New Year’s Eve, Version 25.0: Your Guide to Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

The entertainment will be hot on First Night with perennial favorites Steel Town Fire among the performers. (photo: Jason Cohn)
The entertainment will be hot on First Night with perennial favorites Steel Town Fire among the performers. (photo: Jason Cohn)

It’s hard to believe there was once a time when there wasn’t a First Night celebration in Pittsburgh. This year’s super-sized New Year’s Eve party—officially titled Highmark First Night Pittsburgh—is the 25th of the series.

Back in 1993, when the event kicked off, you’d be waiting a long time for a handy online guide like this one to make it through your dial-up modem. That was the year when the European Union was born, when the Buffalo Bills were on track to losing their fourth consecutive Super Bowl, and when major Grammy Awards were won by Eric Clapton and Sir Mix-A-Lot.

Pittsburgh’s First Night has now surpassed them all. There will be no Brexit or epic football fail at our extravaganza. Just the ever-popular combo of traditional favorites and new features.

First Night will glow on you at the ‘Let’s Glow Crazy Dance Party.’

As for what’s especially new this year, we asked Sarah Aziz, who manages festivals and special projects at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Aziz is now in her third year of overseeing Highmark First Night Pittsburgh, and she said: “The Glow Party [Steel City Let’s GLOW Crazy Dance Party by Emerald Owl Productions] in EQT Plaza is going to be a lot of fun. There will be lasers, music, glow sticks and more. Three different, exciting glow parties will take place throughout the night. It’s also the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Capezzuti puppets being involved with First Night. There will be two extra-large puppets outside the Highmark/AHN Family Tent across from the Benedum Center that can be manipulated by attendees.”

Pretty cool. And of course, there’s more.

Something for Everyone

Each New Year’s Eve about 50,000 people converge on the downtown Cultural District, drawn there because First Night is actually many attractions in one. Being a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, it is first of all a 6-hour (6 p.m. to midnight) festival of music and the performing arts—see highlights below—plus visual arts in various exhibition spaces.

With shows and activities for children, Highmark First Night Pittsburgh is a premier family event. With numerous non-couples among the estimated 50,000, it is also a big singles event. If you’re out to meet someone, the odds are good … or, if you’d rather ignore the mating game and just be with lots of people enjoying themselves, equally good.

Above all: This is a PARTY. People dance in the streets at the outdoor concerts. They dance to the parade music at the 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve Parade. They pack the seats for many indoor shows, laugh at the comedy acts, and generally make merry.

Then at midnight, the Future of Pittsburgh Grand Finale brings in the New Year with a mass countdown, fireworks, more music, and cheers all around.

Entertainment Highlights

Out of the many distinct attractions at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh—which range from the children’s activities to art exhibits to you-name-it—the entertainment lineup has over 20 music and performance acts.

Since Pittsburgh is a soulful city there’s often a soul-music group as headliners. Filling the bill this year are Durand Jones & The Indications, who visit us before embarking on a European tour. Hailed as intriguing newcomers on the soul revival scene, they’re skilled musicians—Jones and other core members met as students at Indiana University’s music conservatory—and many of their original numbers feature dual lead vocals, with drummer Aaron Frazer joining Jones in that regard.

Other music acts include a pair of hometown guitar virtuosos. Elias Khouri and his band are winning notice for their hard-driving electric rock/funk sound, while Matthew Korbanic plays at the other end of spectrum; he’s a classical guitarist. Longtime favorites the River City Brass return, as do the Balmoral Pipes and Drums. Also: The Flow Band provides reggae, and Noel Quintana & The Latin Crew play salsa-inflected jazz (except when they’re doing jazz-inflected salsa). WYEP-FM presents finalists from its 2018 Singer-Songwriter Competition, and school-age finalists from the Williams Sing-Off Competition perform as well. The Williams competition was judged this year by Pittsburgh native Peter Matthew Smith, currently playing King George in the national tour of Hamilton.

Comedy is such a perennial hit at First Nights that the multi-artist Comedy Showcase has graduated from its cabaret origins into the 1300-seat Byham Theater. Featured comics are Norlex Belma, a New York-based Carnegie Mellon alumnus, and Best Standup in Atlanta winner Mia Jackson. Meanwhile, the Arcade Comedy Theater hosts a pair of improv shows—one adult-themed, by the Player One group, and a “Penny Arcade” show for children by Penny Players.

