Last night Virginia? Don't let this New Year's tradition end


Author Carroll Trainum now has 28 First Night buttons.

Say it ain't so. Organizers are suggesting that the economic downfall may mean that the 28th annual First Night Virginia could be the last. It would be a shame for Charlottesville (second only to Boston in launching such an event) to lose this night-long, non-profit art festival. And part of me would be lost with it. 

The economy— coupled with bad weather— has hurt First Night, and sponsors have not stepped in to the rescue. So would-be attendees are being urged to buy their tickets (i.e. buttons) early.

I wonder if this will work because First Night Virginia has never been a money-maker. I learned this during my two years on the board of directors in the '90s. Despite selling as many as 10,000 buttons, First Night has depended on business sponsors to squeak by. The event has, however, been overcoming adversity since its inception.

New Year's Eve has historically been centered on alcohol, and the Downtown Mall– then in its infancy– wasn't a place you'd be hanging out at night if you weren't drinking. But we first few attendees braved the 26-degree weather to walk the bricks and ring in 1981 amidst barbershop singers, jugglers, and even a few stilt walkers.

Over the years, the celebration has grown to include about 70 performances ranging from harp players to steel drum bands, from magicians to BMX riders, from modern dance to Morris dancers, from a nationally famous John McCutcheon to yet–to-be famous Dave Matthews.

Venues ranged from businesses to churches, from gyms to theaters. One year, the event included tours of the then-shuttered Paramount Theater. More recently, big shows have taken place on the Paramount's stage.

When I started volunteering during the third year– my first of 25– some savvy audiences realized the trick to avoid getting shut out was to go to a less popular performance and then stay in their seats for the hot act that followed. That left me alone on the steps of the County Office Building explaining to 300 unhappy people why they weren't going to see the magician, despite having waited in the cold for 45 minutes. The rules were changed the next year.

One year, when the church where he was about to appear had filled to capacity, folk musician John McCutcheon took his guitar and performed a couple of songs on the front steps to the delight of people who couldn't get in.

Another magical part of First Night Virginia is the fireworks. Always a crowd pleaser, they were originally held at midnight, to ring in the New Year. Now they are held earlier so that kids will be awake to see them.

Nine years ago, I invited an acquaintance from a dinner party to join me as a volunteer. We worked our shift and then spent the rest of the evening enjoying the celebration, capping off the night with the fireworks. A year later we finished our second First Night, again at the fireworks. Only this time, I proposed marriage. By our third First Night volunteering together, we were married.

So go out and buy your button. Now.


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