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JOSEPH N. BELL

New Year's Calls for a Compulsory Good Time, No Matter How Tedious

December 30, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

One of the conventional absolutes about holidays--all holidays--is that those celebrating them have to have a good time. It's required. This is especially true over the Christmas holidays, and at least 10 times as true when it comes to New Year's Eve. Members of the middle class culture in the United States of America have been raised inexorably to believe that it is downright un-American not to have one hell of a time on New Year's Eve.

So we try. Man, do we try.

We give parties or go to parties, and drink too much and stay up too late, and spend the next day in a comatose state watching football for 12 hours, until the Sugar Bowl fuses into the Rose Bowl and both of them coalesce into the Orange Bowl. About all the energy you have left is expended switching channels, since bowls overlap outrageously, frequently requiring more vigilance than you are prepared to invest.

I'm not sure that New Year's Day would be any different for a football junkie after a decent night's sleep, but this year I'm going to find out. My wife and I will go out to a modest dinner alone and then probably go home and go to bed. We might read for a while. I suspect we'll be asleep at midnight.

I probably won't do this without guilt. In the Midwestern town in which I grew up, certain things were programmed into me during young adulthood. Friday and Saturday were date nights. If you spent a Saturday night alone, you were a social leper of such alarming proportions that you were considered either backward, terminally unattractive or eccentric beyond imagination. Formal dances took place every Saturday night between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and all of this social activity culminated in a New Year's Eve ball.

This continued into college, until World War II interfered. But when my generation married and started our own families, the need to be festive on New Year's Eve carried over. The best way to solve the problem of what to do on this quintessential party evening was to throw one yourself--and for many years we did. It was my shtick to organize the fun and games, and I did it with almost missionary zeal. I think most of the people who came enjoyed it, but what an enormous investment in energy it required--both to plan and participate in it. And the roots of that energy were planted firmly in youthful soil nurtured with a conviction that you had to have fun, fun, fun on New Year's Eve.

I thought about that a lot the other night when we had our first experience with participatory theater. Some dear friends celebrating a wedding anniversary invited us to join them at a show in Los Angeles called "Tony 'n Tina's Wedding." The premise is interesting and provocative. The audience becomes the guests at a very funny and flamboyant Italian wedding, complete with Mafia types, godfathers, mistresses, a priest who solicits funds for his church before he starts the wedding, a nun who leads the guests in singing an awful hymn, and various weeping truculent relatives. That part of it worked fine. We could sit back and watch and participate if we chose.

But then the show moved indoors to a wedding reception, and the guests were drawn into the action more than some of us wanted to be. A rock band played at head-shattering noise levels, pausing only during the brief period we ate pasta and salad and drank bad champagne. There were bits of business going on between the principals in the wedding, but mostly the actors worked the room, sitting at the guest tables, cajoling audience members to the dance floor and starting conversations in which one wasn't sure whether to deal with them in or out of character.

If the piece works, we should deal with them in character, of course, but playing this game very long is difficult, especially when you realize that the actors have heard your bon mots a few thousand times before. So it finally becomes tiring, especially against the backdrop of noise that virtually precludes conversation below a shout. And for the last half-hour or so, I had the powerful feeling that I really was at the wedding reception of people I neither knew nor liked, that the party had turned boringly strident, and that I just wanted to go home. I don't think that was the intent of the entertainment.

I was a little disappointed in myself--especially for stiffing the actress playing the mistress when she tried to get me on the dance floor--and I've thought about it a good deal since. I wondered how many of the people who played my New Year's Eve games did it by sufferance, feeling much the same way I did at Tony's wedding. I realized that most of us are uncomfortable with packaged and compulsory fun unless it fulfills a strong need we have at the moment. And I also realized that because we are all very different creatures, some of us can slip more easily into programmed fun than others.

None of these are very profound thoughts, but they had to work their way up through a thick encrustation of compulsive fun on specified occasions. Especially New Year's Eve.

So Sunday night, I may watch the new year come in on TV in New York or Chicago, but I doubt if I'll make Denver. And in the same spirit of change, I might even skip the Hall of Fame Bowl and the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day so I'll be fresh for the Notre Dame-Colorado game. But one thing probably won't change: I suspect I'll still be having fun.

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