ONEONTA — The Hometown 4th Festival will return to Oneonta’s Neahwa Park to celebrate the July Fourth holiday next weekend, with a theme of honoring essential workers.
The goal is to honor the workers, including grocery store staff, teachers, police officers, firefighters and healthcare workers, who took risks for the community good during the coronavirus pandemic, according to festival officials.
“We wanted to do everything we could to let them know that the First Night Board and the whole community appreciates them,” First Night Board Chair Carol Mandigo said.
The celebration will kick off at 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 2, in Neahwa Park, with a free concert by country artist Michael Christopher.
At noon, Sunday, July 4, the parade will line up at Foothills Performing Arts Center on Market Street.
A puppet theater with local roots will perform an old time musical with a modern message in Oneonta on Friday, May 14 and Saturday, May 15.
The Catskill Puppet Theater, which has been around since the late 1970s, will be performing “The Villain’s Mustache,” which is described on their website as a “lively musical” and a “traditional old-time melodrama.”
“The play is fast paced and exciting enough to hold the attention of even the youngest children but contains enough real drama and good music to grab the audience as well,” said the website description.
“It’s a cool show for Oneonta because it’s about the old railway,” Carol Mandigo said, co-founder of the Catskill Puppet Theater.
Little Nell, the show’s young heroine, struggles when her family falls on hard times. They come to the city in order to make money where she meets a ragtime piano player named Moe and a hobo named Curley.
Audiences are encouraged to get involved by cheering, shouting advice or booing at the characters.
As dusk settled over Neahwa Park, Carol Mandigo wasn’t sure what to expect when she flipped the switches to turn on the Festival of Lights.
What she saw were cars lined up as far as Main and River streets, waiting their turns to be driven around the 37 displays of holiday lights and decorations set up around the park.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mandigo said. “I had no idea it was going to be as popular as it was.”
The event – it began last Friday, Dec. 18, and continues every night from dusk until 10 p.m. through Sunday, Jan. 3 – was a spin-off from the traditional First Night celebration, which, along with the Hometown Fourth of July, was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“Everyone on the board was really sad that we had to cancel,” she said. “We got together to decide if we should do something for New Year’s or just bag the whole year. No one would blame us if we didn’t put on an event.”
But Mandigo had seen the Lights on the Lake event in Liverpool, the Syracuse suburb, and although it cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to have it professionally put together, she pitched the board an idea: “What if we asked the community to put up displays?”
The board agreed, but she still wasn’t sure if the community at large would embrace the idea. “Then it would be lame, and that would be terrible for us,” she said.
She reached out to Ben Guenther at Five Star Subaru first to see if he would sponsor a display. “He was all about it,” she said. “And once I knew he was backing us, I knew we had something special.”
The Otsego County Chamber of Commerce sent out a call for displays in its newsletter, and soon, the emails started pouring in. “I was shocked,” she said. “I really thought we were going to have to do it all by ourselves.”
Several of the displays were dedicated to John Hayen, who in 2017 hung 23,500 lights in his home and yard on Tilly Avenue, surpassing the record set by Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” He passed away in November.
Bassett Healthcare employees’ display paid tribute to front-line workers, while the Brooks’ BBQ display featured Santa surrounded by chickens.
There were logistical challenges to overcome, including how to power each display without tripping circuits. “I’ve been living out in the cold from morning until night,” said Mandigo. “We had to figure out how to power everybody, how to run all these cords and how to protect the displays.”
And then came the snow.
Overnight snow on Thursday, Dec. 17, dumped 29 inches of powder on the city, burying all but the tallest displays. “People were worried that it wouldn’t work,” she said. “But no one ever said to postpone it.”
Instead, the groups came out to shovel out their displays. “It was a miracle,” she said. “We were still tripping circuits, but by 3:30 p.m. on Friday, we were ready to go.”
The event opened at dusk with entertainment, including Cosmic Karma Fire, Mike the Juggler and Santa Claus.
“Santa went to each car and asked the kids’ names and what they wanted for Christmas,” she said. “And the kids were so excited to see him.”
Even Mandigo donned a set of light-up wings to welcome visitors over the weekend. “I had so much fun seeing the kids faces light up,” she said. “That’s what First Night is all about.”
By JENNIFER HILL • Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal
ONEONTA – Early on in Carol Mandigo’s career, she decided to combine art with social services “to give a better quality of life in a fun way.”
