First Night Pittsburgh: Rocking Out the Old Year, Rolling in the New

There will be something for everyone and everything for someone at the city's annual New Year's Eve party.

Upward and onward, fellow Pittsburghers !This is the 22nd Annual First Night Pittsburgh.

Upward and onward, fellow Pittsburghers! This is the 22nd annual First Night Pittsburgh.

Here in Pittsburgh we do things differently. The last big public event of 2015 is called First Night 2016. As we count down the seconds to the coming of the new year, the big shiny ball on the column atop Highmark Place will climb up, up, up the column instead of descending.

We’ll have New Year’s Eve fireworks twice: once at 6 p.m., so that families with small children can get them home and asleep early (or at least try), then again at midnight when the ball drops (correction: rises).

At the indoor venues or out in the street, it's all good on First Night.

At the indoor venues or out in the street, it’s all good on First Night.

In this annual extravaganza sponsored by Highmark and organized by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, most of the musical acts and other entertainment will be at venues indoors, out of the chill. But the headliners are The Wailers, from sunny Jamaica—where wintertime highs are in the 80s—and they will bring the heat in their own distinctive way, in an open-air concert at the main stage on Penn Avenue.

Everything should add up to tons of fun. This First Night celebration is the city’s 22nd, which means it has been tweaked and refined over the years for MAXIMUM ENJOYMENT EFFICIENCY.

Basic Facts

Activities run from 6 p.m. to midnight on December 31 at multiple locations in the Cultural District downtown. To attend major indoor performances, you need seat vouchers (i.e., “tickets”) for the particular acts you want to see. These can be had at no additional charge once you buy an admission button. The buttons are $8 per person in advance or $10 at the event; kids 5 and under are free.

Best bet: Visit the First Night website for complete info on what’s happening where and when. The site also lets you pre-purchase your buttons and reserve seat vouchers online. Meanwhile, here are some highlights of the attractions in store.

Something for Everyone

The first reason that First Night is fun is simply because it’s a gigantic New Year’s Eve party. You are out and about with thousands of other people who want to have a good time. Better yet, there is so much going on that you can customize the evening to fit your desires—coming or leaving whenever you want, moving at your own pace, and doing just what you want to do.

Featured attractions come in five general categories: big outdoor events, music and performing arts, visual arts, hands-on activities (for children and playful adults), and the ever-popular “miscellaneous.”

Big Outdoor Events

Along with the double fireworks at 6 p.m. and midnight, there’s a pretty spectacular parade—officially the FedEx Ground Parade—from 8 to 8:30 p.m. It comes down Penn Avenue with a turn at 6th Street and it is Pittsburgh’s version of Mardi Gras in December, with festive music, decorated “art cars,” big fancy-dancing puppets, and much more.

Music and Performing Arts

Nothing gets a crowd swaying quite like reggae and nobody does reggae quite like The Wailers. Co-founded by the late, legendary Bob Marley—who played his last concert in Pittsburgh, at the Stanley Theater (now Benedum Center) in 1980—The Wailers have kept the spirit alive, performing worldwide and constantly adding new young talent to go with the group’s old masters. They’ll be on the Highmark Stage in the middle of Penn Avenue from 10:45 to 11:59 pm.

Other performances are at times and venues listed on the First Night website, and they span a wide variety of forms and genres. Notable music acts include: the Billy Price Band, with Billy himself belting rhythm and blues; the Balmoral Pipes and Drums, with bagpipe music that’ll shiver your timbers while it warms your toes; the River City Brass Band … and rising star Gabby Barrett, the winner of last year’s Williams Sing-Off vocal competition, who already is making waves nationally before she’s finished with high school locally.

Drew the Dramatic Fool playing a funny song on his ukelele.

Drew the Dramatic Fool playing a funny song on his ukelele.

Elsewhere in the Cultural District on First Night: Dancers from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School will perform excerpts from Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote; local jazz legend Dwayne Dolphin will hit the bass notes; and comedians J. Russ and Gab Bonesso will hit the funny notes—as will the improv group Player One, and the very strange Drew the Dramatic Fool.  

Acts specially designed for children (and childlike adults) include Gemini Children’s Theater performing Jane’s Jungle Adventure—the side of the Tarzan story that Tarzan won’t tell you—and the Staycee Pearl Dance Project, an adult dance troupe doing a special performance about childhood. Folk-style artists include Brook Annibale, WYEP’s 2016 Artist of the Year, and The Early Mays with special guest Rachel Eddy.

Visual Arts

First Night is an ideal night for a gallery crawl, as several Cultural District art spaces are open from 6 to 11 p.m. If you haven’t caught the Hetain Patel exhibit, see our review and by all means see the show itself, at Wood Street Galleries; First Night is the last night that it’s up. Also, the 707 Gallery (at 707 Penn Ave.) has a show called Poison, with art related to the downsides of the drug subculture. Then you can step right next door to the 709 Gallery for artist Fran Flaherty’s show titled Post Erotica: The Anthropology of Motherhood.

As in the other categories, there’s much more to see on the visual arts front … but again, visit the First Night website for a complete lineup.

Activities for Kids and Like-Minded Adults

He's got the marker and she's got a bright idea in at the art-making table in the Family Tent.

He’s got the marker and she’s got a bright idea at the art-making table in the Family Tent.

 It wouldn’t be a public festival without face painting, so First Night will have more than one decorator on duty to adorn the many visages that are sure to beg for adornment. The whole family can make its own art at the hands-on Gateway to the Arts event, from 6 to 10 p.m. in the First National Bank Family Tent. That same venue is also where you can visit interactively with Allegheny County Park Rangers and their animal exhibits, as well as with the Artists in Schools & Communities from Pittsburgh Filmmakers / Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Miscellaneous Attractions for One and All

Do your New Year’s Eve plans typically include a movie? You can see some of the best scenes from dozens and dozens of the greatest by dropping in at the Harris Theater, where Pittsburgh Filmmakers will be screening Classic Movie Trailers continuously from 6:30 to 11 p.m.

And many other First Night events defy easy classification. They range from The Environment Is No Joke Project—an exhibit put together by Construction Junction and Marc USA, which actually features knock-knock jokes—to the fire dancers from Steel Town Fire, because it really wouldn’t be a public festival without fire dancing.

"Light-Up Night" takes on a new meaning with Steel Town Fire.

“Light-Up Night” takes on a new meaning with Steel Town Fire.

As always, downtown restaurants and cafes will be happy to feed you during First Night. There will also be food stands in the streets, not to mention lots of people you probably know or would like to meet. So the bottom line is: Procure those buttons if you want to be there when the ball goes up.

Photos of recent First Nights by Jason Cohn and Renee Rosensteel, courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Drew the Dramatic Fool, photo by Heather Mull.

Mike Vargo covers theater for Entertainment Central, and since First Night is street theater writ large, he volunteered to preview the event.