They call it First Night in a spirit of optimism, not irony. It’s the last night of the old calendar year, but the night when new hopes lead to new opportunities. It’s a night when kids can stay up late and parents can choose from a couple of dozen entertainment options on the cheap, like this year’s big screen broadcast of the University of Virginia Cavaliers football team in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It’s a 30-year Central Virginia tradition, a family-friendly, alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration on and around the heart of Charlottesville, the red-bricked Downtown Mall. And it’s a whole lotta fun.
This year’s bash will feature over 50 performances, events and activity opportunities in 11 hours, beginning at 1:00 p.m., two hours earlier than previous revels, and ending with a laser show at midnight. Think of it as the kickoff party for Celebrate 250, Charlottesville’s year-long 250th anniversary celebration.
The fun starts with the first annual First Night 5k run, a five-kilometer race beginning and ending at the Charlottesville Pavilion on the east end of the mall. Runners and walkers are both welcome, with or without dogs and strollers, and all participants will receive a “First Night Virginia 5K” shirt. Awards will be given to top finishing men, women and children. Registration is open until 10:00 a.m. on the day of the race at $25 for individuals, $30 on race day. Families get a discount rate of $20 a person, $25 on race day.
The Virginia Discovery Museum will offer free admission with a First Night wristband from 1:00 to 8:00 p.m. The Discovery Museum will also have maps and clues available for a treasure hunt sponsored by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. Main Street Arena will offer half-priced admission for skating fans with First Night wristbands from 5:15 p.m .to 1:00 a.m. Eight local art galleries will also be open.
Hungry First Nighters will have their choice of vendors including Carpe Donuts, The Lunchbox, Last Call Dogs, Dan’s Food and the Whole Foods vending truck.
Kid Fest in the Omni Hotel ballroom from 1:00 to 5:45 p.m. will feature face painting, juggling, magic, balloons and a Bounce and Play inflatable. Creation Station will offer crafts, and Triple C Camp’s Green Adventure Project will have a campsite display and a touch tank where kids can pick up a snake skin and feel a turtle shell. At 5:45 p.m. performers and staff will join kids for the annual Kids Processional, a march down the mall to the Pavilion replete with noisemakers and party hats, and a stop along the way for best video op of evening, the Bubble Wrap Stomp.
Charlottesville Ballet’s Nutcracker Suite is a 45-minute interactive performance specially designed to introduce young audiences to the beloved Tchaikovsky classic. The dancing will take place at the Herman Key Rec Center at 1:00 p.m.
Barefoot Puppet Theatre tells world folk tales, classic tales with a twist, and their own original stories to young audiences in theaters, schools, libraries and children’s museums up and down the East Coast. They’ll put on a show with hand-crafted puppets, sets and scenery at CitySpace at 3:30, 4:45 and 6:45 p.m.
Buffalo Bill will bring his one-man Wild West Extravaganza and Revue, and his “world famous persona” to Grace Covenant Church 4:45, 6:45 and 8 p.m.
Big kids – 10 and older – will have a chance to ditch parents and younger siblings and cut loose at Teen Extreme in the Herman Key, Jr. Rec Center, with its Ultimate Adrenaline Rush obstacle course, 22-foot Roaring River Slide, and mechanical bull. They can even beat on each other with oversize boxing gloves in the Big Glove Boxing Ring. Teen Extreme will be open from 3:30 p.m. till midnight.
Magic and Comedy
Monkeys in the House is a family show by John Hadfield with original music, comedy, magic and juggling tricks. The monkey business will be happening at Grace Covenant Church 1:00 and 2:15 p.m.
Captain Shiny Pants juggles, performs magic tricks, and sings funny songs along with first mate robot bird Nelson Beakley and Soupy Seal. They’ll be silly at Grace Covenant Church at 3:30 p.m.
Master juggler and comedian Mark Nizer will be playing First Night for the fourth time since moving to town in 2000. Nizer says his audiences should expect the impossible. The Los Angeles Times says he’s “one of the best practitioners of the art.” He’ll show his stuff at the Paramount Theater at 4:45, 6:45 and 9:15 p.m.
“Digital dexterity,” “cunning sleight of hand” and “a charming personality” – that’s what to expect from magician Eric Jones. He’ll bring it all to the Omni Hotel at 4:45, 6:45 and 8 :00 p.m.
Bone Hampton has starred in a film with Sandra Bullock and appeared on ABC’s popular morning show, “The View.” He’ll do stand-up comedy at the Paramount Theater at 8:00 and 10:30 p.m.
Bent Theatre has been making Charlottesville laugh since 2004 with its Second City-style improvisational skits that riff on pop culture and audience suggestions. We’ll Say It, They’ll Play It at CitySpace at 8:00, 9:15 and 10:30 p.m.
Musical choices this year run the gamut from classical string quartet to classic rock, barbershop choral to bluegrass gospel.
In Vivo String Quartet—two violins, a viola and a cello—are members of the award-winning Charlottesville High School String Ensemble. They’ll play chamber music at CitySpace at 1:00 p.m.
Singer/songwriter Billy Caldwell came to Charlottesville from the Green Mountains of Vermont. He’ll play his “Roots & Roll” blend of Americana, classic rock and R&B at the Haven at 1:00 and 2:00 p.m.
