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Next week to be 25th New Year's Eve without Guy Lombardo

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

By Frazier Moore, The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- A certain Times Square spectacle airing at midnight has long told the world of each new year's arrival.

But for added peace of mind, older viewers know nothing could beat what used to come next: "Auld Lang Syne" performed by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.

Lombardo died in November 1977, which means that next week is the 25th New Year's Eve he'll have been conspicuously absent.

When he rang out his '76 gala, he had logged 48 New Year's Eve broadcasts -- first on CBS radio and then, from 1956, on its sister TV network.

And he did something else. He gave New Year's Eve an enduring theme song. For it was Lombardo's orchestra that brought to the party an otherwise unrelated Scottish air.

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 he persuaded 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," Lombardo once recalled, "and the next morning we were like the Beatles."

He and his orchestra were swiftly signed for a weekly radio series, and that December, from the Grill Room of Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel, their coast-to-coast New Year's Eve broadcasts began.

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 Lombardo "the Schmaltz King" -- jeered that the Royal Canadians aimed to make every song sound like every other.

"Auld Lang Syne" had been part of the repertoire almost from the start. It had Scottish roots, and his hometown had been settled by Scots.

Then 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,'" 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, Lombardo made that song synonymous with one year's hopeful transition to the next.

By 1976, however, his show seemed to be living on borrowed time. 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" over on ABC.

"Guy was the only choice for the older generation," 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."

Which pretty well sized up Lombardo's final gala, which seemed hopelessly passe.

At the ornate hotel ballroom on "fashionable Park Avenue" (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.

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 a cutaway to Times Square for the ball drop, and back for "Auld Lang Syne" with Lombardo now 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. On Dec. 31, the show went on; brother Victor Lombardo conducted.

Now in 2001, New Year's Eve will bring viewers many choices, including Dick Clark, now 72, who'll be "Rockin'" for the 30th time. Something for everyone.

And yet ... with the TV audience fragmented that night, just as it is every other night, there'll be no unifying force like Lombardo's to play the new year in for us all.

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