Times Square Ball To Stay Through Year

The giant crystal ball perched above Times Square is a New Year's Eve icon. Millions of people watch it drop in person and hundreds of millions more on TV. So why not give it a bit more stage time? Rather than put the ball away come Jan. 1, New York officials want to use the sphere to celebrate other holidays.

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Today is frigid and snowy in New York City. But as usual, that hasn't stopped the crowds from gathering in Times Square to watch the ball drop at midnight. The giant sphere has been marking the transition to the New Year for more than 100 years. Come January, it's usually packed away in its crate. But as NPR's Robert Smith reports, this year, a plan has been hatched to keep the ball up year round.

(Soundbite of people talking)

ROBERT SMITH: At the visitor center in Times Square, they hear the same question all year long.

Mr. TIM TOMPKINS (President, Times Square Alliance): Because a billion people watch it on TV, they come and they look for the ball, they want to find out what building the ball drops from.

SMITH: Rather than disappoint the crowds, Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance thought, why not keep the ball up and lit all the time?

Mr. TOMPKINS: I think it's just - it sort of completes the pilgrimage to have it here.

SMITH: Does it take away its specialness if it's there 365 nights of the year instead of just one?

Mr. TOMPKINS: That was, you know, a matter of internal debate, and people, sort of, were worried about that. But I don't think so because I think that being able to see it is just a reminder of its role year round. And it's kind of like, is the Empire State Building less special because, you know, you see it every night and it changes colors?

SMITH: Of course, nobody waits in sub-freezing temperatures for six hours without a bathroom just to glimpse the Empire State Building. Now, the entire concept of the New Year's Eve Ball is that you wait for it, it does not wait for you. In fact, very few even get to glimpse the ball before the last few hours of the year. Yesterday, atop the building, One Time Square, a few engineers and a large crowd of reporters huddled against the wind just to watch a practice run.

Unidentified Group: Three, two, one. Happy New Year.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: And when the 32,000 LED lights inside blared on, it was dazzling. Even in the middle of the afternoon, it hurt to look right at it.

Unidentified Man #1: Check out the blue. And there's your pink, or is that more of a magenta, I don't know anymore.

SMITH: This particular ball is new this year. It's 12 feet across, weighs six tons. It's twice as big as in previous years. The computer-controlled LEDs swirl in every color of the rainbow. It cost $5 million to build the ball and retrofit the 100-year-old roof to hold it. It was the new design that allowed Jeffrey Strauss to dream that a year round ball was possible. Strauss is the co-producer of New Years Eve. And he says that the old incandescent bulbs would have cost a fortune to keep lit all year. Plus it would not have been bright enough to see during the day. But this ball, Strauss says, could conceivably be used to celebrate everything.

Mr. JEFFREY STRAUSS (President, Countdown Entertainment): We're actually working on the programming right now. We know we're going to celebrate the holidays. I mean, Halloween, was - you can turn the ball in to a beautiful orange, like a pumpkin. You know, we can do some wonderful red heartbeat type stuff for Valentine's Day.

SMITH: But the ball will not go up and down, that is special for New Year's. Every other day, it will simply hang halfway up the 141 foot mast and blink, and swirl and mesmerize. That's great news if you're visiting Time Square in the summer. But it might be demoralizing if you are crushed down at Times Square tonight where the low temperature is expected to be 21 degrees and snowing and windy. James Bleeker(ph) is in town from Los Angeles.

Mr. JAMES BLEEKER: I think it's going to take away. I think it's going to take away from what it's about to be here and the experience of being here on New Year's Eve, if it's just going to be up all year round.

SMITH: Sure, why would you come out here and freeze when you could come back in June and gawk at it and take a picture?

Mr. BLEEKER: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think it's better to do it just on New Year's Eve and then take it down.

SMITH: Ah, maybe that's just a frostbite talking. How can you blame New York City for wanting its moment of glory to last a wee bit longer than a ten second countdown? Not when you can live everyday like the last second of the year. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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