Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ice maze, backstage tours among the highlights at First Night Pittsburgh

If it starts with fireworks, ends with fireworks, and in the middle there’s a parade with giant puppets, odds are it’s First Night Pittsburgh.

The New Year’s Eve festival Downtown, organized by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and sponsored by Highmark, returns this week for its 29th year. Highlights include the return of an old favorite and a new attraction built around two iconic theaters.

Pittsburgh's INEZ and her Homewood Sound Machine will headline First Night.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Pittsburgh's INEZ and her Homewood Sound Machine will headline First Night.

And while some aspects of the event remain scaled down from pre-pandemic times, visitors can still enjoy an all-night holiday block party, live music, dance performances, films, magic shows, art-making activities, tarot readings and more.

The Trust will continue the practice, begun last year, of offering free admission to First Night. (In prior years, guests were asked to purchase and wear special buttons.)

Program manager of festivals and special projects Sarah Aziz said the Trust expects some 10,000 guests Downtown for the Dec. 31 event.

The big returning favorite is the ice maze by local carver Rich Bubin. The walk-through attraction consisting of large blocks of ice suffused with colored light makes its first First Night appearance since 2013. It will be located in the Trust’s Backyard space, on Penn Avenue.

Aziz notes the maze is small — visitors can traverse it in a couple minutes — and full of selfie opportunities. (Bubin was also responsible for the “ice” portion of First Night’s long-running Fire & Ice attraction, which won’t be part of this year’s event.)

New First Night attractions include guided backstage tours of the Benedum Center and Byham Theater. Visitors can see the inner workings of these two venerable venues, from the fly spaces (where stage crews raise and lower curtains and scenery) to dressing rooms.

“We want people to get a sense of like how many people it takes to make a show happen and what all is happening behind the scenes,” said Aziz.

Tours will happen continuously throughout the evening, and no reservation is needed.

Meanwhile, like last year, the Trust has de-emphasized the large indoor concerts and other performances that once characterized the event. There is less live music in general than in pre-pandemic times.

Musical attractions this year include the First Night Jazz Lounge, featuring Noël Quintana, indoors at the Trust Arts Education Center, and reggae band 4-Yaadi, at the outdoor Dollar Bank Stage.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

The evening concludes with music headliner INEZ, a singer-songwriter whose blend of soul and R&B has made her a local favorite in recent years. In 2021, the Homewood native and Berklee College of Music alum sang the National Anthem at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Game in Canton, OH. And that December, INEZ won the Carol R. Brown Achievement Award as an emerging artist.

In a phone interview, INEZ said she last attended First Night more than a decade ago, as a high school student. “To go from that young teenager just hanging at Downtown First Night with her friends, to being the headliner for Highmark’s First Night 2023 — insane, absolutely insane,” she said.

She will perform originals and cover songs on the main stage with her five-piece band, the Homewood Sound Machine. “It’s gonna be family-friendly, all ages, come ready to sing,” she said.

The evening concludes at midnight with the raising of the Future of Pittsburgh Ball and the traditional fireworks.

For a complete list of First Night attractions, see here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: