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A Jubilee Special: Celebrating 25 Years of Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

Wed, Dec 26, 2018

Written by: Grace Wong; Photos by Highmark First Night Pittsburgh. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

It's hard to imagine what a New Year's Eve in Pittsburgh would be without the eponymous countdown, the monumental raising of the Future of Pittsburgh ball, and the numerous musical performances and activities taking place around the Cultural District in tandem.

Believe it or not, 25 years ago in Pittsburgh, the concept of driving the whole family downtown to mark the New Year was unheard of. In 1994, then City Mayor Thomas Murphy, inspired by First Night Boston's success, jump-started the first ever official First Night in Pittsburgh. In 2003, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust took on the production. Year after year, the annual celebration continued to gain traction. A quarter of a century, thousands of annual attendees, and three generations of mayorship later, Mayor Bill Peduto issued a proclamation on the upcoming celebration as Highmark First Night Pittsburgh Silver Jubilee Day. Today, the year-end festival stands as one of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's proudest and longest-standing productions.

Join us on a time-machine as we trace the annual jamboree back to its very beginnings.

Old photos of parade and fireworks at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

Jamee Todd, founder of First Night Pittsburgh, recalls fondly:

“Back in the days, there was nothing downtown, not a single restaurant was open on New Year’s Eve. The City of Pittsburgh needed a strategy for bringing people downtown and exposing them to cultural opportunities in the city. This all changed in 1994, when Mayor Thomas Murphy witnessed Boston’s successful First Night and envisioned the same initiative in Pittsburgh. At the time, I was Director of Sports and Festival for the City of Pittsburgh, so this project came under my reign.

Old photos of festival team preparing for Highmark First Night Pittsburgh. Text: The New Year's Eve parade and fireworks have been long-standing favorites among button holders

It all happened very quickly. By October, I had raised about $125,000. By Thanksgiving, we got the entire program printed out and distributed around the city. The very first year was a modest turnout compared to now. We held activities in two churches, 5th Ave Place, PPG Plaza, and storefronts. Giant Eagle sold the buttons and we offered free parking and bus rides as incentives.”

The original festival team faced nothing short of obstacles. “We had no advanced technology,” recalls Jamee. Before phones were commonplace, Jamee and her team made do with walkie talkies. Before the internet, they printed out pamphlets months in advance, all of which had to run according to schedule the day of. “Those were what we’d call today, the dark ages.”

Despite the trials and tribulations, Jamee and her team stayed relentless in their mission for Highmark First Night Pittsburgh: to open up doors to cultural opportunities for residents of all generations. In 1994, admission buttons were priced at $7 a person. 25 years later, an admission button remains at among the most affordable of all First Night celebrations in the nation, at only $10.

Old photos of families walking on streets with kazoos

Jamee recalls a fond memory: “A mother stood with her three little girls outside one of the venues. The Pittsburgh Ballet had just performed and the mother recognized me because I was on stage giving introductions. She came up to me and thanked me for introducing her girls to the ballet. ‘I could never afford that opportunity for them otherwise.’”

Old photos of kids having fun at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh

The specialty of Highmark First Night Pittsburgh has always been its ability to pull off unique performances in unusual spaces. From staging a 1,000-seat musical chair game in Liberty Avenue to performing a massive kazoo dance on stage, the events to engage in are nothing short of unexpected.

This year, in its 16th year as a production of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, attendees can expect the same caliber of wonder as they explore over fifty activations in the span of a night. At the Fire & Ice Plaza one can expect a choreographed, high-energy show as ice carvers wield chainsaws that shoot sprays of snowy ice into the air. At the O’Reilly Theater, one can enjoy performances from Lee Terbosic, the Pittsburgh-native magician and comedian. At the Highmark Stage, Durand Jones & The Indications will present soulful tunes from the Midwest. See the full lineup here.

Highmark First Night Pittsburgh 2019 will take place on December 31, 2018 from 6 p.m. up to the New Year. This year's celebration is the 25th annual and the 16th year as a production of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

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  • Highmark First Night Pittsburgh
  • festivals