The last shall be first and the first shall be last once again this December 31, as Central Virginians wave goodbye to the old year and anticipate the new one at our 35th annual First Night Virginia. An afternoon and evening’s worth of music and magic, theater and dance, comedy and good cheer and a whole lot more on and around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, First Night Is the low-cost, family-friendly, alcohol-free way to celebrate. And it’s a Central Virginia tradition.
First Night originated in Boston in 1975, and was taken up here in 1982, thanks to former Boston resident, Nancy Rudolph, who thought it a natural fit for our arts-loving community.
“I called the originator and asked ‘Is it alright if we start First Night in Virginia?’, Rudolph remembers. She said ‘of course.’”
Kate Spencer worked closely with Rudolph that first year, beginning the planning in early spring, securing a small grant from First Virginia Bank, and calling churches to procure their sanctuaries as performance spaces. Other performances took place at Vinegar Hill Theater, in the vestibules of Mall banks, and at the Carver Rec Center, where a steel drum band from Charlotte led the celebrations at midnight. One of the Statler Brothers sang that night, as did a pre-Dave Matthews Band member, Boyd Tinsley. Rob Coles, the fifth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, and his spitting image, gave his popular TJ impression, and there were fireworks, courtesy of Darden Towe. “We had about 25 different acts,” Spencer says. “The idea was that people could come and go; you did not have to stay for a full set. The performers were aware of that and accepted it. That was one of the patterns we set up initially that made it so successful—that people did not feel they were tied down.”
Piedmont Council of the Arts helped find the performers, and Blue Ridge Graphics printed the admission buttons, which, as best Spencer can remember, cost a dollar. “Lots of local people gave their time and talent. It was a real community effort. People like Nancy and Bonnie Brewer and Sandra Levine also fed anyone who came from out of town—brought them to their homes earlier in the day.”
Current FNV president Drake Van de Castle took part in some of the early celebrations, and after moving away and then moving back, wanted to introduce his nine-year-old son to the tradition. Down on the Mall that night in 2007, he ran into the executive director and offered his help, joined the board in 2008, and became president in 2009. “A lot of other First Nights haven’t survived over the years,” he notes. “At one time this was a much bigger event, but now it’s a park-once-and-everything-is-in-walking-distance. That’s some of the appeal.”
For this 35th celebration, Van de Castle says, “First Night is excited to offer a diverse slate of entertainment options for all ages,”—from a puppet show that has performed at the Kennedy Center to an aerial circus act, Scottish bag pipes, face painting, improv comedy, magic, music, dance, spirit walks and more. Two surprise gems are the Bubble Wrap Stomp and the new laser shows.”
Magician Eric Jones
Over at the Paramount Theater, First Nighters can catch two performers with rich reputations. Magician Eric Jones hails from Buckingham County, honed his craft in Charlottesville during his 20s, and has performed on the CW Network, Syfy and Comedy Central. Jones was invited to open for Penn and Teller after showing them a trick in which he made coins appear and vanish from a person’s hands without his even coming near them.
“To be honest with you,” he says, “this is a homecoming of sorts. I left Charlottesville just before they reopened The Paramount Theater, so I never got to see what the renovation looks like. I’m looking forward to that.” Jones will perform his brand of “close-up magic” at 4:15, 6:30 and 9:00 p.m., with the help of a camera man, a projector, and a movie theatre-sized screen. “People can focus on the magic as they would if they were sitting right beside me on stage,” he says. “There is nowhere for the magician to hide anything, but miracles still happen.”
Singer-Songwriter Austin Ellis
Raised on equal doses of rock and soul, and influenced by the soulful delivery of John Legend and the laid-back strumming of Jack Johnson, Austin Ellis combines a powerful voice with a warm acoustic style. Having already written and produced two studio albums, he auditioned for the sixth season of the NBC TV series The Voice, and was chosen by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. Along with Josh Kaufman, Ellis created one of the season’s most memorable moments, singing the hit “Happy” by Pharell Williams. He has toured the US, Europe, and Australia and performs more than 200 shows per year.
He’ll play the Paramount at 5:30, 7:45 and 10:15 p.m. “I’m really looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve in a great place like Charlottesville with friends, family, and music,” Ellis says. “I’ll be singing a mix of original songs and what I consider essential covers that have influenced and inspired me.”
MIRA Vocal Ensemble
English and Flemish-style polyphony as heard in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, augmented by gems from the Medieval era, folk songs, and works by more recent, but historically informed composers such as Benjamin Britten—that’s the rich and rare repertoire of MIRA Vocal Ensemble, the Charlottesville-based group founded by Raven Hunter in 2005.
Among the songs MIRA will perform at 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, are the early Renaissance carols “Sir Christmas” and “Man, be Joyful,” Palestrina’s “Puer Qui Natus Est” a wassail or two, and William Byrd’s six-voice motet, “This Day Christ was Born.” Also, they will perform “To Drive the Cold Winter Away,” an English carol requested by the late Eric Betthauser, MIRA member and beloved music teacher at Henley Middle School. “MIRA has dedicated their concert to Eric, Sarah Armstrong (a beloved soprano who we lost in August) and Bill Anderson, a friend, MIRA fan and wonderful singer in the Charlottesville community,” Hunter says. “Three beautiful souls whose love poured out through their gorgeous voices have moved on, leaving us behind for the time being. We miss them so.”
