Many celebrating Raleigh’s First Night downtown don’t remember a time when a giant acorn didn’t bring in the new year. But it wasn’t so long ago that city planners were holding their breath wondering how the public would take to the idea. Former N&O writer Charles Salter Jr. set the scene for Raleigh’s inaugural First Night in 1991.
What a night for gravity.
As 1991 ticks to an end, some Raleighites will be counting down as they watch a giant sculpture of an acorn be lowered by crane onto Fayetteville Street Mall, like the last grain in an annual hourglass.
With the much-anticipated acorn event, Raleigh joins the ranks of New York, Atlanta, (and) Orlando, Fla., … in celebrating the holiday with an unusual and popular tradition. No matter where it happens, this type of event is full of civic pride and symbolism. It brings people together – even New Yorkers – if only for one uninhibited moment, in which strangers cheer and kiss.
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If the falling acorn is as popular here as similar events have been elsewhere, what sounds like the antics of a butter-fingered squirrel could possibly become an annual event in the City of Oaks, according to organizers.
In Atlanta, crowds flock into downtown to watch a giant peach fight a losing battle with gravity. In Orlando, it’s an orange. In New York, it’s the white globe.
The Times Square tradition started 84 years ago, according to Tama Starr, president of Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp. in Manhattan, the company that makes the drop every year.
Until then, the city’s celebration consisted of a fireworks show outside Trinity Church. When the crowds outgrew that location, Starr says, the show was moved to what became known as Times Square, because of its newest tenant in 1907, The New York Times. To celebrate its new building, the newspaper planned a New Year’s Eve extravaganza. It had to be one without fireworks, however, because of a new ordinance that prohibited shooting them off in the city (except over Central Park and the Hudson River).
The newspaper hired a young inventor and metalworker named Jacob Starr to come up with something.
Using scrapyard metal, Tama Starr’s grandfather built a cagelike ball studded with 180 white bulbs. Spaced a few inches apart, the lights bled together, creating a magnificent glowing ball.
“What he used as a model were those time balls lowered in ports during the 18th and 19th century that enabled ships’ navigators to set their chronometers,” says Starr.
It was an instant hit with the crowd of 250,000 or so revelers, and a New York – make that American – tradition was born. …
Over the years, the Times Square tradition has survived all kinds of weather, history, fads and new technology. It has lit up every year except 1943, during a World War II blackout. Carols were blasted throughout the square instead.
Three balls and one apple have made that famous 60-second slide down the 77-foot flagpole that sits atop the old Times tower. The original ball weighed 600 pounds and required 12 strong-backed employees to lower it down the flagpole. In the ’20s, when lighter metals were discovered, Artkraft Strauss made a lighter ball. In 1982, it switched to an apple, which was appropriate for the Big Apple but not entirely accepted.
“I never liked that apple,” says Starr. “It was too rinky-dink.”
Two years ago, the white ball returned. It’s for good, says Starr. The N&O Dec. 31, 1991
Raleigh’s First Night was an immediate hit. Organizers hoped for a crowd of 10,000 and by 7 p.m. had sold 9,000 admission buttons. By midnight, between 15,000 and 20,000 admissions had been sold.
Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.