For me, New Year’s Eve means one thing: Fred Astaire. I don’t know if this is the experience of most girls who grew up babysitting in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s, but for me the most magical part of the evening began at midnight, when one of the local networks would begin with one of four movies: The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Shall We Dance or Swing Time.
The kids in my care in Park Forest were always convinced that the New Year began when the ball dropped in Times Square, so the celebration took place, with confetti and banging pans and hats and tooting horns and etc, from 11:00–11:20 p.m. Central Time. They could be hustled off to bed by 11:45 and I could settle back in, completely sugared up and maybe with an additional bowl of ice cream or something to keep me going, in front of the television set.
I didn’t know anything about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the words “gay divorcee” were completely incomprehensible to me at age 14, when this ritual began. But the first time I saw Fred and Ginger dance to “Night and Day,” I actually cried. The combination of music and movement was so exquisite, I was unprepared.
I could never tell the movies apart, not really. Eric Blore was always butlering. Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick are most often the clumsy, wise-cracking counterparts to Fred and Ginger who increase their stature and status exponentially by standing beside them and/or interfering. In one, Fred tap-dances in sand in a hotel room above Ginger’s head. In another, he draws cuffs on his pant legs to force a delay of an ill-fated marriage. In one they dance in a thunderstorm in a gazebo. There are mix-ups a plenty to make Fred look like an untrustworthy cad and bring out Ginger’s spice and fire. Fred gets set up for great lines like: “Men don’t pine. Girls pine. We just– suffer!”
In the end, it is the dance that tells the truth, and the dance is love.
I searched the movie channels furiously last night for a sign of Fred and Ginger, but came up empty. If I’d wanted, I could have streamed one on Netflix. But nothing quite beats watching the films on television, ringing in the new year with so many other viewers, including just maybe some babysitters about to learn an exquisite lesson about the simple joy of being in love.