The illustrious art of magic will be championed by Pittsburgh-based, nationally known magician and comedian Lee Terbosic. He performs at the O’Reilly Theater—which, according to Sarah Aziz, gives him “a larger venue to do bigger illusions.” Terbosic is also an artistic advisor to the Cultural Trust’s new Liberty Magic venue, a magic parlor that will open February 6 to host local and touring acts regularly.  

The Zuzu African Acrobats will soon be in motion at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh.
The Zuzu African Acrobats will soon be in motion at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh.

Dance troupes at First Night include the touring Zuzu African Acrobats, who mix circus acrobatics with dance, and Pittsburgh’s Staycee Pearl Dance Project. Unusual and/or multimedia features include an immersive theater experience, “Bellmouth Crossing,” created by a group of Pittsburgh theater artists, plus film screenings and a wide range of contemporary visual arts.

Important Visitor Info

See the full events schedule here. Please note that some shows require online seat reservations, which come free with the hard-to-believe-it’s-that-cheap $10 general admission charge. (Kids 5 and under ride free.) Two of the hottest shows—Terbosic’s magic act and the Zuzu African Acrobats—are already booked up at the general-admission level, but as of this story’s publication, seats could still be had by purchasing $40 “First Night Friend VIP Experience” tickets, which give you numerous other perks as well.

And now, to enhance your fun and address any possible concerns, we close with an Entertainment Central exclusive.

7 Reasons to Do New Year’s Eve at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

What do people like best about this citywide celebration? Aside from particular shows or activities, there are general features that make it an attractive choice on New Year’s Eve:

The sheer variety. Tastes may differ even among a group of adults who are close friends. And with so much happening at any given time, group decision-making is made easy—you go there, we’ll go here, and then all meet up at a third event.

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.

The weather won’t spoil the party. As Aziz notes, “Three-quarters of the events are indoors and the Family Tent is heated.” Outdoors there are “warming stations,” along with cell-phone charging stations to keep your batteries happy.

It’s alcohol-free. Restaurants in the Cultural District that serve drinks indoors can still do so, but no alcohol is served at or around First Night events and no BYO is allowed. The policy has proved very popular. It helps to keep the atmosphere festive but not rowdy, reducing people’s worries about belligerent or intrusive behavior.

A safe environment. This is a concern for many on New Year’s Eve, and Pittsburgh’s Cultural District already ranks among the safest major center-city areas crime-wise. The Pittsburgh Police substation on Liberty Avenue, plus the legions of event staff and volunteers who are everywhere for Hallmark First Night Pittsburgh, will further contribute to safety in every respect.

Art on the march in the Cultural District.
Art on the march in the Cultural District.

A state-of-the-art parade. The 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve Parade—titled “Black and Gold Turns Silver” this year to honor First Night’s 25th anniversary—is not the kind of parade you’d find just anywhere. It is an arts festival in motion, with giant walking-and-dancing puppets (by Studio Capezzuti), amazingly decorated “art cars,” and other such features in addition to customary parade elements such as marching bands, drill teams, and fire trucks with sirens wailing.

Fireworks early and late. The Children’s Fireworks launch at 6 p.m. for the benefit of parents with little ones. This also means that any adults who want to leave early can catch a display before the midnight spectacular.

Cheap thrills + easy reservations. The year’s biggest party might also be the best entertainment bargain. As mentioned, a $10 admission button is good for all attractions and wee tots attend free. The trick is to buy early—online, or at participating Giant Eagle stores or the Theater Square ticket office—and then stay (or go) online to reserve seats at the indoor shows you want. Even large venues can fill up in advance for popular acts, so click your links expeditiously.

And one more thing …

This is Pittsburgh. We don’t drop the ball. Why celebrate the start of a new year by dropping the ball? On the spire atop Penn Avenue Place, the official Future of Pittsburgh Ball RISES as the Countdown to Midnight culminates, and when the magic moment arrives, that ball is where we like to be. Top of the world at the top of the morning.  

The New Year's ball rises in Pittsburgh.
The New Year’s ball rises in Pittsburgh.

Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater and theatrical events for Entertainment Central.