By Ken Wilson –
It’s called First Night, but it’s really Last Evening meets First Morning, as we finish off the old year and greet the new one, sober but enthused, entertained and enchanted, and in the company of family and friends. The alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration, first held in Boston in 1975, is an international tradition now and has been hip-hip-hooraying Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall since 1982.
The 36th First Night Virginia, featuring 22 acts and activities, begins at 4:00 p.m. and continues till the last skit is laughed at and the last step is danced—sometime in 2018. The annual First Night Processional, a come-as-you-are parade along the Mall, begins at the Paramount Theater at 6:15 p.m. The parade ends near The Omni Hotel at a field of bubble wrap. Come ready to STOMP! Music and magic, comedy and kids’ activities—here’s a look at some of the fun and festivity First Nighters will enjoy this year.
Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow
The Big Top comes to the Paramount at 4:00, 6:30 and 9:00 p.m., as silver-tongued devil Tyler Fyre and darling of danger Thrill Kill Jill of the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow bring their “fast paced and funny, death-defying daredevil stunt spectacular with all the glitter, glamour, and gut-wrenching thrills of a Vegas show.” The duo harks back to the early days of Barnum & Bailey on Coney Island when bearded ladies, snake charmers and other sideshow acts drew bathers and their money to the boardwalk.
“Though sideshows’ popularity waned after the early 20th century, a small but steady revival has been growing over the past decade,” Tyler and Jill say. “It started with pop culture’s renewed interest in burlesque (see: Von Teese, Dita) and expanded to include a host of strange and dangerous acts (see: pretty much everyone on America’s Got Talent).”
Eric Jones, Magician
Buckingham County native Eric Jones calls himself a “Prestidigitator Armed with Sleight-Of-Hand.” The six syllable P-word means “magician,” and Jones is such a good one that he once fooled Penn and Teller with a trick in which coins appear and vanish from a person’s hands without the magician ever coming near them.
Jones honed his craft in Charlottesville in his 20s, and has performed on The CW Network, Syfy and Comedy Central, at the World Famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, California and for Monday Night Magic, the longest running magic show in New York. He was a semi-finalist in season 12 of America’s Got Talent. An author and a lecturer as well, Eric has shown some of his pet tricks to many magicians across the country, including those gathered at The World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Jones performs his brand of “close-up magic” 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.” He’ll demonstrate his artistry at the Paramount Theater at 5:15, 7:45 and 10:15 p.m.
It will be blues to bluegrass and everything in between at City Space from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. as, one by one, eight local singer-songwriters take the stage. Forrest Swope, who will play from 10:30 till 11:00 p.m., has been performing in and around Charlottesville since the ’80s. As lead guitarist for The Jolly Llamas, he opened for both Phish and the Dave Matthews Band in the early ’90s at Trax. More recently, he played in Crystal Rainbow Unicorn Puppies and sat in as a special guest with local favorites Mama Tried, The Cows, and Jam Thicket. As a singer-song writer Forrest has recorded with Terri Allard, Andy Waldeck, and Kathryn Caine, and will be bringing popular favorites such as “POS Car” to the stage at City Space.
“While many of my friends have played in years past, I have not played First Night before, and I am really excited to be asked to this year,” Swope says. “I went to a musician’s camp this past summer in New York, hosted by the legendary Richard Thompson, along with Shaun Colvin, and came back re-focused on my craft. That enthusiasm spurred me to play more solo.
“The events of this summer were particularly challenging for me, and for my friends and colleagues. One of the ways I have worked my way through things is with music. Susan Munson (playing from 9:00 to 9:30 p.m.) and I are old friends, and she has been encouraging me to play more of my songs out as a solo musician. I was really touched when she invited me to perform at First Night this year.”
MIRA Early Music 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 Early Music Ensemble, the Charlottesville-based group founded by Raven Hunter in 2005. MIRA has sung at historic Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, the Staunton Music Festival and for the Evensong service at the Washington National Cathedral. They’ll warm hearts and lift spirits at 5:15 and 7:45 p.m. at First United Methodist Church.
