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John Bartus: Blog

The Strangest New Year’s Gig – Starting 1984 in Santee, South Carolina

Posted on December 6, 2015 with 0 comments

1984 was an important year in my life (the year my Keys adventure began). Although still in my early twenties, I was already a veteran road musician. I had been performing for a few years in a duo with Sallie Foster, a wonderful vocalist and entertainer who still performs regularly in season at the Bull in Key West. This story, however, is about how 1984 began at a New Year’s Eve gig in Santee, South Carolina.

Santee is a small town in Orangeburg County – notable only for its proximity to Lake Marion and being the exact geographical location where US Highway 301 collides with Interstate 95. It also has a Holiday Inn. Back in those bygone days, nearly all Holiday Inns had lounges and most of them hired itinerant musicians to entertain the locals and lodgers that needed a drink before bedtime.

Speaking of drinks, consuming alcoholic beverages in the Palmetto State in the 1980s was, well, different. South Carolina was the last state in the union to require the use of minibottles for all cocktails and mixed drinks. Free pour was not even allowed until 2006. And to keep the morality mafia happy, Sunday alcohol sales were absolutely forbidden. Saturday night at midnight, the bar was closed!

If you figured out that New Year’s Eve 1983 was on a Saturday night, give yourself extra credit.

That particular New Year’s Eve, the hotel manager decided to have two different New Year’s Eve parties. We would play in the bar, and another party would take place in the hotel’s meeting room. After the parties ended, all guests would be funneled into the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions about the judgment of this particular manager, but… according to hotel staff, he was rumored to have been quite enamored with the then-ubiquitous Brazilian Marching Powder. So, the fine people of Santee and the travelers away from home would get two New Year’s Eve parties. What a great idea! The manager wanted each group to arrive at the restaurant in a staggered fashion, one group earlier than the other. And it was a Saturday night, with all alcohol off the tables and bars before midnight. MIDNIGHT. ON FREAKIN’ NEW YEAR’S EVE.

You may ask yourself just how this chemically inspired, Peter-Principle-ascendancy-example manager intended to bend the rules of time to accomplish two New Year’s Eve countdowns and staggered breakfast arrival times while ensuring all booze was off the tables (including champagne for toasts) before the New Year actually arrived. The solution was as ridiculous as it was stupid.

Our party would wind down early. We were instructed to start the countdown to the New Year at 11:45 p.m. We would sing “Auld Lang Syne” and rush everyone out to the restaurant. The other party would hold their countdown at 11:55 p.m. What could go wrong?

Well, when we started the countdown, the assembled partygoers looked at us as if we each had three heads, one of them pimply. Even that far back in time, people still had wristwatches and somehow knew that the New Year wasn’t really arriving at that precise moment. Some of the guests understood and played along, and some of them were too inebriated to care. Still, the vast majority of revelers were not one bit happy with the premature inauguration of 1984, and blamed us for the buzzkill. I recall hiding out with the bartenders until the crowd made its way to breakfast, their grumbling growing louder as they heard the meeting room party count down much closer to the actual time of the New Year’s arrival.

There have been a lot of New Year’s Eves since that one in Santee, most of them better. But there are more stories, some of which may actually be shared in this column one day. I hope the New Year of 2015 is a good one for all, and that the stories we’ll tell of this new year will bring us smiles for many years to come!