“I wasn’t drawn to putting art in a gallery in a city with only a limited amount of people looking at it,” Mandigo said. “I brought art and theater to inner city schools, so kids could be exposed to art because their families might not be able to do that for them.”
The director of the Catskill Puppet Theater, a prevention specialist at LEAF Inc and the artist behind the murals on the side of the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, Mandigo was named as one of the 2019 Women Trailblazers, alongside Kelly Ames, Catholic Charities.
ONEONTA – Kelly Ames and Carol Mandigo will be awarded the 2019 Woman Trailblazer Awards, Joyce Miller, who chairs the city’s Commission on Community Relations & Human Rights, announced over the weekend.
FAMILY PROGRAM – Noon – 2 p.m. Celebrate Latino Heritage month with Day of the Dead event. Make paper flowers, learn about Mexican traditions, listen to story time, more. Participants encouraged to bring photo of loved one who’s passed away. Designed for children aged 4-12 + family. Light snacks provided. Cooperstown Village Library. 607-547-8344 or visit www.facebook.com/VillageLibraryOfCooperstown/
FUNDRAISER – 10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. Construct you cat a cardboard castle with Superheroes in Ripped Jeans. Materials provided. Bring goods or monetary donation. 3rd floor, Community Room, Huntington Memorial Library, 62 Chestnut St., Oneonta. 607-432-1980 or visit www.facebook.com/hmloneonta/
ONEONTA – Whether they were painters, metalworkers, glassblowers or sculptors, many of the 31 gathered at the first Artspace focus group had one thing in common.
They were all using their own homes as their creative space.
“I do wood-burning at my dining room table,” said Anne Vrooman.
“I practice my dance and music in my living room,” said Elizabeth Raphaelson, owner of the Underground Attic.
“I’m trying to record music while the garbage trucks are driving around,” said James McIlroy.
Artspace, the Minneapolis-based not-for-profit, is in the city for three days, meeting with focus groups, touring sites and assessing whether or not one of their buildings – which offers low-cost live/work space for artists, community rooms and storefronts – would be a welcome addition to Oneonta’s downtown.
Like the snowflakes that flutter down on New Year’s Eve, each First Night celebration is different. “We’re always starting new traditions,” said David Hayes, one of the organizers. “We’re not afraid to try new things.”
This year, you won’t even have to face the snow and cold to enjoy the magic of the celebration. First Night has teamed up with Foothills to bring the city-hopping party under one roof.
“It was tough for families, especially with young children, to go to a venue, then have to bundle everyone back up and walk back across town to see something else,” said Carol Mandigo, who chairs the First Night board. “It’s a great partnership.”
Acts will be divided up between the Atrium, the 620-seat Main Stage, and the Production Room Theater and smaller Upstairs Theater in the administration building. In the future, Mandigo hopes heated tents can be placed outside to bring in more performers.
Though at first they were worried that people would think First Night was shrinking or on the verge of vanishing completely, Mandigo said she’s heard nothing but good things about the change. “People are relieved,” she said. “Last year was so cold, and some venues weren’t as well attended as other because people didn’t want to have to walk.”
For the first time in a while, there will be no First Night parade on New Year’s Eve. It has been shifted to the two-day Hometown Fourth of July, celebrated for the first time this year in Neahwa Park. “It’s much easier to recruit musicians and community groups in warm weather,” said Hayes. “If we’re going to do a parade, we want it to be a robust one.”
Instead, an opening ceremony, featuring puppets, dance troupes and Cosmic Karma Fire dancers is planned at 5:30 p.m. at Foothills, with a special dedication to Mayor Dick Miller. “We want to celebrate everything he has done to support First Night over the years,” said Mandigo.
With Gandolf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams as the headliner, Mandigo hopes the event will have a “three-ring circus” feel. “We’re a month out and we’re hiring more clowns and magicians,” she said. “We want to provide something unusual, something people haven’t seen before.”
Popular First Night performer BJ the Clown has even added to her repertoire for an enhanced carnival feel. “She took a balloon sculpture workshop, so she’s going to put together a big ‘Life Enjoyed’ sculpture in the atrium,” said Mandigo. “There will even be a balloon drop from the ceiling just before the fireworks!”
Volunteers are still needed for the event, and volunteers get a free admission button. To volunteer, sign up at www.firstnightoneonta.com.