The First Night tradition was born in Boston during the glam-rock era. But only a last-minute infusion of philanthropy has kept that show breathing for another holiday season. Cities without such kind friends have pulled the plug on their New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Happily, First Night Morris County has some extremely kind friends. Thirty sponsors are on board, underwriting 200 artists for what promises to be another eclectic and entertaining evening in Morristown.
Things weren’t so promising three years ago, when a young team of volunteers led by Chairman Michael Schmidt and Director Craig Schlosser accepted the challenge of nudging First Night Morris back into the black.
Mike, 30, is a Rutgers MBA who works for Quest Diagnostics as a finance manager. He’s also a Morristown High alum (class of ’02) who attended the very first First Night, 22 Decembers ago.
We asked Mike what’s on tap this year–and what the future holds for First Night Morris. Our electronic queries found him between feverish final preparations for New Year’s Eve and long nights at the Morristown zoning board, where he is a member.
KEEPING IT FRESH: FIRST NIGHT MORRIS CHAIRMAN MICHAEL SCHMIDT
MorristownGreen.com: First Night is a huge undertaking. Why did you want to take it on?
Mike Schmidt: I ask myself that same question every day…I’m kidding! I made the decision because I saw an opportunity to lead an organization with a rich history, a strong community connection, and a worthwhile cause.
I also enjoy a good challenge, and I saw that despite the difficult economic environment, this organization had the potential to return to greatness. Lastly, I truly believe that arts play an essential role in defining a community’s culture, and First Night is one of the key drivers for our community.
MG: Why will this year’s First Night be the best one ever?
Mike Schmidt: Every First Night is better than the last, so this one has to be the best one ever!
MG: What new wrinkles are you most excited about, and why?
Mike Schmidt: We have added two additional hours of children’s programming at Morristown High School from 5 – 7 pm – all included in the general button price! Remember, children 4 and under are still free.
Based on demand from Latino attendees, we’ve brought back some popular acts ( DREAMS Dance Studio presents Salsaoco) and added new ones (Mariachi Citalli).
We also have a comfort package available for purchase this year that includes express ticket pickup, light snacks and beverages, an additional comfort area, a complimentary photo, and giveaways. Last but not least, we have a new future artist development program where amateur talents (both visual and performing artists) can compete for prizes.
Morristown, Dec. 31, 2013
More than 80 acts at 24 venues;
Two fireworks shows, Free shuttle buses
Admission badges: $20 through Dec. 21; $25 thereafter
Special packages, group rates available
MG: What sort of experience are you promising to first-time patrons?
Mike Schmidt: First Night Morris 2014 will be an experience you will always remember. The strong sense of community, tremendous talent of performers, and interactive nature of the event are almost impossible to describe – you really have to experience them for yourself. You won’t find this atmosphere and lineup anywhere else, and everything is accessible for one affordable price!
MG: What surprises will keep it fresh for longtime First Night fans?
Mike Schmidt: My favorite part of First Night is the diversity of performers which presents an opportunity to experience acts to which I would otherwise never be exposed. (Or be able to afford their normal ticket prices!)
On top of this, two-thirds of our performers are different from last year’s program, which means there will be something new for everyone. Even the returning acts we all love continue to perform new routines each year. If you’re a long time First Nighter, I suggest you check out Robert Costello as Abraham Lincoln, John Ginty, and the New Jersey Tap Ensemble Soloists.
MG: If you were attending purely as a reveler, how would you plan your evening?
Mike Schmidt: I don’t have any children, but if I did I would start at Morristown High School at 5 pm for our additional children’s programming. There we could build with a professional Lego builder, experience StoryFaces storytelling/facepainting, and get creative with Art 4 Kids.
After the fireworks at 9:15 pm, I would make my way to the Mayo Performing Arts Center, but I would stop at one of our warming stations on the way (Sweet Lucy’s Bakery, Cheek’s Boutique, or the Masonic Lodge).
John Ginty starts his first performance at MPAC at 9:45 pm. When that wrapped up I would head to Mentalist Marshall Manlove at the Church of the Redeemer Parish House.
Of course I would cap the night off with a view of the midnight fireworks from the Morristown Green.
MG: This is year three since your team took over management. What kind of shape is First Night in now, compared with 2010? What steps have you taken to make First Night viable… and what are the odds for First Night’s survival?
Mike Schmidt: The first thing we sought out to understand three years ago was whether or not First Night had simply “run its course.” Many other First Nights have folded due to lower attendance, smaller donations, and inactive leadership, so would First Night Morris County follow the same path?
After talking with community partners, supporters, and attendees, we quickly learned that everyone wanted and expected First Night Morris County to continue. Once we had our answer, we knew our responsibility was to make sure First Night Morris County was prepared to prosper for another 22 fabulous years.
It’s been a tough few years managing through a challenging economic climate, but we have great news: First Night Morris County is here to stay!
We had to find ways to balance our budget without compromising the artistic programming and still maintain an affordable ticket price; we had to diversify the sources of funding to more foundations and corporations; we had to grow our volunteer base, our Board of Trustees and our Advisory Board; we had to catch our organization up to the 21st century with a greater web presence, online ticket purchasing, and electronic file storage; we had to clean up our branding and messaging; and we had to educate new people about First Night and what it represents.
We are finally positioned to have our second break-even year in the past three years and possibly even turn into the black for the first time in more than six years.
The next crucial steps are to add new leaders to carry the organization forward and to grow our supporter base so that a much larger percentage of our budget is funded by corporations and foundations.
We are not economically viable without our community partners supporting us financially and without the leadership to carry the torch.
Excited, energetic volunteers and attendees keep First Night Morris County glowing, and this is something that will never change.