Past Times

After 25 years, the celebration is the same, but Raleigh couldn’t be more different

Crowds from Raleigh’s first “First Night” festivities greeted 1992 by touching the acorn for luck.
Crowds from Raleigh’s first “First Night” festivities greeted 1992 by touching the acorn for luck. N&O File Photo

When the acorn drops on New Year’s Eve at Raleigh’s First Night, some in the crowd may be thinking back 25 years to the first appearance of the City of Oaks mascot. In 1991, N&O writer Treva Jones spoke to David Benson, the Raleigh sculptor who designed the city’s acorn.

Benson said he started work on the project in the spring. The acorn – copper panels and hammered petal-shaped copper sheets welded onto a metal frame – was built on its side on the trailer. After hoisting it upright with a block and tackle and securing it with a strap, movers used a one-ton diesel truck to get it downtown. The worst part of the job, movers agreed, was getting the trailer over the curb at Benson’s house.…

“I became quite nuts while I was doing this,” Benson said. “It drove me nuts.” The N&O Dec. 30, 1991

The reaction of N&O columnist Dennis Rogers to the success of 1991’s New Year’s Eve festivities shows just how far downtown has come since that first “First Night.”

Lord knows, this place has never been Fun City. Nothing wrong with that, you understand. Raleigh is perfectly ... nice. The kind of place you’d want to raise kids. If the city were a blind date, it would be described as pleasant with a great personality while what you’re looking for is hot legs, lips and looks.

So what to make of upwards of 15,000 people trooping to Fayetteville Street Mall on New Year’s Eve when the weather was down to an ear-aching 20-degree wind chill? Bars and restaurants, with high-priced package deals, were as lonely as a beauty queen at home on date night. Even those whose idea of a big time is too much makeup and too few clothes and a stretch limo came downtown to find the action.

Action? In Raleigh?…

Raleigh has always had that problem. Our nightlife, our party spirit has been as exciting as those gray tombs that house tens of thousands of state government workers five days a week.

We’ve been a pinched lip town of people in sensible shoes. Don’t think about the bars of Hillsborough Street. They are a collegiate aberration and we don’t approve of that sort of thing here. We’re serious people and our idea of wild and woolly is an extra squirt of lighter fluid on the Weber. Remember, we had a fit when those folks in Oakwood painted their house purple.

But if the past six months are any indication, somebody has spiked our civic punch. This old gray lady of a town is kicking up her heels and showing, dare we hope, a flash of lace.

The First Night party was a whoop-de-do. People – Raleigh people who ought to know better – got silly and made fools of themselves…. People laughed out loud and hugged in public and made music and danced in the street and twirled noisemakers and dressed funny and had real fun.

We wandered. We we saw a hilarious Don Love performance piece masquerading as a play about marriage. I was disappointed that the promised nudity wasn’t there but hey, I’m that kind of guy. Then we caught a story teller doing Riki Tiki Tavi in the lobby of a bank.

The party got rocking when the Golden Notes gospel trio hit the stage in unfinished offices at the new First Union skyscraper. Three black men from New Bern, with voices like angels and powder blue suits to match, brought a crowd of whites and blacks to Jesus in four-four time while outside the Caribbean aroma of jerk chicken cooked on an open fire drew big crowds.

The First Baptist Church was packed to the rafters – I was in the rafters – for the Red Clay Ramblers, far and away the Triangle’s most successful musical group ever. And as one of the Ramblers said, “You people are having too much fun to be in a church.”

It was outrageous. I expected some dry, city-sponsored, boring night downtown with not enough to do and too much classical music. You know, a Raleigh kind of night.

But when that acorn started its descent moments before midnight and the crowd began to roar and count down, I felt a part of a city that had awakened just in time for its 200th birthday.

Finally, a New Year’s Eve party to remember. Way to go, old girl. The N&O Jan. 7, 1992

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories at newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866

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