First (And Last) Night

Downtown New Year’s Celebration Comes To An End
By KATHLEEN SHAW
Daily News-Record  1/2/20


As the world turned the page on another year, residents collected in downtown to share the memory of the final First Night Harrisonburg.
Since he was 3 years old, Alden Holt has attended First Night and looked forward to the promise of fun with family and friends before the disco ball drop. With splotchy, rosy cheeks and puffy a coat, Alden, now 8, rolled in the cold grass and chased his friends in front of Turner Pavilion with glee. Alden said he could not imagine why the event would end when each year had been exponentially more fun.
“It felt like it was even better because 2020 — double numbers, double fun: two, zero, two, zero,” Alden said.
First initiated in 1992 to transform the everyday shops and businesses into venues of art and entertainment on New Year’s Eve, organizers of First Night Harrisonburg decided to end the annual celebration this year due to cuts in funding and decrease in ticket sales.
In past years, interested participants needed to purchase a button to gain access to the mixture of music, arts and crafts. This year, the cost was eliminated and all activities were made accessible for the entire community.
For more than five years, dancers in the junior and senior companies at Shenandoah Valley Dance Company have performed contemporary, modern choreography for guests on New Year’s Eve. This year, over 60 audience members clogged the hallway and folded into one another on the cold tile, wherever there was free space for the opening show. Still, more people continuously filtered in and out of the building.
Liddie Knoche, junior company director, looked around the crowded room before the show began and said the turnout far exceeded past years.
“Usually, it’s pretty packed, but it is normally two shows, but this time it is one. It’s more packed than we expected,” Knoche said. “I don’t think we’ve had this many people before.”
Throughout the evening, families drifted along the chilly streets, jumping in and out of the various exhibition venues to explore the fun and find relief from the biting cold.
Explore More Discovery Museum opened its doors for children to roam freely, and a bubble wrap dance party littered Main Street 30 minutes before the children’s ball drop.
Magic was around as a few steps down the road was a magician in full dress attire eliciting “oh’s” and “ah’s” from families milling outside Massanutten Regional Library. Inside, puppeteers narrated silly tales for children, and for those willing to lend an ear, musician Michael Deaton led a “rhythm playground” with a gong, singing bowls and other percussion instruments.
Deaton demonstrated the various methods of vibrating and interacting with the drums to play a webbing ocean of acoustics that he said offered healing with “no magic; it’s science.”
“This is an ocean of sounds. … It’s not a language the human brain understands,” Deaton said. “Music is a tool we can use to change how we feel.”
At the Turner Pavilion warm aromas wafted from Strite’s Donuts and individuals chalked up resolutions alongside live music that kept young and old swaying in the wind with anticipation for the ball drops.
The first ball drop was at 9:30 p.m., and children took advantage of the sloping hill in front of the main stage to run and roll with the energy of fizzy champagne bottles ready to pop. In the last ticks before midnight, a 30-second countdown from DJ Chuck Morris led nearly 100 into watching the ball drop, and a colorful fireworks display painted the sky for the final First Night.
Many young families said news of 2019 being the final First Night drew them out, and they enjoyed the community activities. Paris Mazin moved to Harrisonburg with her husband and three children earlier this year from Florida and said the collective array of First Night events was a pleasant new way for them to ring in New Year’s Eve.
“It’s quite different. In Orlando, we used to go downtown, but this is a new experience,” Mazin said. “It’s heartbreaking, but at least we got to experience it before it stopped.”
For other native or longtime residents, seeing the final run of downtown’s biggest New Year’s Eve event was nostalgic and saddening.
Pamela Cook and her husband Peter Poage have attended nearly two decades of First Night celebrations in Harrisonburg and said they most enjoyed the community exchanges. John Henderson has attended every local First Night, dating back to 1992. In those days, Henderson’s Scout troop would keep a bonfire fed near Court Square Theater for passing families to enjoy.
“It’s something to do. There’s camaraderie, and it’s family-oriented,” Henderson said. “I’m sad to see it go.”