It was December 31st in either 1982 or 1983. Best guess, it was '82--25 years ago tonight. ABC—as always—was carrying the “ball drop” in Time’s Square to welcome in the New Year. At WABC we decided to cover the event—and cover the coverage. We decided that at 11:00 p.m. we’d go live from Time’s Square, from the same venue as Dick Clark & Co.; we’d see the crowd, the festivities, and do a “behind the scenes” feature on the broadcast scheduled to start when Eyewitness News ended. The hardest part was getting all the clearances and insurance waivers signed. That done, I decided I’d tag along. I didn’t know if there was anything I could do to help, but I knew my presence couldn’t hurt, and I figured it would be a memorable experience.
These days ABC broadcasts from its own studio overlooking Time’s Square. But back then, Dick Clark and his crew were huddled on a building ledge about twenty stories above the crowd. Well, maybe it wasn’t a ledge—no one was in danger of falling. But I don’t think you could call it a balcony. It was a parapet, a 15-foot-wide piece of concrete outside an upper floor of the Minskoff Theater, with a sturdy metal railing to keep people from toppling off onto Broadway.
So Dick Clark and his 30-or-so staffers, and WABC Reporter Doug Johnson and five or six of us made our way up to our perch. It wasn’t easy: to get there the equipment had to be hauled through the innards of the theater and through the lighting booth (past the spotlights and lighting boards) to the one door that led outside.
30-40 people humped crates of equipment up the stairs, through a doorway, and onto a narrow perch overlooking—a sea of screaming boo-hoos: jostling, necking, yelling, drinking, peeing, groping, inhaling, injecting, puking, mugging and staggering. And to try to keep them under control, THE CAVALRY! That’s right, a sea of mounted police.
Up where we were, there was no crime, no drunken rowdiness. What we had was freezing wind. Gale force winds swept through the canyons of Manhattan and quickly had us all stamping our feet to ward off frostbite.
And here’s something you don’t see on TV (the cameras carefully avoid showing it). The screaming boo-hoos are treated like cattle and herded into pens. For security purposes (and this was almost 20 years before 9/11) Time’s Square was sectioned off by barricades. Instead of one solid sea of people, the crowd was stuffed behind those barricades, leaving pathways down the major streets for police and ambulance traffic. The cameras show the huge crowds from up close. If they pulled back just a bit you’d see the cattle pens, and cops playing cowboy, riding herd.
And that’s pretty much that. We did our live shot, dragged our equipment back down to the street, then trudged back up to watch Dick Clark announce the ball drop at midnight. Nice. But not one of the “Dozen things You Have to Do Before You Die.”
At 12:01 a.m. I was out of there. In those days I lived in an apartment at 56th & Broadway—eleven blocks up Broadway. I went the back way. I went west to Eighth Avenue, up to 56h, and over. I had the streets to myself. No one tried to pick my pocket, no hooker propositioned me, no drunk puked on my shoes, I heard no gunfire. I got home at 12:15, watched a bit of the coverage, and was in bed by 12:30.
I spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square and came back alive!
Whatever you’ve got planned for tonight—have a great and a safe time. Stay out of Time's Square!
And the best of everything in the New Year.
A New Year's Day postscript. I stayed up until midnight last night to watch Dick Clark in Time's Square. That's unusual for me. I'm not much of a party-goer or a party guest, and I haven't had a drink in over ten years.
Dick Clark, in some ways, was hard to watch. The stroke he had three years ago has left him with slurred speech and a slight tremble., On the othe hand, you have to remember that he's 78 years old now! Stroke or not, there are plenty of people a lot younger than Dick Clark in a lot worse shape.
Youngsters won't remember--but for the longest time Dick Clark was seen as a Picture of Dorian Gray type: ageless. On that rooftop a quarter-century ago he looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. Seeing him now as an old man is a grim reminder for us baby-boomers that nobody gets out of life alive. But he's also an example of fighting the good fight.
There's a New Year's message for all of us: keep up the fight!