As it celebrates its 25th anniversary – a look at what came before, and what happened after — Morris County’s first First Night.
By Peggy Carroll
It began with a question.
Back in 1991, Joan Verplanck, then president of the Morris County Chamber of Commerce, asked Morristown architect Allen Kopelson if he would join her in looking at a new event that was spreading throughout the country. Could they – and should they – consider it for Morris County?
He agreed to help. They visited towns that had already introduced it.
It was called First Night. And it was a different way to celebrate the beginning of a new year.
It began in 1975 in Boston, organized by a small group of artists who sought an alternative way of celebrating New Year’s Eve, a festival night where Boston’s young, innovative artists and musicians could perform on both indoor and outdoor stages.
Their event offered something for all the members of the family, from little kids to their grandparents.
And it was non-alcoholic.
Family friendly? Non-alcoholic? A celebration of the arts?
What’s not to love?
Intrigued, Kopelson accepted Verplanck’s request to help to bring it to Morristown.
They named the event First Night after the Boston model…. and they tacked on the place name: Morris.
After he accepted the job, Kopelson remembers, he realized its enormity. No way he way he could do it alone. So he turned to a friend, the lawyer for his architectural firm. Steve Wiley.
Wiley (who died in October 2015) was not only a lawyer (the principal attorney in the historic law suit that merged the Morristown and Morris Township schools), he knew politics (he was a Democratic state Senator from a Republican district and had been a candidate in 1985 Democratic gubernatorial primary) and was a leading community volunteer. There were few good causes he had not supported.
“He became my mentor,” Kopelson said.
And they rolled up their sleeves.
“The two of us took on the task as co-chairs” Kopelson said. They rallied support from local business, convincing restaurants, for example, to stay open. They collected dozens of volunteers.
One of these was Peter Mancuso, a Morris Township committeeman (now in the same position again). Mancuso, who was to serve as the First Night president in its third and fourth years, recalls that the idea was so appealing that they had no trouble enlisting people from all over Greater Morristown and beyond.
The emphasis then, as now, was on the fact that while the event is in Morristown, it is a celebration for all of the county.
The work started in February. “Steve and I met once a week to go over what needed to be done. We had list after list after list. By summer we had it pretty well going,” Kopelson recalls.
They formed lots of committees.
There was a committee to find venues for the performances, and a committee to audition prospective performers. “Many sent us videos; we watched them and then voted on them,” Kopelson says. A safety committee worked with the police and fire departments. Other committees focused on cleaning up after the fact.
They appointed monitors, who made sure all the venues were alcohol free.
“We wanted to make sure that the conviviality was from the art,” he said.
They also had to sell tickets, do the scheduling, arrange for publicity.
Slideshow photos: Some of the stars coming to First Night Morris 2017
As New Year’s Eve neared, the planners obsessed about one thing they could not control: The weather. What if it poured, snowed a foot, dipped too many degrees below freezing?
Mother Nature was as helpful as the volunteers.
“It was a balmy night, something like 55 degrees,” Kopelson said. “It was beautiful.”
The weather added to the novelty of the night; thousands of people turned out.
It was a sell-out.
In the years since then – this will be the 25th First Night celebration – it has remained viable, surmounting the financial problems that have turned off the lights in other cities and towns.
In 2000, more than 260 towns and cities across the nation had First Nights.
During the Great Recession, which began in late 2007, many faced financial difficulty and were scaled back or canceled. Even Boston has had its problems. There are about 45 cities with First Night celebrations now.
Morristown is now the largest celebration of its kind in New Jersey – and one of the few First Night remaining in the state.
It continues to attract some 10,000 visitors each year.
But its success if not the only result of the community cooperation 25 years ago. It turned out to be the impetus for two other organizations in Morristown.
“When we were looking for venues,” Kopelson explains, “we looked at the old Community Theater. It has been closed for a number of years and it was a wreck. But Steve and I talked to the owner and he agreed to let us use it.”
The organizers expected the theater to be cold and damp. But, Kopelson said, it was anything but. They set up fans to clear the air and then the volunteers went in and cleaned it up as much as they could.
“It was perfect, “ he recalls.
And seeing what it could be got people thinking that this old movie house, dating back to 1937, still had life and potential.
It was the start of a community movement that resulted in the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
First Night planted the seeds for another community group. It brought together the business owners in town in a united effort. And that developed into the Morristown Partnership, Kopelson says.
For these two organization, Kopelson says, it also was a first night.
MorristownGreen.com is a proud sponsor of First Night Morris County. This year’s silver anniversary show features nearly 90 events –art, comedy, dance and music for all ages–which will fill 27 venues, all within an easy walk or a free shuttle ride in downtown Morristown. The alcohol-free fun starts at 4:45 pm and continues to midnight–with two fireworks shows thrown in. Admission information and a performance schedule are here; you also can download an app with the roster.