December 31 in history:
The days of traditional street lamps were numbered after December 31st, 1879, when Thomas Edison demonstrated incandescent street lamps in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
A crystal ball with electric lights was used to count down to the new year in Manhattan’s Times Square for the first time on December 31st, 1907. Fireworks had been used for a few years before they got the idea of “dropping the ball” to mark the stroke of midnight.
England actually does “ring in” a new year by airing the midnight chimes of the bell “Big Ben” over BBC Radio. That broadcasting tradition was born on New Year’s Eve of 1923.
Another famous “Ben” from England was born on December 31st, 1943: actor Ben Kingsley, whose birth name was Krishna Bhanji. Kingsley won an Oscar for playing the title role in Gandhi, and he’s been featured in Schindler’s List and Bugsy.
Sir Ben Kingsley shares a New Year’s Eve birthday with Sir Anthony Hopkins (born 1937), best known for winning the Oscar as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins also has played real people from Hitler to Hitchcock, and Nixon to John Quincy Adams. Hopkins and Kingsley were among five Oscar winners who jointly honored the Best Actor nominees at the Academy Awards in February of 2009.
The Best Actor winner from 1944, Bing Crosby, became the first singer to perform the song “Cabaret” on U.S. network television, on the New Year’s Eve 1966 broadcast of “The Hollywood Palace” on ABC. The title song from the popular Kander and Ebb musical included special lyrics written for the occasion:
“We’ll pop the cork, and toast the year
At 12 o’clock, start celebratin’
Nineteen sixty-seven’s waitin.'”
A New Year’s themed episode of the “M*A*S*H” TV series from December of 1980 condenses an entire year of the Korean War for the 4077th into a single half-hour. Two stars of the series died on New Year’s Eve in consecutive years. Wayne Rogers (born 1933), who played “Trapper John” McIntyre, died December 31st, 2015…and one year later, William Christopher (born 1932), who portrayed Father Mulcahy, passed away on New Year’s Eve.
December 30 in history:
The deadliest theatre fire in U.S. history took more than 600 lives at the Iriquois Theatre in Chicago on December 30th, 1903. Nearly two thousand people were attending a matinee in the reportedly “fireproof” building which had just opened a month earlier. A piece of drapery had been ignited by a stage light, and flames spread toward the ceiling above the stage. Many of the victims died in a rush toward exits which were locked, while other exits were not clearly marked.
A history-making musical opened at the New Century Theatre in New York on December 30th, 1948. Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s version of The Taming of the Shrew, became the first show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical.
The musical Oliver! was up for nine Tony Awards in 1963, including a nomination for Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger. A few years later, Jones was a star of TV and records, as one member of the made-for-TV band, the Monkees. He was born on December 30th, 1945…three years to the day after the birth of fellow Monkee Michael Nesmith.
On this date in 1966, The Monkees’ recording of “I’m a Believer” by Neil Diamond was the number-one song on the Billboard chart.
December 29 in history:
The former Republic of Texas became the 28th state in the Union on December 29th, 1845.
The U.S. has had two presidents named Johnson…one from Texas, and one from Tennessee. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee was born on this date in 1808. Johnson made history as the first president to be impeached, and as the vice president who rose to the Oval Office after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
A 1988 mini-series about Lincoln starred Sam Waterston as President Lincoln, and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln. Moore, born on December 29th, 1936, is best known for her comedy roles as Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” She and Waterston also worked together in the 1986 movie Just Between Friends, in which Ted Danson played her husband. Danson, born on this date in 1947, has starred on the TV series “CSI,” “Becker,” “The Good Place,” and on “Cheers” as Boston bartender Sam Malone.
Boston was the home of the first YMCA founded in America. Thomas Sullivan established that YMCA on December 29th, 1851, modeling it after a Y in England.
December 28 in history:
Galileo is thought to be the first person to have seen the planet Neptune, observing it through his telescope on December 28th, 1612. But he is not considered the discoverer of Neptune, because he reportedly thought it was a star, instead of a planet.
An audience in Paris saw movies on December 28th, 1895, and became the first people to pay admission to watch films. The Lumiere brothers sold tickets to a screening of scenes from everyday life in France. We don’t know if they sold popcorn for the occasion.
Another type of image seen on a screen was publicized on that same day in 1895. That’s when German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen published a paper “On a New Kind of Rays,” where he described the discovery of a form of light which could pass through skin but not bones. The new ray became known as an X-ray.
The X-ray is radiation, but it’s not considered radioactive. So if a spider zapped by an X-ray bit you, chances are you would not develop spider powers…as far as we know. The comic book writer who created Spider-Man and other Marvel comics, Stan Lee, was born on December 28th, 1922.
A special 2009 edition of the Spider-Man comic book, called “The Short Halloween,” was written by “Saturday Night Live” veterans Seth Meyers and Bill Hader. Meyers, born on this day in 1973, was best known for anchoring “Weekend Update” on SNL before succeeding Jimmy Fallon as the host of “Late Night” on NBC in 2014.
December 27 in history:
Raise a glass of wine (or milk, if you prefer) to toast the birthday of scientist Louis Pasteur, born December 27th, 1822. Pasteur lent his name to the pasteurization process of reducing organisms in food, especially dairy products and wine. He also developed a rabies vaccine.
Another scientific pioneer began an important journey on this date in 1831, when 22-year-old naturalist Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle at Plymouth, England. During a five-year voyage around the world, Darwin’s studies of plant and animal life led him to develop his theory of evolution.
America’s favorite beagle, Snoopy, appeared atop his doghouse on the cover of the December 27th, 1971, issue of Newsweek magazine. The “Merry Christmas” cover drawn by Charles Schulz also featured Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Woodstock. Other pop-culture figures to appear on Newsweek’s cover during ’71 included Mick Jagger, golfer Lee Trevino, and the cast of “All in the Family.”
An operatic parody of “All in the Family” was featured on the premiere of “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” on December 27th, 1971. The show had been revived after a successful six-episode run in the summer. Famed tenor Robert Merrill played Archie Bunker in the “Family” sketch, with Cher as Edith, Sonny as Mike, a then-unknown Teri Garr as Gloria, and the “real” Archie (Carroll O’Connor) as a CBS censor.
December 26 in history:
A nine-point earthquake under the Indian Ocean triggered a series of tsunamis that battered 14 countries on December 26th, 2004. More than 280,000 people died, with the largest loss of life coming in Indonesia. Ocean waves reportedly rose as high as 100 feet.
A theatre fire in Richmond, Virginia, on December 26th, 1811 was considered one of the worst disasters in U.S. history at the time. Seventy-two of the 600 people attending the Richmond Theatre that night were killed by the fire, including the governor of Virginia.
Two of America’s longest-living presidents died on December 26th, more than 30 years apart. Both were vice presidents who rose to the presidency on short notice. Harry Truman was 88 when he died on the day after Christmas of 1972. 93-year-old Gerald Ford died in 2006, just weeks after setting the record for longevity among U.S. presidents.
Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis was among 22 West Point cadets placed under House arrest on this day in 1826 for their alleged roles in the “Eggnog Riot” at the U.S. Military Academy. The uprising resulted from a Christmas party attended by the cadets, where whiskey was smuggled into the academy to make eggnog.
Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick starred as an alcoholic couple in the movie “Days of Wine and Roses,” which opened in the U.S. on December 26th, 1962. Also appearing in the film was Jack Klugman, who later became famous as Oscar Madison in the 1970’s TV version of “The Odd Couple.” Lemmon played Felix Ungar in the 1968 “Odd Couple” movie. “Days of Wine and Roses” opened the same month that Tony Randall (Felix to Klugman’s Oscar) portrayed an alcoholic ad man on a TV episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”
December 25 in history:
Charlemagne was already King of the Franks when he was crowned the Emperor of Rome on December 25th of 800. Pope Leo III presided over the ceremony.
Another legendary king received his crown on this date in 1066. William the Conqueror became the Norman King after defeating the reigning king of England earlier that year.
The American colonies were fighting against King George III of England at Christmas of 1776, when General George Washington led a surprise attack against Hessian forces. On the night of December 25th, Washington and his troops made the famous crossing of the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey.
Christmas is the birthday of the “King of Somewhere Hot,” the lord of “Margaritaville,” and leader of the Parrotheads. Singer Jimmy Buffett was born December 25th, 1946.
The first movie made from a Stephen King novel, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” made Sissy Spacek a star. A Christmas baby in 1949, Spacek won an Oscar for playing country music queen Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
In a way, “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling was the Stephen King of his day. Best known for hosting “Zone” and another spooky TV series, “Night Gallery,” Serling (born Christmas Day of 1924) made his reputation in the 1950’s for writing live TV dramas such as “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”