Albemarle Pipes and Drums was formed in 2006 to play and pass on the tradition of the music and culture of Scotland and the British Isles. They will perform at First United Methodist Church Main Sanctuary at 2:15 and 3:30 p.m.
The Deanes are a bluegrass gospel band from Standardsville. They’ll pick and sing at the Haven at 3:30 and 4:45 p.m.
The Jeffersonland Chorus, directed by David Rogers, are a 19-man, nattily dressed acapella ensemble specializing in barbershop music and horseplay. They’ll harmonize at First United Methodist Church at 3:30 and 4:45 p.m.
The five guys in the Downbeat Project sing soulful melodies over a unique instrumental blend of mandocello, upright bass, slide guitar, and drums. The young Charlottesville group will play their groove-filled tunes at the Haven at 6:45 and 8:00 p.m.
Janet Muse of Charlottesville and Mike Dunn of Crozet play dance tunes—English, Scottish and contra dance tunes, that is. They’ll play traditional and original compositions at First United Methodist Church at 6:45 and 8:00 p.m.
The Buzzard Hollow Boys got together here 20-odd years ago, but locate their old-timey music “somewhere between the Dust Bowl and the Mississippi Delta,” in the virtual place where “Johnny Cash shook hands with Lightning Hopkins, on the road with Bob Wills.” They’ll play it old school on acoustic and electric instruments at First United Methodist Church at 6:45 and 8:00 p.m.
Dr. Levine and the Dreaded BluesLady are singer Lorrie Strother and guitarist and University of Virginia blues historian Stephen Levine. They specialize in blues from the 1920s and ‘30s, the Mississippi Delta slide guitar style, and the Piedmont fingerpicking style characteristic of the Southeast. They’ll play the Omni Hotel at 8:00 and 9:15 p.m.
Carleigh Nesbitt is a young up-and-coming singer/songwriter from Ivy with a Southern drawl and a love of country and Americana folk music. Nesbitt and friends will play First United Methodist Church Main Sanctuary at 9:15 and 10:30 p.m.
The Groove Train takes audiences back to the 70’s with disco beats, wild costumes and big hair. They’ll party in their platform shoes at the Omni at 9:15 and 10:30 p.m.
Soul Transit Authority is an eight-man soul and jazz band that loves Motown and cocktail party tunes. They’ll sock it to dance fans at the Haven at 9:15 and 10:30 p.m.
The Gladstones are C-Ville rock royalty, veterans of popular bands including The Casuals, Skip Castro Band and Baaba Seth. They’ll let us hear that old time rock and roll at the Omni at 6:45 and 8:00 p.m. and at the Pavilion after the ball game until midnight. A ball drop and laser light show will follow!
Light House Studio, Charlottesville’s independent media center for kids who want to express themselves and tell local stories on film, will hold a Short Film Showcase at 6:45 and 8:00 p.m. The program will include documentary, animation, and short fiction works from the past year, including the winner of the Virginia Film Festival’s Adrenaline Film Project, “The Iranian Job” by Jake Sarrell, Sam Gorman, and Will Jones.
The first First Night was held in Boston in 1976. Charlottesville and Worchester, Massachusetts followed suit in 1982, and soon these community-wide, no-alcohol celebrations were being held all over the country and overseas.
A Charlottesville resident named Nancy Rudolph attended Boston’s inaugural First Night, envisioned a similar event on the mall, and brought the idea to the Piedmont Council for the Arts. Partnering with Downtown Charlottesville, Inc., Darden Towe of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Colin Ross of WINA, Kate Punch, marketing director for Ash-Lawn, and Rudolph herself, they booked Lou DeWitt of the Statler Brothers as the featured performer, and sold admission buttons for a mere $3.
“We had 3000 buttons,” council member Sandra Levine remembers, “and we said if we can sell 1500 we’ll feel pretty good about it.” They sold them all.
“It was a very balmy evening, fortunately, because we had things going on outside in Jackson Park and Lee Park,” Levine says. “There were no special events for children so everything was available to families. And they came. They came in droves! It was really exciting to be outside, and then at midnight the fireworks went off and people just sort of gathered. It was an amazingly communal experience.”
The whole event was relatively inexpensive according to former executive director Chris Eure. “You had artists performing for peanuts, basically because most of them couldn’t get a gig on New Year’s Eve or it was a smoky drunken gig and they didn’t want it. First Night offered them the opportunity to entertain in a family setting.”
Thirty years later, it’s still a family affair, and still an all-volunteer, non-profit production, funded this time by 31 Presenting Sponsors, 26 Community Patrons and a joint city-county grant. Five thousand people bought admission wristbands last year, and an estimated 7000 people thronged the mall. 2011 sales look even better. “I think we’re ahead of schedule,” says Cindy Adams of Carpet Plus, First Night’s chief sponsor this year and last.
Wristbands for admission to First Night may be purchased online at http://www.firstnightva.org/index.php/howto at $15 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 -15. Family Packs for two adults and two kids are $35. Prices rise slightly on December 31, when they will be available at the Omni.
All events are general admission only with no reserved seating, except for the Mark Nizer and Bone Hampton shows at the Paramount, for which tickets must be purchased at the Paramount box office or online at http://tickets.theparamount.net/eventperformances.asp?evt=118.
To register for the 5k run visit http://www.firstnightva.org/index.php.
First Night Virginia is a community effort. To volunteer go to http://www.firstnightva.org/index.php/volunteer or call 434-975-8269.