Zuzu’s Hot 5
Bring your dancin’ shoes for the joyful noise of Zuzu’s Hot 5 in the Omni Ballroom at 6:30, 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 the 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, on 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 goosebumps ever since. It’s absolutely incredible performing with them.”
Bent and Goofy
The Bent Theatre Improv Comedy motto is “You Say It, We Play It,” and the troupe has been keeping Central Virginia laughing since 2004. With more than 20 comedians, they’ll be silly about little stuff and silly about big stuff in the sanctuary of the Haven at 9:00, 10:15 and 11:30 p.m.
Children’s Entertainment and Activities
The Goodlife Theater will present The Recycling Pirates Puppet Show, “a rollicking puppet musical about pirate characters created from trash,” at Key Rec Center at 4:00, 5:15 and 6:30 p.m. Led by Captain Jack Sparetire, these pirates sail the urban seas looking for things that can be recycled, reused, reduced and repaired, in a show designed to teach kids about the need for and ease of recycling. Jeanne Wall provides the sparkle and Joe Pipik is the original puppeteer. Since the two got together in 1994 and founded Goodlife Puppet Theatre, they’ve performed at the Kennedy Center and at the Children’s Theatre-In-The-Woods at Wolf Trap.
The Award-winning folks at Expressions Face Painting will be at work in the Omni Hotel Small Ballroom from 4:00 until 6:00 p.m. making “cheek art”—small designs and large—on faces, arms and hands. Glowing black light paint will be available as a New Year’s special.
The Omni’s James Monroe Room will be the setting for The Buffalo Bill Wild West New Year! at 5:15, 7:45 and 9:00 p.m., an interactive storytelling session presented by Buffalo Bill himself. Stories will include A School for Cowpokes, Mostly True Tall Tales, The Old Fashioned Melodrama, and Prairie Pastimes and Games.
Light House Studio will present family-friendly award-winning short films including animations, documentaries and music videos at Vinegar Hill Theatre at 4:00, 5:15, 6:30, 7:45 and 9:00 p.m.
Light House Studio was founded in 1999 by a group of local filmmakers, artists, and educators who began with a small pilot workshop, Video Diary. Since then it has assisted young people in the creation of thousands of documentaries, dramas, and animated films, work that has been broadcast on PBS, CNN, IFC, and TNT, and shown in festivals all over the United States.
By the Community For the Community
While it’s often mistaken for a City of Charlottesville event, First Night Virginia is actually presented by a volunteer-driven, non-profit that is dependent, almost entirely, on local sponsors, including Sloan Manis Real Estate of Charlottesville and 21 other businesses, organizations and fellow non-profits this year.
“Sloan Manis Real Estate Partners wanted to sponsor this year because they enjoy being part of the community celebration at a time when we need more celebration in our community,” First Night president Drake Van de Castle says. “Aaron Manis and David Sloan both have deep local roots and they want to help add to the special fabric that makes our community so wonderful.”
“A large part of our support comes from the public,” Van de Castle notes. “And I certainly want to give a shout out to the City of Charlottesville. They provide police support and facilities—a tremendous amount of resources and manpower. Without their support it would not happen.”
First Night Virginia saw a 10 percent increase in attendance last year and has become a tradition for folks across the Commonwealth and beyond. “We have people who have been every single year,” Van de Castle says. “A family from Philadelphia has been coming for eight straight years. Our first call to get wristbands this year was from a couple in Kansas City coming to the area to see relatives over the holidays who heard good things about our special community celebration.” And then there is the couple who began their first date as First Night volunteers. When they returned to help the next year, they were engaged.
Until midnight December 28, FNV admission wrist-bands are $16.00 for adults, $6.00 for children, ages 6-15, and $38 for a family pack (2 adults, 2 children). On December 29, 30 and 31 adult wristbands are $20.00, children’s are $9.00 and family packs are $49. Children ages 5 and younger are admitted free. Online wristband sales run till midnight on December 28. Wristbands may also be purchased December 29, 30 and 31 at retail vendors or at FNV headquarters in the Omni Hotel starting at 10:00 a.m.
Parking and Transportation
First Night patrons need only show their wristbands to get free parking in the Water Street or the Market Street Parking Garage on December 31. Parking is also available at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) bus service will run their regular service, ending at 11:30 p.m.