Troy Wunderle

Troy Wunderle, the artistic director of Greensboro's Circus Smirkus.

St. Johnsbury's annual First Night North celebration on New Year’s Eve will be broadcast on Kingdom Access Television rather than staged at multiple venues for live audiences.

Festival organizers are quick to point out that, on the positive side, the home audience will be spared the usually inclement weather often faced by attendees, not to mention the cost of the tickets. But even though the show is free this year, according to Catamount Arts Executive Director Jody Fried, the artists appearing in it will be paid.

“When we faced the reality that we could not safely put on a live festival,” said First Night committee chair Jay Sprout, “we also recognized how, perhaps more than ever, people need First Night. We are excited about how the idea of a virtual at-home New Year’s Eve celebration is coming together; it’s going to be a great show.”

Though there won't be a multiplicity of acts to choose from, there will be eight hours of entertainment broadcast from 4 p.m. until midnight, culminating in a grand finale.

The show will feature many long-time favorites like the Kingdom All-Stars, who will contribute a pre-recorded 20-minute concert video.

"We are honored to be selected as one of the limited number of virtual First Night acts and we couldn’t do any of this without the ongoing support of the community we serve," said Todd Welllington, director of Kingdom All Stars, a nonprofit organization based in St. Johnsbury. The group already had a virtual performance project in the works when the invitation to perform came.

"The 20 minutes we are giving them includes three original songs," said Wellington, and they were written by band members Siri Jolliffe, of Barnet, Aden Marcotte, of Barnet, and Jazmine Bogie, of Burke.

"Those members came up with the lyrics and basic concepts and chord structures and pitched them to the rest of the band," said Wellington. "They then worked with the whole band to write and arrange the rest of the music and develop the lyrics."

Band members Liza Morse, of Danville, JD Miller, of St. Johnsbury, Macey Mawhinney, of Lyndon, and Zane Mawhinney, of Lyndon, also made some significant musical contributions.

“This group works together to create the best songs possible,” said Wellington. “And each member usually works harder on their bandmate’s songs than their own. They are one. It’s a beautiful thing."

The All-Stars' line-up features Aden Marcotte on electric guitar and vocals, JD Miller on bass, Zane Mawhinney on drums and acoustic guitar, Liza Morse on piano, Siri Jolliffe on vocals and acoustic guitar, Jazmine Bogie on vocals and acoustic guitar, and Macey Mawhinney on vocals.

According to Wellington, the band’s music is currently heard online in 22 countries and 31 states in the USA on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon and YouTube.

Troy Wunderle, the founder of Wunderle’s Big Top Adventures of Chester and the artistic director of Greensboro's Circus Smirkus, said he will provide, "world-class circus programming, entertainment, and exploration for all ages." His enthusiasm seems undiminished by the switch to a different medium.

"I'm thrilled to be taking part in this virtual event," he said. "I will be producing two videos that feature live introductions and audience challenges as well as actual act footage of myself performing." He plans to edit footage from past performances that took place before the onset of the pandemic, including magic, juggling, and related circus acts.

A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Wunderle has performed internationally with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as director of clowning for six years and toured throughout the United States as a freelance performer and employee of Vermont's own Circus Smirkus for the past 24 years. Additionally, he is a juried artist through the Vermont State Arts Council. He has been featured on numerous television shows, including America's Funniest Home Videos.

"Through the rich and time-treasured delights of the circus, