Baltimore notables share their best (and worst) New Year's Eve stories
By Baltimore Sun staff
Dec 21, 2017 at 5:00 AM
Ah, New Year’s Eve. A night that can be filled with sparklers and champagne, or disappointment and regret.
We asked a handful of notable Baltimoreans to share stories of their most memorable New Year’s celebrations — for better or worse.
April Ryan, White House correspondent
April Ryan’s job as White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks certainly keeps her busy, so when it comes to New Year’s Eve, she likes to keep it low-key. Her best New Year’s are spent watching the ball drop with her kids, or in church.
“It sounds nerdy, but I’m such a homebody,” the Morgan State University graduate said.
“I’m intentional about who I am with at that moment, at midnight. I pick up the phone and call people I love or text them ‘Happy New Year!’ It's important to me because it's a new start. It feels like a new beginning. ... Each year brings something different.”
She hasn’t had a “worst” New Year’s Eve yet, but “what would be the worst is if I had to work this one,” she said. “I'm praying that the president is away or I can get someone to fill my pool duties for New Year’s!”
Laura Wexler, Stoop Storytelling co-founder
One of Laura Wexler and Mike Subelsky’s worst New Year's Eves turned into their best New Year’s Day.
Wexler is the co-founder of the popular Stoop Storytelling series, and she can remember hosting landmark Dec. 31 parties at the family’s former home on Charles Street in the first decade of the 21st century. They were the kind of party where the rugs were rolled back for dancing and guests fell off the porch craning to see the backyard sparklers. Subelsky wove through the crowd wearing a baby monitor, but somehow, the then-newborn Charlotte slept through the night.
But, by Dec. 31, 2015, the situation had changed, and changed drastically. Charlotte, then 7, and Daniel, 5, had long ago evolved from champion sleepers to small and energetic beings who rarely closed their eyes. “Mike and I were zombies,” Wexler recalled. “I think we were in bed by nine o’clock that New Year's Eve. I have no memory of that night at all.”
But the next morning, the family was up bright and early. A friend had tipped Wexler off that on major national holidays, the museums in Washington are not only open — they’re deserted. And it was true.
Subelsky, Wexler and their children visited the National Museum of American History, where the kids were fascinated to learn that soldiers in World War I made soup in their helmets. The family strolled through the U.S. Botanic Garden — still lovely on that unusually warm January day — and then walked past the White House to the National Archives.
That evening, the family drove through the deserted Washington streets and enjoyed the monuments, which shone white in the lights. “It was so beautiful,” Wexler said. “More even than the flag, these are the things that symbolize patriotism for me and make me so proud to be an American."
— Mary Carole McCauley
Russell Wattenberg, 45, founder of The Book Thing
Russell Wattenberg’s favorite New Year’s Eve memory comes from when he was a child. His grandmother, who lived with his family, would wake him up to split a bottle of “pina colada for two” at midnight — a tradition they shared for around five years.
“[We’d] say ‘Happy New Year!’ and then I’d go back to bed. She liked pina colada, but she only wanted to have it once a year,” said Wattenberg, founder of The Book Thing, the free book warehouse in Abell. “For some reason, I was the only one willing to share pina colada with my grandmother.” (And for those of you wondering, the drink did have alcohol, “but it probably had as much [as] ... a light beer or something,” he said.
Years later, Wattenberg’s worst New Year’s Eve also involved alcohol — people drinking too much of it. He was bartending at a New Year’s Eve party in New York in a room full of “yuppies,” who acted as if they hadn’t drank all year, Wattenberg said. “It was just like people wearing suits and ties puking all over themselves. It was just a nightmare.” As soon the clock struck midnight, “I just switched everyone to drinking water. … I can still smell that night.”
-- Brittany Britto
Aran Keating, artistic director of Baltimore Rock Opera Society
The best New Year’s Eve Aran Keating, artistic director of Baltimore Rock Opera Society, experienced was at the at the Ottobar with his BROS colleagues (they’ll perform “Sinners and Saints” there on Dec. 31). Last year’s event there “was a high point for me,” Keating says, “when I got to perform our rock opera ‘Rats!’ just before midnight. It’s our ode to Baltimore, and a parody of ‘Cats.’ We had trash cans piled up and, at midnight, we had a trash drop, when they spilled a super-ridiculous mess of crap — glitter, popcorn, tinsel — on the audience’s heads.”
As for his worst New Year’s Eve — “comically bad,” Keating calls it — that occurred in London the night 2001 gave way to 2002. Keating and a friend were in London and decided to check out “a huge party with thousands of people at the O2 Arena. We got there around 11:30 and were frantically trying to get drunk,” Keating says. “We were hammered by midnight and then everything went downhill. We were trapped in this huge place, both feeling sick. When we got to a bathroom, we were up to our ankles in a liquid on the floor. Who knows what it was? We couldn’t find a ride back to where we were staying until 7 a.m. So we had a half-hour of fun and seven hours of misery.”
After years of watching New York’s Times Square Ball Drop on TV, musician TT the Artist was ready in 2009 to see the hoopla in person. The problem? She and her friends arrived in Manhattan at 8 p.m., many hours after most of the crowd had secured their places.
“We were so far back that you could only catch a glimpse of the reflection of the ball,” she said. “I swear it was the size of a dime.”
Known for her hyperactive, party-starting music, TT the Artist said she likes house parties on New Year’s Eve, but doesn’t mind a night of reflection and binge-watching TV either.
“If nothing’s really going on, I don’t mind being at home, watching all the VH1 specials,” she said.
During his freshman or sophomore year in college, Kondwani Fidel Russell said, he came back to Baltimore to celebrate his achievements with friends on New Year’s Eve. “My homeboy had a minivan at the time, so there was like eight of us, and we were just hopping around to different parties and we was just drinking, just celebrating because we were all like the first people in our family to go to college. ... We came back to Baltimore just to celebrate and turn up.”
Years earlier, the New Year was a much less happy occasion. When Russell was 10 years old, his brother had been injured in a house fire in late December. "He was in the hospital through New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s [Day],” Russell said, and died in early January.
— Brittany Britto
Bill Henry, Baltimore City councilman
City Councilman Bill Henry, 49, spent about 15 years hosting his own New Year’s Eve parties, first for a crowd of about 20 in his dorm room at the Johns Hopkins University’s McCoy Hall, most recently in 2007, when he hosted about 50 and rented out the top floor of Fells Point’s Waterfront Hotel. But he retains an especially soft spot in his heart for the 1993 bash. “I was living with a bunch of guys on University Parkway,” he says. “We were all involved with the Young Democrats of Maryland and had been working on the [Bill] Clinton campaign. We had gotten invited to the Young Democrats’ inaugural ball, so we bought tuxedos. And since we now owned tuxedos, we made our New Year’s Eve party black-tie optional.”
As Henry notes, it wasn’t every day that a bunch of college kids got all spiffed up just for a party, which made that year’s affair special. “People that you see everyday in T-shirts and jeans are suddenly looking spiffy and gorgeous. For us, the jump between corduroy and tuxedo was pretty big.”
Henry says he also remembers an especially cold New Year’s Eve in 2002, when his party was at Locust Point’s old Tide Point Business Park, where Under Armour now has its headquarters. As the clock approached midnight, he ventured outside into the frigid temperatures to get a better look at the Inner Harbor fireworks. “I think that was the first time,” he recalls, “I found out how quickly beer can freeze.”
Rebecca Hoffberger, American Visionary Art Museum founder
Nothing against the pomp and pageantry of fireworks, champagne toasts and by-the-second countdowns, but for American Visionary Art Museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger, the highlight of every New Year’s Eve has nothing to do with anything so bombastic. For her, it’s the joy and camaraderie and reflection of the annual New Year’s Eve Interfaith Celebration at Baltimore’s St. Ignatius Church, marking its 25th anniversary this year, that she cherishes most.
“It’s probably the most beautiful thing that happens on New Year’s Eve in the state of Maryland,” she says of the annual gathering of civic and community leaders from throughout the region for what is described as “a thanksgiving for blessings received.”
All faiths are welcome, and the gathering is truly ecumenical, Hoffberger says — an all-too-rare chance for people of all faiths, persuasions and personality types to join together for a common, non-partisan and decidedly non-political purpose. The music starts at 8 p.m., the service at 8:30 p.m. .
“There’s something exquisite about it,” she says. “We’ve done it for so many years together. … It’s among the most beautiful things I’ve ever done.”
Brian Lavin, chef/co-owner of Gnocco
For Brian Lavin, like many chefs, New Year’s Eve is more about creating a celebration for guests than it is about putting on his own party. It’s a work day — one of the busiest of the year — and for the last decade or so, Lavin, the chef-owner of Gnocco, has spent the final night of each year in a kitchen.
Last year was the first time he owned a restaurant as the calendar turned a page. He said Gnocco went through two kegs of prosecco. “It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of regular guests that came in,” he said.
The craziest New Year’s Eve he remembers was about 10 years ago when he was a line cook at Pazo (now Bar Vasquez) in Harbor East. He estimated the restaurant served 600 people. “The kitchen I think was open until 1 a.m. It was nonstop,” he said. “They did a cava toast at midnight, and a lot of cava bottles found their way onto the kitchen line.”
Instead of New Year’s Eve, Lavin said, he looks forward to the first few days of January, when he can take some time off.
— Sarah Meehan
Michael Ross, Baltimore Center Stage managing director
Michael Ross, managing director of Baltimore Center Stage, doesn’t have a dreadful New Year’s memory, since he typically spends it quietly at home. Besides, “I get up at 4:10 a.m. every day, so I’m usually in bed by 9:30 p.m.”
But when he arrived in Baltimore some years ago to join the Center Stage administration, he did end up at a memorable celebration. He accepted an invitation to “a dress-up New Year’s Eve party in a lovely, beautifully appointed home off of Cold Spring Lane,” Ross says. “Since it started around 8, I thought I could be home by 11 at the latest. But, no. I was told we had to stay until midnight in order to do the ‘Crab Drop’ countdown. I nodded politely and wondered what the hell a ‘Crab Drop’ was.”
When the time came, Ross joined the others outside down the street by a flagpole. Tied to the top was the cut-out image of a crab that at midnight was lowered “in a jerky, crab-like motion down the flagpole” and landed in another cut-out, this one of “a pot with a red cellophane window that made it look like the crab was boiling red at the stroke of midnight,” Ross says. “I thought to myself: So this is Baltimore.”
— Tim Smith
David Hart, fashion designer
Menswear designer David Hart, a Severna Park native, has had a couple of not-so-great New Year’s Eve moments. The first occurred in 2000 in New York City, when Hart decided to attend the famed ball drop at Times Square.
“I’ll never do that again,” he laughed. “It was crazy. There were so many people there. Once you’re there, you can’t leave and go to the bathroom. It’s just a mess.”
The second incident occurred in 2004, when he allowed his best friend to crash at his apartment to enjoy the festivities while Hart was out of town.“His girlfriend used my tailoring shears on her shoes and ruined my scissors,” Hart said. “They broke up after that. Good riddance.”
Overall, Hart said, he’s had a lot of fantastic New Year’s Eve experiences. “I think every New Year has been different and special — spending them with people I care about,” he said.
— John-John Williams IV
Richard Sher, host of ‘Square Off’
TV host Richard Sher’s best New Year’s Eve was the first one he spent with his wife, Annabelle, in 1960. Even though she had accepted a date earlier with one of his fraternity brothers, “I predicted that we’d be together … and we were!” Sher said. This year will be their 57th New Year’s Eve together — though they’re now usually asleep by 10:45 p.m.
His worst New Year’s Eve was when he went to Times Square with his buddies in the 1960s and “had a little too much to sip.”
“All I can remember is sitting on the ice at Rockefeller Center freezing my tush off,” he said.