In this story from January 1984, beloved star of television, movies and theatre Buddy Ebsen recalls a New Year's Eve that changed his outlook on life.
The year 1945 was fading fast as my wife Nancy and I trudged home that evening in mid-Manhattan. Nancy had met me at a Broadway theater, where I had been rehearsing for my role in a revival of Show Boat. With heads lowered against the swirling snow we headed back to our apartment.
Traffic sounds were muffled in that special hush which snow lends to harsh city streets. Nancy’s boots crunched beside mine as we walked in silence, both lost in the kind of thoughts that the year’s end brings.
It was a poignant time for us, as it was, I’m sure, for most people during the early post-World War II days when we all seemed to be finding our way again. In my case I was trying to pick up the pieces of a career interrupted three years earlier, when I had volunteered for Coast Guard service.
Serving aboard a ship in the forlorn reaches of the northern Pacific was a far cry from the singing and dancing I had been doing most of my life. And now, beginning all over again found me wondering what the future held.
With war memories still churning within me, I felt unsettled, uneasy. Tap dancing on a stage didn’t seem to make sense anymore.
I shook my head and squinted as wind whipped snow into my eyes. A clock in a jewelry-store window indicated 11:30 p.m.
We had no plans for a New Year’s Eve celebration. However, I did feel hungry. “Why don’t we get a bite to eat before we go home?” I said, taking Nancy’s arm.
My wife looked up over the muffler covering her face and nodded. A short distance ahead on 54th Street was a little place called Al & Dick’s Steak House, where we had often dined. We quickened our steps, but when we reached the restaurant door, it was locked.
Nancy and I glanced at each other in disappointment. But then behind the curtained plate-glass window I could see shadows of people moving. I knocked on the door. It opened a bit and Al Green, one of the owners, peered out. A former pugilist with a broken nose, Al broke into a grin.
“Hey, Buddy, Nancy, c’mon in,” and he swung the door back.
It turned out that he and his partner, Dick, had invited all of their employees and spouses to a private New Year’s Eve gathering. “Join us,” urged Al, “you’re part of the family.”
And so we stepped into the warmth of the restaurant where couples laughed and chatted and loaded their plates with food from a mammoth buffet. Somewhere a piano tinkled. Nancy and I sat at a table and soon found ourselves caught up in the friendly atmosphere.
Suddenly, a hush fell over the restaurant.
I glanced at my watch; almost midnight. Soon the revelry would begin, I thought, expecting to see horns and noisemakers distributed. Instead, Al Green stepped to the center of the room and stood there as others settled at tables or against the wall.
“It’s a tradition,” whispered one of his waiters, leaning over to us. “He does this every New Year’s Eve.”
As the big wall clock’s hands lifted straight up, Al began to sing without accompaniment.
I was surprised by his rich, resonant voice; it didn’t seem to go with his cauliflower ear and broken nose.
Our Father, Which art in Heaven, he sang, hallowed be Thy Name...
I was transfixed. Al, a Jew, was singing to the Father of us all.
...Thy kingdom come... he sang.
...Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven... Give us this day our daily bread... And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors...
In a rush my thoughts turned back to my growing-up days in Orlando, Florida; to the dancing school my father ran; to our minister telling me after a school play that I must go into show business; to my sister Vilma and me whirling to “Tea for Two,” dancing our way across the country in shows and movies in those innocent-seeming years before the world was torn apart.
...And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil...
“Peace, dear Lord...” I silently prayed for the conciliation of all nations.
...For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever...
Al’s voice rose powerfully; his words rang with conviction; and then, as the last firm note drifted away, Al lowered his head and sang the last word as a benediction:
Tears streamed down my face. Without taking my eyes off Al Green, I said to Nancy, “Never let me lose faith in God, in myself, or in people.”
From outside I could hear the noise of a city gone wild with celebration, but inside the restaurant there was a deep silence. It lasted only a moment, a moment in which I seemed to hear the noise and feel the confusion of the past three years.
And then, as I came back to the present, back to a restaurant on 54th Street in New York City, the war seemed to fade. I felt calm, reassured. I felt God’s serenity.
When it was time for us to leave, Nancy and I put on our coats, and amid hearty good wishes from Al, Dick and our “family,” we walked out to the street.
The snow had stopped. Everything was still, frosted with a neon iridescence. Tall buildings soared above us like church spires. The stars were like tiny sapphires winking in the deep blue.
“Happy New Year,” I said to my wife.
“Yes, Happy New Year!” she said in reply as we stepped out confidently into a new year and a new world and a new beginning...
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