Variety helps set Saranac Lake’s First Night apart

Alakazam the Human Knot (aka Alan Millar) performs a final trick with machetes, a four-blade chopper and a tennis racket — all while standing on a pole held upright by ropes held by audience members — in the Harrietstown Town Hall Monday night during First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

SARANAC LAKE — First Night’s strength is its curated variety, packing in a little something for everyone. Maybe you’re really into balloons? Or improv comedy or swing jazz? A famed bluegrass act hailing from the North Country? Or does a contortionist juggling a chainsaw and machetes entice you?

The 13th annual First Night celebration on Dec. 31 brought all of that entertainment for six hours, at nine venues. Seventeen acts drew crowds despite freezing rain and blustering wind — with attendees sometimes coming from pretty far away, too.

Kathleen Landrigan has made the trip up to Saranac Lake for First Night from Rutherford, New Jersey, for five years now. Alakazam, the Human Knot — the chainsaw-juggling stuntman — was her favorite. She said he knew how to land a punchline.

“It’s just a nice night out,” Landrigan said. “You kind of forget that it’s raining; you kind of forget that it’s snowing, that it’s icy or that it’s cold. Fun night.”

Holly Huber, waiting outside the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium to see the final set of the Gibson Brothers, said the harmonies between the Brother Brothers were her favorite.

From left, Jason Borrie, Merritt Billiter and Tiana Merrero of the Plattsburgh-based Completely Stranded improv comedy troupe make the audience laugh at the First Presyterian Church Monday night during First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

“Oh, it’s been fantastic,” said Huber. “They have perfect harmony, and they were just perfectly in sync. And they’re multi-instrumentalists, Brooklyn boys, channeling the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel.”

Bruce Young said he and Shir Filler have attended First Night since it began in 2006.

“These kind of things are amazing,” Young said. “Not everybody has this kind of thing, not towns this size.”

“We came to the very first one,” Filler said. “The one problem that they still have is they put really popular acts into really small places … but the performances have always been very good.”

Sometimes it’s the volunteers who are new to the celebration. Aurora Wheeler, a first-time volunteer with First Night, said while she’s been here for three years now, she’s never gone out to First Night. She’s much more of a stay-in-with-a-good-book type, Sue said. Now she’s on the board.

Members of the Big Takeover — from right, singer NeeNee Rushie, Chas Montrose on saxophone and Andrew Vogt on trombone — pour their hearts into their reggae music in the Harrietstown Town Hall Monday night during First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

“I met a woman who is on the board and she said they needed someone to help with social media,” Wheeler said. “I was like, ‘Oh I can do that. That’s fun, and I have some experience with that.'”

Wheeler said she enjoyed being exposed to music she wouldn’t usually listen to, with the varied lineup.

“I totally want to go listen to the Big Takeover every day now,” Wheeler said, “because they were so good. Everyone is happy; everyone is having a great time.”

Regina Derzon, another first-time volunteer, just moved here in October. Ready to get out of Maryland and the D.C.-area where she and her husband had been living, she said they set their sights on a place with whole lot of water.

“We’re paddlers, we’re canoeists and kayakers and rowers, so we ended up building a house this last year up here on the lake,” Derzon said. “So we’re here full time. This is it.

From front to back, Addison Bickford plays piano with Steve Langdon on guitar and Dan Spada on bass guitar in St. Luke’s Parish Hall Monday night at First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

“I wanted to get involved in the community, and music is good way,” Derzon said. “I’m really involved in bluegrass music, and so these folks (the Gibson Brothers) are friends of mine who are stage.”

Sue Patterson, chair of the First Night board, said she was happy with the turnout.

“We got a nice full house for the Gibson Brothers, which is great,” Patterson said. “And everything went smoothly, and the rain is kind of disgusting, but it’s better than 25 below zero like last year. It was wicked last year.”

Patterson and Connie Landon started First Night in 2006 after visiting similar event in Burlington, Vermont.

“We said, ‘You know we could do that in Saranac Lake. We’ve got a lot of musicians, and we’ve got a lot of cool people. Well, let’s do it,'” Patterson said.

Michael Devine of the Plattsburgh-based pop-rock duo Famous Letter Writer performs at Pendragon Theatre Monday during First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

That first year, despite fears of a low turnout, the first Saranac Lake First Night sold out of admission buttons. Patterson said volunteers were selling pieces of paper to guests with the words “First Night” written on them.

“I’d say we have about the same number of people every year,” Patterson said.

Patterson said she still finds her effort putting the event on rewarding, but preparations no longer keep her up at nights — like they used to in years past.

She said the volunteer board members take two or three months off before getting ready for next year.

“There’s just a lot that goes into it,” Patterson said, “a lot of little tiny things to make it successful.”

Sisters Jenny and Sarah Curtis of local swing band Crackin’ Foxy sing in harmony at the Elks Lodge Monday Night during First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

If you’d like to volunteer with next year’s First Night, contact Beth Van Anden, First Night Saranac Lake volunteer coordinator and board member, at

Eric, left, and Leigh Gibson of the Gibson Brothers play with drummer Sam Zucchini in the Harrietstown Town Hall on Dec. 31, 2018, during First Night Saranac Lake. The North Country-based band is branching out from traditional bluegrass to play country music with electric guitars and drums. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

A burst of fireworks is seen through trees just after midnight on New Year’s Day during First Night Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)