Ocean City hosts another ‘spectacular’ First Night

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About 8,000 buttons sold for annual family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration

Ann Richardson / Allie Horn and Kelli Kyle showcase the First Night 2013 T-shirt. Ann Richardson / Allie Horn and Kelli Kyle showcase the First Night 2013 T-shirt.

OCEAN CITY — From the mid-afternoon kickoff with the Hegman String Band to a dazzling midnight fireworks extravaganza, Ocean City’s First Night 2013 was not one of the largest New Year’s Eve events the city has hosted, but barely eight weeks after Hurricane Sandy, the 21st annual event was one of the most meaningful.

The storm nearly derailed the non-alcoholic, family-friendly celebration of the New Year, but Mayor Jay Gillian said volunteers pulled together to make it all work and he couldn’t be prouder of his hometown.

“It was another spectacular First Night,” Gillian said. “It was better than we could have ever expected.”

Gillian said First Night was a testament to the strength and spirit of the community.

“How special is this town?” he asked, adding that it was akin to Santa’s arrival on the roof of City Hall the day after Thanksgiving. “It was just what we needed, a real nice feeling about it.”

While the city was flooded and damage was severe, he said, hosting events like First Night is important for the healing process.

“It makes you feel good,” he said, adding that the island has a very loyal following. “It’s nice to see people out, having a good time.”

While the process of cleaning and restoring the community continues, a dedicated volunteer force made sure that First Night would not falter.

According to city publicist Mark Soifer, button sales eclipsed 8,000.

“All things considered, that’s pretty good,” said Soifer, who attended the event with his extended family, which included about 22 revelers.

Soifer, who has been involved since the first First Night in 1992, said organizers were cautiously optimistic that people would come through as New Year’s Eve approached.

Last year, driven by weather in the high 50s, the event sold out with more than 10,000 button sales.  Soifer said organizers knew it would be nearly impossible to match that record, given the effect of the hurricane.

“We came pretty darn close,” Soifer said. The first First Night, he noted, attracted about 1,000. Sales hit a new high at 5,000 for the millennium in 2000 and kept building.

“We’re happy we were able to have First Night, and to have 8,000 people, what can I say?” he said.

About 6,000 buttons were sold leading up to New Year’s Eve, and a chilly, but clear weather forecast brought people down in droves on the day of the event. It was about 45 degrees as the entertainment venues heated up.

“We’re very happy,” Soifer said, noting that several downtown restaurants, including Yianni’s, had lines for lunch and dinner.

He said that thousands of visitors celebrating the New Year on the island means the message that Ocean City is restored and ready for a great summer will spread.

“These people will go back to their home communities and tell people that the city is open and they had a great time,” he said.

The storm was much on the minds of many First Night attendees, who worked their way through their choice of 70 different performances at 18 separate entertainment venues through the evening.

“We weren’t sure First Night would happen,” said Kathy McLaughlin, a second homeowner from Doylestown, Pa.

An extended family of 25 was spread throughout the city for the event.

“We were going to come down anyway. It’s a tradition now, but it would not have been the same without First Night. We rent our place in the summer, so we take advantage of the weekends and holidays. This is the one time all of my sisters and their kids can be here at the same time. There’s something for everyone, and if someone gets tired they go home to the fireplace.

“What can I say? We just love being here, even if it’s cold,” she said.

The salt air and an ocean view is enough to lure his family to the shore, even in the dead of winter, Dave Bennett said, but First Night was not in his family’s radar until this year.

“We have friends down with us, and they suggested we try it,” he said.

About 20 people, including two of his four children, and six grandchildren joined them. While the youngest of his three grandchildren conked out early, he said the families were having a great time.

“For $15, we got to do a lot, you really can’t beat it,” he said.

The Japanese drummers were Bennett’s favorite, but his wife, Susan, was smitten with Tommy Cash.

“Now when would we have had a chance to see Johnny Cash’s brother perform?” he asked. “She loved Johnny Cash, so this was a real treat for her. My grandchildren loved the rides and the inflatables. We played golf, we saw a puppet show. I think we did it all.”

The “Oh, What a Night” tribute, performed by the Ocean City Theatre Company, was a favorite for Judy Landon of Philadelphia. Honoring the Four Seasons, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin and other through song and dance, costumes and lighting effects, the cast of professional singers and dancers ushered in 2013 with a high-energy, Broadway-style show and Landon said she went back for more.

“We went to the first show and then went back in again,” she said, accompanied by two friends. “We went to the karaoke, too; I just love that Faz guy. We saw The Grease Band, we love that. We’ve had a great time. It’s been a girl’s weekend almost, the guys are just hanging. We’re having fun.”

Pianist Andrew Hink performed in the high school community room and then spent the rest of the evening performing with the Ocean City Theatre Company. His father, Gary Hink, said his family would be in the audience.

“There’s so much to do,” said Marsha Smith of Huntingdon Valley, Pa. “The hardest part is figuring out the best way to get it all in. This is our fourth year; we brought some friends with us this year. It’s just so much fun, really seeing all these happy people after all we’ve been through. We had a lot of damage from the storm, our house is not livable yet, but our friend’s house is, so we’re staying with them. It’s just so nice to do something normal. We had lunch at Piccini’s and I can’t tell you how nice that was, to see them open again. We went shopping downtown, and I can’t believe how much progress they’ve made.

“I really can’t wait for the summer, maybe sitting on the beach will make us all forget how really horrible this storm has been,” she said.  “The only thing we missed was the observatory at the high school, but we’ll get there the next time.”  

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