First knight: Levine leads New Year's charge
When First Night Virginia launched in Charlottesville in 1982, a teenaged Steven Levine was there to see it happen– though there wasn't that much to see. The event was "much smaller," he says. "The Mall was not the vibrant energetic place that it is now."
How times change. For the past two years, 37-year-old Levine– a 1986 Charlottesville High School graduate– has been the executive director of First Night Virginia, the nonprofit organization responsible for Charlottesville's biggest community party. This year, that party features 75 events at 20 downtown venues on New Year's Eve, December 31. (See details at firstnightva.org)
"We probably do as many or more performances in one night as other venues do in a year," he says.
But though it all goes down in a mere 24 hours, Levine works all year to make the one-night extravaganza happen.
"January is more of a post mortem," he says, and by February, Levine– First Night's sole full-time employee– is hard at work pursuing artists and funding for next year's bash.
"A lot of people assume the event is put on by the city," he says. "In fact, we get less than 2.5 percent of our budget from the government."
Levine says the event draws as many as 10,000 people to the downtown area on New Year's Eve, with about 7,000 buying admission buttons ($12 in advance for adults; $6 for kids). That money, he says, makes up just 55 percent of the total budget.
But while soliciting donations and corporate sponsors is a critical part of the job, Levine says finding the acts to perform is his favorite piece.
"I love going out and digging and researching and saying, 'Let me hire you,' because I've been on the other end of it," he explains.
For a decade, he worked as an actor and director and learned the ins and outs of theater administration, including grant writing. A drama major at the University of South Carolina, he also attended a professional theater-training conservatory in California called the Dell'arte School.
Bob Stroh, former First Night board member and the head of the Downtown Business Association, believes Levine's diverse entertainment background helped him land the job in 2003– and succeed.
"He's taken it to a new level of professionalism," Stroh says, citing Levine's ability to sign local and national acts.
This year, Levine says, he's particularly excited to see local bluegrass prodigy Heather Berry, whom he likens to "the next Dolly Parton," as well as acclaimed blues guitarist Ernie Hawkins.
The night always ends with a bang– fireworks launched from the Albemarle County office building– and then another year's work is over for Levine. He does give himself a moment's rest, however.
"On January 1," he laughs, "I sleep."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO