(Events depicted in photo above: All Evening Upstairs Art Gallery, Paint Night with the Artsy Palette, Bollywood & Contemporary Indian Dance with Mani, Juggles the Clown, Johnny Peers & the Muttville Comix)
When Morristown ushered in its First Night festivities back in 1992, Jane Kurek was a mom to two young children, helping the Arts Council of the Morris Area (now Morris Arts) launch a different kind of New Year’s Eve celebration.
And boy, was it different from the usual Champagne-fueled bash or the congested 1 a.m. train ride back from Manhattan: First Night was—and remains—alcohol-free and kid-friendly, with a large swath of the downtown given over to hundreds of arts events.
“First Night offers multi-generational entertainment when, generally, New Year’s Eve is for adults only,” says Kurek, whose daughter continues the tradition with her own children, marveling at the fireworks display and dropping in on various activities and performances. “Seeing and experiencing the sheer joy the audience has when laughing at a great joke never grows old. People—young and old—dance with friends, family, and in many cases, new friends.”
Three decades later, some things have changed: The event has contracted a bit from the early years, Kurek says, though First Night still features more than 200 artists and 70 cultural events animating the pedestrian-friendly downtown; it now offers an online component for those who prefer to toast 2023 from the comfort of their couch; and the boisterous parade of revelers down South Street with a phalanx of massive puppets is no longer part of the festivities, as it’s become impractical to close such a busy thoroughfare. Yet Kurek, and so many others who turned up when “online” meant queueing up at Macy’s on the Morristown Green, still heads downtown each Dec. 31 with her husband. First Night Morris County, billed as the largest in New Jersey, has cemented itself as a treasured tradition and a welcome alternative to trekking across the Hudson to cram into a sweaty bar or catch the ball making its annual sparkly plunge into Times Square.
First Night Morris County offers plenty of its own sparkle anyway—including two fireworks displays, one at 9:15 p.m. and another at midnight.
This year, tickets (buttons) starting at $25 (Family Packs start at $90) will grant access to every single event spread across 21 venues (19 in-person, one streaming and one on-demand), as well as more than 50 on-demand films. Events include theater, rock, jazz, classical and opera performances, as well as a trio of art exhibits, one of which features artworks in various media by five women artists. The complimentary shuttles start at 4:30 p.m.; parking is free at all Morristown parking garages after 6 p.m. On-demand access runs from 4 p.m. Dec. 31 to 4 p.m. Jan. 1. Visitors are advised to download the free mobile app.
Activities reimagine and inject an artistic spirit into everyday spaces, unfolding in locations as varied as churches, Morristown High School, Mayo PAC, the Hyatt Regency and the County Administration Building.
One year, Kurek says, First Night Morris County took over an empty department store (which has seen several reincarnations, as Bamberger’s, Macy’s and then Century 21) on the green.
“The music was amazing, and we all got up off our feet and joined the conga line through the facility,” she recalls.
Highlights include the Children’s Fun Festival at the high school from 4:45 to 9 p.m., with an interactive version of “Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother,” a painting activity, folktales from around the globe and Lego building with brick artist Joseph Meluso, aka Maniac4Bricks; a film festival at 6 p.m. whose roster includes nine sets of short films delving into themes such as childhood and comedy; and family-friendly comedians Buddy Fitzpatrick (“An Evening at the Improv,” Comedy Central) and Brad Trackman (CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” “Comics Unleashed”) each delivering two sets at the Hyatt Regency.
If this all sounds like more than one person can handle in a single night, that’s precisely the point, organizers say: First Night presents an opportunity to go adventuring.
“At no extra cost—since one button provides access to all—and at no risk, audiences can sample something totally new and different,” says Dr. Lynn Siebert, director of galleries at Morris Arts who served as First Night’s artistic programmer for 15 years and now acts as an artistic advisor. “First Night offers opportunities for people to stretch their cultural ‘muscles,’ learn about other cultures or try their hand at something new, such as playing a theremin or learning to tap dance.”
Yep, tap dancing is on tap too: Maurice Chestnut and Jeffry Foote will be dancing at the high school’s auxiliary gym, providing a history of the form as well as some improvisational steps. In addition, they’ll invite a few audience members up to dance and will stick around for a talkback.
Random Test Reggae Band
Random Test Reggae Band will perform at St. Peter’s Parish House, while Morristown native Rio Clemente, aka “The Bishop of Jazz,” will offer sets with his Abbots at the United Methodist Church. Listen for choral and orchestral musical performances, as well.
Craig Schlosser, president of First Night Morris County and the Morris County Tourism Bureau as well as managing director of the Morris County Economic Development Corporation, says the online component has become a crucial aspect of the event planning.
Johnny Peers & the Muttville Comix
“While First Night Morris is an incredible in-person experience, it should be one that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy accessibly,” he says. This year, the livestream will be filmed from the Mayo Performing Arts Center and will feature Johnny Peers and the Muttville Comix, along with The John Ginty Band. Ginty, a Morristown native, serves as music director for the Allman Family Revivals and has played keyboards on The Blind Boys of Alabama Grammy-winning album “Higher Ground,” among others.
And whether you catch those performances in your footie pajamas from, well, anywhere in the world, or you head downtown and plunge into the swirl of activity, you’re unlikely to miss all that fuss in Times Square.
“New Year’s Eve no longer belongs to just New York City,” Schlosser says.
Tickets are available at FirstNightMorris.org or at the Mayo Performing Arts Center Box Office at 100 South St. in Morristown.
First Night Began as an Artful Alternative to Typical New Year’s Eve Celebrations
Sure, “First Night” is a misnomer, but the original organizer of First Night, artist Clara Wainwright, has claimed that she and her friends initiated the event in Boston in 1976 as an antidote to the “empty” New Year’s celebrations she’d witnessed.
“We wanted to focus on the positive, and ‘first night’ is like a theatrical opening,” she told The New York Times in 2006.
Wainwright and her friends weren’t the only ones casting about for a more inspiring way to greet the new year: The concept—generally, an arts-themed, alcohol-free celebration packed with cultural activities in various locations from afternoon to night around walkable downtowns, usually with a parade and a flourish of fireworks—eventually spread to more than 100 U.S. cities.
“I thought it was a wonderful way to celebrate the arts and welcome the new year in a family-friendly, culturally exciting manner,” says Dr. Lynn Siebert, who served as First Night Morris County’s artistic programmer for 15 years. “It was nice for audiences to have an alternative to going to parties or bars and instead to learn/see/hear and participate in new and exciting live performances. Groups of relatives, friends, etcetera, can go together but can split up to enjoy different performances and then meet for the fireworks.”
The tradition has waxed and waned through the years—9/11 and COVID curtailed many First Nights, and some just petered out as funding streams dried up and budgets fluctuated—but First Night Morris County has remained a festive and imaginative stalwart. According to Siebert, the event has survived in part because First Night Morris County morphed into a nonprofit offering year-round community-oriented programming. The 501(c)(3), FNMC365, provides internships, a literacy initiative and the Artist Entrepreneurship Program, among other offerings. Another key factor in its success, according to Siebert: FNMC365’s resolution to maintain the event’s egalitarian spirit, right down to the ticket prices. One price grants visitors full access to all events, period.
“We always felt that [tiered pricing] was a barrier for many attendees and performers who may have felt they were less/more valued than others,” says Siebert.
A New Year’s Eve prioritizing an artful gathering for all: Now that’s something to celebrate.