By Marion Filler
The magic began 27 years ago, when thousands thronged to First Night Morris County. The weather was balmy, corporations were flush with cash, and the event was a novelty.
Fast forward to this year.
The weather is a wild card, and lots of corporations have fled New Jersey and taken their donations with them. Yet the fun remains.
Once again, New Year’s Eve in Morristown will come alive in with music, dance, art, theater, comedy, and all manner of entertainment guaranteed to enthrall revelers seeking an upbeat way to ring in 2019.
“Twenty-seven years speaks to the vitality of the event,” says Dr. Lynn Siebert, whose official title is Director of Arts Participation & Communication at Morris Arts, a position she has held since 2002.
As part of the First Night team, Siebert is responsible for locating the talent, negotiating contracts, and figuring out “who you can put where.” Her experience as a professional musician and teacher affords her a wide network to recruit talent.
“I know a lot of people and I’m always on the lookout,” she says.
The idea behind First Night always has been to provide family-friendly, alcohol-free, affordable access to celebrate the arts.
“As we become more and more electronically motivated and dominated by devices, this is in real-time, it’s a person-to-person connection. I think human beings need that first-hand experience,” Siebert says.
She strives to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and keep the entertainment fresh and exciting. New groups comprise more than half of the performers, and favorites are rotated in timely fashion.
The lineup consists of more than 100 artists, and 81 events in 23 venues that extend from Morristown High School to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, with free shuttle buses to most locations.
Maria Sumareva, an award-winning Moldovan pianist who plays everything from Bach to rock, will make her first appearance at First Night.
“She’s very petite, very soft spoken and an absolute dynamo at the keyboard,” says Siebert.
Stretching the cultural horizon is Tavche Gravche, a Gypsy/neo Balkan trio spotted by Siebert at the annual Balkan Festival in Brooklyn.
“They play the guitar, clarinet and string bass. The name of the group is also the name of a bean dish, a kind of stew, in Macedonia.”
Families with kids have a special place all their own, starting at 4:45 pm on Dec. 31, 2018, and continuing through midnight.
“About six- or seven years ago, we added something new for young families: A set of programming at one location — Morristown High School. We have LEGO building, hula hooping, an art project, face painting and performance. It’s been extremely popular,” says Siebert.
“This year we have NJTAP2, a rhythm tap dance group that is going to come made up of tap dancing kids. Should be a lot of fun. So will the life-size dinosaurs inflated in the gymnasium by Dinoman.”
Also back by popular demand: Fireworks, visible from the historic Morristown Green at 9:15 pm and midnight.
Another special treat: Guitarist Frank Vignola.
“He has spoiled my ears forever for any jazz guitarist, because he is so extraordinary,” Siebert says.
Vignola has played with the big boys: Lionel Hampton, Ringo Starr, Wynton Marsalis and others.
After a near-fatal accident that almost cost him an arm, Vignola is back and “better than ever.”
The performers aren’t the only stars, however.
“The venues are phenomenal,” raves First Night Director Craig Schlosser. “St. Peter’s, Redeemer, the United Methodist Church, the Mayo Center… the architecture, the designs, the acoustics, they’re just beautiful. You don’t realize how fortunate we are, and the wonderful cultural environment we have.”
Schlosser’s team of 150 volunteers includes his son Colin, a 7th grader who has made grown-up contributions to First Night’s website and mobile app.
These handy tools make finding artists, venues and dining deals–the real-time experiences promised by Siebert–easier than ever to find.
Admission to everything requires just one badge. It allows visitors to move freely among all the performances and attend as many as time will allow.
Buy before Dec. 21 for $20 per person or $70 for a four-pack. On Dec. 22, prices are $25 / $90. Buttons may be purchased online line or at the Mayo Performing Arts Center box office at 100 South St., (973) 539-8008. Parking will be free at all the municipal lots in Morristown.
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report. MorristownGreen.com is a proud supporter of First Night Morristown.