History & Heritage: Recalling First Night
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
"History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated by just about everyone in the world, although not all cultures
start the new year on the same day. Many Christians attend church to reflect on the old year and on how to make the upcoming year better in a service called “Watch Night.” It was (and still is) marked by church services throughout Montclair. It was an important part of the year at the (old) Methodist Episcopal Church on North Fullerton and was continued by its successor, the First Methodist United Church, built on the same site in 1902. It was often observed at Central Presbyterian and by the African American churches in town. Watch Night took on special significance in the African American community on Dec. 31, 1862, when many African Americans gathered in their churches to await confirmation of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation had been promised in September of 1862 and was to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
BUILDING FIRST NIGHT
One of the most memorable ways Montclair celebrated New Year’s Eve was First Night. First Night was created in Boston in 1976 by artist and event organizer Clara Wainwright and her artist friends. The group was looking for a way to showcase the talents of all kinds of artists and to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a family-friendly way, without alcohol. Even though it was only 6 degrees outside, 65,000 attended the inaugural event in Boston. Artists performed in non-traditional venues, such as churches and restaurants. Thanks to corporate sponsors and a modest admission fee people bought blanket tickets that got them into any performance on a first-come/first-served basis until each venue was full. The night was capped by a fireworks display. The event quickly spread throughout the world, until it was enjoyed by folks in 200 different cities.
On the last day of 1988 Montclair became the first city in New Jersey to host a First Night event. According to Montclair Times articles in 1988 and 1989, Celia Eller-Collins and her husband, Brandon Collins, became familiar with First Night when they lived in Charlottesville, Va. They moved to Montclair and shared their stories with their Realtor, Bill Marsh. Bill’s wife, Ronnie, had worked with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs (PRCA). Bill, Ronnie, Celia and Brandon approached PRCA Director Perry Doerr to see if it might work in Montclair. They all thought it was a great idea. Things started cooking by April of 1988. Bill Marsh was selected as the committee chair. They started looking for acts and contributions, and for volunteers to help out. Doerr and his associate, Irv Goldstone, went to Boston to learn about how the event should be put together.
FIRST NIGHT PERFORMANCES
There ended up being 60 artists performing at 26 different locations, all within walking distance of the Central Business District. Sales were frighteningly slow as the date approached, and the organizers were afraid that the event would be a bust. However, there was an explosion in sales during the last 48 hours, and all 8,000 buttons were sold at $5 each. People who came looking for buttons on the day of the event had to be turned away.
There was an incredible array of performances, from storytellers like Mike Agranoff and Montclair's Gerry Fierst, to poetry from Montclair’s own Bobby Reilly, to square dancing called by Frank Bartholemew. There were too many performers the first year, let alone in the following years, to list them all here. There were magicians like John Bundy and dancers like the Fiddlestick Cloggers, Samia, who performed Middle Eastern dances, and Lillo Way, a modern stylist. Jean Rapicano entertained with her large marionettes at the YMCA on Park Street. World-class mime Yass Hakoshima entranced his audience in the Hillside School auditorium.
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There was hearth cooking at the Israel Crane House and a discussion about old movies led by the Rev. Paul Leggett with John Skillin from the Montclair Public Library. The musical offerings were almost endless, with acts like Shad Royful and his Swing Orchestra, singer/composer/pianist/Montclair resident Horace Ott, who co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which became a hit for the Animals, and who arranged the hit “YMCA” for the Village People, a cabaret act put together by Marsha Debrow and Joanne Childs-Ashe called “Two Sides of the Same Coin," the Simone Coonrod classical trio, the NJ Chamber Music Society, Irish singer and harpist Aideen O’Donnell, The Belmont Brass, guitarist Victor Kerendjiev, the Park Avenue Barbershop Quartet and the rock group Uforia. Some people considered the New Jersey Ballet performing the pas de deux from “Nutcracker Suite” to be the headliners. It’s hard to say; there was something there for every taste. The evening started with a procession down Church Street led by Stella Clark on stilts and ended with fireworks at the Hillside School.
FIRST NIGHT WINDS DOWN
First Night continued to outdo itself year after year for the next 22 years, reaching a peak of 12,000 attendees. Financial constraints and poor attendance forced them to scale back in the final years. The New Jersey Ballet returned often. Other great acts were the rock band Little Feat, rocker and Montclair resident Warren Zanes and the Big Apple Circus. In 2011 Marc Dashield, the township manager, said that there wasn’t going to be First Night that year, but there was a slight surplus from the previous year.
They scraped up enough money to put on a show for New Year’s Eve 2011/12, but only 2,000 people attended.
There was no First Night in 2013.
A marvelous tradition became history.