NEW YORK CITY – It was 1981 when Ronald Colbert, who just returned home from serving in the Navy as a Mess Specialist aboard the USS Cavalla, went to Times Square to watch the ball drop in person for the first time.
It was a lifelong dream that was fulfilled that year, and he’s been going there almost every year since.
“My younger brother and I would stay up with whoever was babysitting at the time to watch the ball drop. Everyone wore their party hats, streamers. Dancing in tiaras and tuxedos. The initial ball was just a little white — probably as big as a bowling ball on a flagpole. Now they turned it into this electronic monstrosity,” Colbert said.
“The excitement is unbelievable, the energy that everyone has during that last minute. I don’t know how many people I’ve strangely kissed on New Year’s Eve or kissed me.”
Colbert had plans to visit Times Square on Dec. 31 one last time, ringing in the New Year along with more than a million strangers who come together from around the world in the heart of the Big Apple to count down the last seconds of the year.
“I had already had everything planned, my Kentucky Fried Chicken in my Ziplocs and I was ready to just stay for the whole day,” says Colbert, a deckhand for the Staten Island Ferry.
For the first time in 114 years, the New Year’s Eve spectacular in Times Square will be held without a live audience due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It would have marked Colbert’s 40th year partying at the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration.
“I was waiting for this to be my last year. I’ll have to make it next year,” he says. “It’s a disappointment, but it’s not a disaster.”
As usual, there will be a live TV broadcast for the Times Square New Year’s Eve 2020 celebration. In addition, the event will be accessible to watch on an app called VNYE, where users can also explore the virtual world of Times Square.
“We’re adding a whole virtual kind of gamified version of it as well on top of [TV]. It’s always been virtual in some ways,” says Tim Tompkins, president of Times Square Alliance, which is one of the producers for the NYE event. “You’re going to be able to create a virtual world of Times Square, create your own avatar, and then you place yourself within a virtual Time Square to experience New Year’s Eve as if you were there and in real time.”
VNYE was created by Jamestown, the group that owns the building that houses the 11,875-pound New Year’s Eve ball that’s covered by 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles illuminated by 32,256 LEDs.
So far this year, there have been more than 18 million coronavirus cases and over 318,000 fatalities have been reported in the United States since February. Tompkins says staff and organizers of the New Year’s Eve event are working hard through the pandemic trying to make this event special for people watching at home as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.
“One of the challenges is just the uncertainty with respect to the changing health situation. The people that are setting up the stages, building the stages — they’re all going to be tested. They’ve got to be socially distanced,” he said.
The Times Square Alliance and Countdown Entertainment recently announced that TV personality Jonathan Bennet, the host of “Holiday Wars” and an actor who starred in “Mean Girls,” will be hosting this year’s event, with staged performances from artists like Jennifer Lopez, Billy Porter and Cyndi Lauper.
“Gloria Gaynor is going to sing ‘I Will Survive’, which is kind of a theme with 2020 both metaphorically and unfortunately, literally,” Tompkins said.
People like Muhammad Ali and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor were honored at the Times Square New Year’s Eve bash in the past. But this year the many “Heroes of 2020” will be honored onsite in Times Square for their efforts on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those who risked their lives on the job every day.
These honorees include mass transit workers, doctors, nurses, delivery workers, first responders and other essential workers who will be staged within limited-capacity, sealed areas at a distance from other guests, performers and staff.
“We’re honoring the heroes of 2020, the people who through their courage or creativity, helped us get through this year. They’re all going to be New Yorkers which are going to represent people from around the world,” added Tompkins.
“2020 has been something of a drain,” says Colbert. “Let’s hope we can return to some normality. It’s a new beginning. Let all be included.”