Two decades ago, Linda Tuno attended a New Year's Eve event in downtown Haddonfield, N.J., that focused more on community bonding than booze. In fact, the entire event was alcohol-free. Venues along Kings Highway hosted a number of family-friendly entertainment, from magicians to a Frank Sinatra tribute artist. The charm of the whole affair inspired Tuno to get involved with the event's planning. Now, as the director of First Night Haddonfield, Tuno is helping to usher the annual Dec. 31 event into its third decade.
First Night Haddonfield celebrates its 20th anniversary this New Year's Eve with all-ages entertainment beginning at 5 p.m. and culminating with a countdown to midnight. The acts perform in various businesses, schools, and churches like the First Baptist Church (124 Kings Hwy E.), Memorial High School (401 Kings Hwy E.) and Indian King Tavern (233 Kings Hwy E.). Harkening to years prior, acts like magician Brian Richards, tribute artist Mark Reno, singer-songwriter Christopher Westfall, and a bevy of other previous First Night performers will return to the multiple venues. Headliners the Duprees will hit the stage at the Presbyterian Church (20 Kings Hwy E.) twice, once at 7 p.m. for the early crowd, and again at 10:45 p.m. for late revelers.
Most activities are indoors — save for 9 p.m. fireworks, a petting zoo, and the midnight countdown — at locations along Kings Highway from Warwick Road to Hopkins Lane, with a number of shuttle stops to transport guests from point-to-point, although the route is walkable. For out-of-town visitors, PATCO is offering free rides on New Year's Eve.
While the inaugural First Night Haddonfield was in the planning stages for a handful of years prior to its debut, the event now is a staple among South Jerseyans looking for an alternative to the crowded party scene. Tuno credited First Night's longevity to the sense of community it fosters while giving attendees of all backgrounds and situations a collective reason to celebrate for a reasonable price.
"It may be a difficult night for some as far as folks who are alone, or it is somehow a difficult memory for them — maybe they've lost loved ones recently," Tuno said. "We provide a place for all of those people to come together to see a variety of really great entertainment for a really low price. We feel like that gives a much needed outlet — and a safe outlet."
In lieu of tickets or wristbands, admission is marked by buttons — sold for $15 apiece — which some have turned into collectors items since each year's button features a different color and design. Buttons are available for purchase online through firstnighthaddonfield.org and in-person at select businesses in town.
Over the last 20 years, the act of button-purchasing has become a charitable act. In the past, Tuno encouraged the community to give the buttons as gifts and has remembered instances of families with extra buttons handing them off to volunteers as a pay-it-forward gesture to give to last-minute attendees who intended on buying admission day-of.
"We have people who buy buttons and come back in say, 'I bought 10 but I only need eight. Give these away for free,' " Tuno said.
Adding to First Night's community ethos is the overwhelming volunteer and local sponsor support — including Subaru, which funded the fireworks show, and kids-zone backer Comcast — Tuno said. Corporate sponsors will often gift employees with buttons while nearby residents with an interest in the arts will dedicate a few hours of their evenings to creating a festive environment.
"Our volunteers love working with people," Tuno said. "Folks are in a good mood, it's a fun evening. There are several of those folks who have told me it gives them a place to be."
While First Night runs for seven hours, Tuno said the way the event is scheduled — and the fact that restaurants on Kings Highway are open for business in addition to food trucks — gives attendees flexibility to pick-and-choose what acts they're going to see to craft an a la carte evening.
"They love being able to come, have a great dinner at a BYOB and [then] they are seeing perhaps their favorite entertainer, maybe jazz, maybe a comedian," Tuno said. "For less or equal than a price of a movie you can have dinner, see a couple of acts, see fireworks, and only spend a couple hours out."
But perhaps the most alluring facet of First Night Haddonfield is its ability to bring people together for a yearly tradition. Since 2000, Tuno remembered a family of a few dozen, ranging from grandparents, aunts, uncles and children, spending their New Year's Eve on Kings Highway. They'd splinter off to catch various shows and activities and reconvene outside for the fireworks. It's an image that's hard to forget.
"We certainly understand that folks are going to parties and into the city, but it's important to us to offer something for everyone at First Night," Tuno said. "Whether you are looking for something to do because you are a couple or perhaps you have children now and you want to spend time with them instead of chance being on the road, we provide that environment where parents and kids can come together."