- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

NEW YORK — A certain spectacle in Times Square airing at midnight has long told the world of each new year's arrival.
For added peace of mind, though, older viewers know nothing could beat what used to come next: "Auld Lang Syne" performed by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. In the critical moments after countdown and liftoff, Mr. Lombardo with that song declared the new year a go.
Mr. Lombardo died in November 1977, which means that next Monday will be the 25th New Year's Eve when he'll be conspicuously absent.
When he rang out his 1976 gala, he had logged 48 New Year's Eve broadcasts first on CBS radio and then, from 1956, on its sister TV network.
He did something else, too. He gave New Year's Eve an enduring theme song. For it was Mr. Lombardo's orchestra that brought to the party an otherwise unrelated Scottish air, and did it not just 48 times, but for all time.
Mr. Lombardo was born in 1902 in London, Ontario, where by 1919 he had formed a dance band. After years of touring, he won instant fame in 1929 after persuading the owner of a Chicago ballroom to let a radio station air the Royal Canadians' appearance.
"At 5 p.m. in the afternoon, we were absolutely unknown," Mr. Lombardo once recalled, "and the next morning, we were like the Beatles."
He and his orchestra were signed swiftly for a weekly radio series, and their coast-to-coast New Year's Eve broadcasts began that December from the Grill Room of Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel.
On the road year-round, the orchestra was famously credited with "the sweetest music this side of heaven," and fans found its pureed sound to be danceable, singable and always recognizable. Critics who dubbed Mr. Lombardo "the schmaltz king" jeered that the Royal Canadians aimed to make every song sound like every other.
So what? Mr. Lombardo's legacy is based on one song in one annual rendition.
"Auld Lang Syne" had been part of his repertoire almost from the start. It had Scottish roots, and his hometown had been settled by Scots.
Then Mr. Lombardo found an even better reason to play it. One of his radio sponsors was Robert Burns cigars, "and seeing that Robert Burns wrote 'Auld Lang Syne,'" Mr. Lombardo explained, "we sort of incorporated that into our program."
"Auld Lang Syne" may have been an odd choice to be the signature song of new beginnings. The tune is wistful, even maudlin. The lyrics speak of sad goodbyes.
Never mind. When 1930 made its entrance under his baton, Mr. Lombardo made that song synonymous with one year's hopeful transition to the next.
A kinescope of "New Year's Eve With Guy Lombardo" from 1957 (in the archives of the Museum of Television & Radio) finds the maestro and his troupe in fine fettle, yet again originating from the Grill Room and with video as well as sound.
By 1976, however, his show seemed to be living on borrowed time.
Mr. Lombardo's holiday hegemony (not to mention the big-band era he embodied) was being challenged for a sixth year by Dick Clark and his "New Year's Rockin' Eve" on ABC.
"Guy was the only choice for the older generation," Mr. Clark recalled not long ago. "That's why we put 'Rockin'' in the title to let everybody know this was going to be a different approach.
"It wasn't the Waldorf-Astoria with the people dancing cheek-to-jowl in their tuxedos and funny hats."
That pretty well sized up Mr. Lombardo's final gala, which seemed hopelessly passe. At the ornate hotel ballroom on "fashionable Park Avenue" (as the show's announcer intoned), "New York's glamorous high society" had gathered for staid, self-conscious merrymaking under the torrent of light required for CBS' color cameras.
Mr. Lombardo led his scarlet-blazered band in "Baby Face," "Bunny Hop" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" and introduced "I Write the Songs" as "the big hit of 1976."
Then came a cut to Times Square for the ball drop and back for "Auld Lang Syne," with Mr. Lombardo by then sporting a green party hat.
At the end of the program, he signed off with a jaunty "till we meet again."
The following Nov. 5, he died at 75 of heart disease. The show went on that that Dec. 31, with brother Victor Lombardo conducting.
In 2001, New Year's Eve will bring viewers many choices, including Dick Clark, now 72, who'll be "Rockin'" for the 30th time.
Yet with the TV audience fragmented that night, as it is every night, there will be no unifying force like Mr. Lombardo's to play in the new year for all of us.
There will be no one like that auld acquaintance to assure us: 2002 got here, folks, and it's gonna be OK.

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