How did a giant ball slowly descending on Times Square become our national symbol of New Year's Eve, and why on earth is Dick Clark in charge of it? Our story begins way back in the twentieth century, when The New York Times persuaded the city of New York to rename the area in front of their building Times Square. Let's just think about that for a moment, because before that most squares were named to commemorate an inspiring person or heroic/tragic event (Washington Square, Trafalgar Square). But to have a commercial enterprise get naming rights made Times Square the NCAA Tostitos Fiesta Bowl of 1904.
At the end of that year, the Times sponsored a New Year's Eve celebration that culminated in fireworks launching from the top of their offices. But apparently that didn't attract enough drunken tourists looking for a place to pee, so in 1907 the paper's chief electrician was commissioned to wire up a 700-pound iron ball that would slowly lower from a flagpole on top of the building, landing at 12:00:01 a.m. And everyone watching on the ground would have to cross their legs and hold it because the Porta-Potty wouldn't be invented for another 60 years.
Now, Dick Clark wasn't born until 1929, and then he was busy growing up in the suburbs, being neighbors with Ed McMahon, and posing for clean-cut American Bandstand head shots.
I still can't fathom the fact that American Bandstand was on every weekday. They gave that show five 90-mintue time slots a week for like 40 years. At a time when there were only six channels on everybody's TV. That's just an astonishing amount of airtime devoted to teenagers dancing in chunky heels, and Yes, it is fun being 150 years old and remembering these things without having to look them up on Wikipedia, thanks for asking.
So, being dubbed "America's Oldest Teenager," Clark was a natural fit for the televised New Year's Eve celebration, which he took over in 1972. His appeal was wide; he was male and white and nonthreatening during a time of rapid and radical social change, and the old folks who were grumpy about him taking over for Guy Lombardo would be dead soon enough anyway.
As for the appeal of a giant, glowing ball covered in Swarovski crystals slowly sliding down a giant pole in the middle of what used to be the strip club capital of the United States . . . uh, yeah, hmm. How exactly did that happen? Good thing Rudolph Giuliani replaced the dirty book stores with that giant Toys R Us. *ahem* But it's an easy visual symbol to mark the last few seconds of the old year, and you don't even have to be old enough to read to shout along with everyone on TV as the big ball comes down. It makes the whole night official, as you can hear entire neighborhoods erupting in "Happy New Year!" simultaneously, letting us all share the moment, time zone by time zone, thanks to Dick's Giant Ball.
Mr. Clark had a stroke in 2004, and Regis Philbin filled in as host that year. In 2005, Clark brought the professionally handsome and all-around supportive guy Ryan Seacrest on board to do the heavy lifting (i.e., banter with Fergie and stand out in the cold wearing little more than electric socks and a smile).
Oh, Dick. It will be a sad day when you're gone.
Times Square photo by Stuart Moreton/Flickr.
"American Bandstand" publicity photo/Public Domain.
Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.