31, 1992|By Curt Smith

EACH decade flaunts metaphors of its special place and time The 1990s boast Madonna, Rosanne, and her peer in celluloid/cellulose, Jay Leno. As a college student in the 1970s, I recall the Magi of Cocker, Cosell and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Other names span generations: Ronald Reagan, scripted from early radio to a 1980s presidency. Johnny Carson, for three decades lauded

for his hale, light commentary. Bob Hope, of whom a writer said: "Putting a town into a piece about him is like trying to establish residence for a migratory duck."

The holidays bring to mind another lasting avatar -- like the beloved gipper, neither con man nor intellectual. For nearly half a century Guy Lombardo played in Peoria and mirrored an America that was Mayberry. In middle America, one would no sooner miss him on New Year's Eve than burn the American flag.

In the terra firma of post-World War II memory, Dec. 31 meant Guy and the Royal Canadiens, dotting the new year over CBS from the Waldorf-Astoria. An early-1970s comedian told his audience, "I hear Guy Lombardo says that when he goes, he's taking New Year's Eve with him." I believe he did. Since his death in November 1977, New Year's Eve has not been the same.

It was not simply "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven," to quote the publicists, which seized my imagination. Nor soloists -- like the endearing Kenny Gardner, crooning "The Band Played On" and "Seems Like Old times" and the immortal "Boo-Hoo" -- nor the Lombardo Trio, singing tunes like "Coquette" and "Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn" -- nor even the showman Guy, tall and gracious and dignified, who made New Year's so remarkable.

Their feats were -- ouch -- instrumental. Yet it was the evening's piece -- I still recall the horns and party hats and whistles and incipient hangovers -- that let Lombardo and New Year's Eve join America's Main Street library of imagery.

It seems hilarious to say so now -- but for four decades Lombardo corkscrewed into the very manifestation of chic and high society. The son of London, Ontario, inscribed continuity on the transient pulp of life. We urgently required it, lest change overwhelm us all.

To gawk at what the announcer called "Park Avenue's finest" in their gowns and tuxedos (each loaded, financially and boozily, and oblivious to the camera) and the lordly Guy (playing to the eye and humoring his gentry), and to imagine what it would be like to mix with such a different clientele that it had to belong to another universe -- all filled millions with awe and envy and incomprehension.

Only later, in a spasm of declasse snobbery, would I add "pity" to that lexicon -- seeing these revelers as America's Duke and Duchess of Windsor -- brainless and blasted, reeking of what a writer called "the unhappiest people in the world -- giving their parties every night, playing bridge every afternoon, drinking too much, talking too much, thinking too little."

Everything at my core affirms those words -- though it would have been fun, I admit, to have been there for a New Year's Eve. I missed that pleasance -- and miss still how icons like Guy, Bert Parks, and Ernie Ford of 1940-70s America symbolized what PBS called "hard-working, church-going people. Farmers. Shopkeepers. People with an inbred respect for authority and an unyielding belief in the American Dream."

When I was little, my parents held parties to salute each New Year's Eve. I remember how, perched on the upstairs steps, my sister and I heard the bandmeister, a floor and generation away, count down the seconds to a new and unknown year.

I think of those New Year's Eves, and how his memory has razed each solstice since 1978. In my heart, Guy Lombardo did take a special heirloom with him. Father Christmas had nothing on his Ghost of New Year's Still to Come.

Curt Smith, author and former senior and national affairs editor of the Saturday Evening Post, is a speech-writer for President Bush.

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