Blue Ridge Irish Music School
Charlottesville’s Blue Ridge Irish Music School teaches Irish music, dance and song for all ages at all skill levels. Its performances at The Haven at 4:15 and 6:30 p.m. will feature 15 to 20 performers—kids, teens and adults—some singing, some dancing, some playing fiddle, flute, tin whistle, guitar or bodhran (Irish frame drum), and some doing all three.
Zuzu’s Hot 5
Bring your dancin’ shoes for the joyful noise of Zuzu’s Hot 5 in Christ Episcopal Church’s Meade Hall at 9:00 and 11:30 p.m. With trumpet, trombone and upright bass, plus banjo, mandolin, guitar, ukulele and the vocal stylings of Susanna Rosen, aka “Zuzu,” the Charlottesville-based group plays New Orleans-style, Prohibition-Era jazz to warm a cold Virginia night; everything from stomps and Dixieland to 1900-1930 blues and pop. Expect numbers by Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith.
“We formed in 2012, inspired by early jazz combos of Fats Waller and the Hot 5 and Hot 7 bands of Louis Armstrong,” Rosen says. “Later ‘trad’ jazz bands, like The Firehouse 5, and contemporary ones like Tuba Skinny, and Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns influence us too.”
“My very first New Year’s Eve gig was on tenor sax, December 31, 1967,” says vocalist and guitar player Pete Vigour. “Sam Green, Brandon Rose, Doug Bethel and I met playing swing music. Everyone in the group plays several different types of music, but none of us had tried the New Orleans Dixieland band thing. So, when I wanted to give that a try, I asked all of these overqualified gents. They’ve been giving me goose bumps ever since. It’s absolutely incredible performing with them.”
“I’ve played at several First Night Virginias, including the first one in 1982. I just love Meade Hall, with its wooden floor and stone walls. When it’s packed with people on New Year’s Eve, it’s magical. We hope to conjure a party in that space that The Great Gatsby himself would enjoy.”
P.A.W.N. Laser Light Show
New and spectacular this year is the choreographed laser extravaganza—eight of them, actually—beginning at 3:00 p.m. and running till midnight at the Sprint Pavilion, when the traditional ball drop will cap off the evening. The folks at P.A.W.N have staged shows for everyone from TV’s World Wrestling Entertainment to St. Louis’s Budweiser School of Business, and they’re bringing seven different laser systems to the Sprint Pavilion, including a 50-watt monster, the largest in the country, capable of burning a hole in a can of soda, or shooting up several miles into the sky. Operating that one requires official permission from both the FDA and FAA. Not to worry, however—the permits are on file, and it’s a family show with an incredible soundtrack.
“You’re going to hear a lot of great songs that you never heard before,” says Matt Falcone, owner-partner of P.A.W.N. “We have a lot of friends that are famous producers, so we’re going to bring in some of their favorite tracks. The theme changes a bit, as does the music, according to the crowd that’s present, so the show will be appropriate and fun for kids to seniors. First Night asked me to make sure I include Thomas Jefferson laser images, so you’re sure to see a few of those also.“ P.A.W.N’s shows will begin at 3:00, 4:15, 5:30, 6:30, 7:45, 9:00, 10:15, and 11:30 p.m.
The Zuzu and P.A.W.N. Laser Light Shows are just two of the five acts helping to countdown the New Year beginning at 11:30 p.m. Singer-songwriters Emily Kresky and Ryan Garst began harmonizing in the summer of 2014 and called themselves Together Soul. Garst’s roots in the Virginia mountains and Kresky’s in urban New Jersey give the duo a North meets South take on Americana, folk, blues and pop. They’ll play City Space from 11:00 p.m. till midnight.
Like in the hit television series Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the actors in the Washington D.C. troupe Last Ham Standing create wacky scenes and improv comedy out of audience suggestions, live and on the spot. They’ll do it for First Nighters at The Haven Sanctuary at 9:00 and 11:30 p.m.
Charlottesville’s Beatles tribute band, Abbey Road, started life as # 9 Dream, and made its public debut at First Night Virginia in 1997. Featuring founding members Paul Olko (George) and Keith Winkler (John) and new lads Barry Willard (Paul) and Billy Ballard (Ringo), this new Fab Four channels the old one, playing high-energy, feel-good shows that make some people dance and others just scream. They’ll rock the Omni Ballroom at 9:00 and 11:30 p.m.
Ragged Mountain String Band and The Virginia Ramblers alternate playing bluegrass and old-time mountain music at First United Methodist, preceded by Celtic harpist and storyteller Eve Watters. Brooklyn singer-songwriters Springob & Troyer, fresh off a Minneapolis to Memphis canoe trip, play three sets of rock and Americana tunes in Christ Church’s Meade Hall. With 33 acts playing multiple shows, plus activities like the Processional at 6:30 p.m. and the Bubble Wrap Stomp for kids at 6:45 p.m., this year’s First Night offers something for everyone. And it’s truly a community affair, made possible with the help of numerous volunteers and donors. “First Night Virginia would not happen without the wonderful support from our Presenting Sponsor, Carpet Plus, as well as the support of Sloan Manis Real Estate Partners, Charlottesville Newsplex, the Omni Hotel, and the City of Charlottesville.” Van de Castle says.
Through December 29, admission for adults is $16, and children ages 6-15, $6. Kids 5 and under are free, and a family pack of 2 adults and 2 children is discounted to $38. Prices go up on December 30. Parking at the Market Street and Water Street Parking Garages is free with a FNV wristband.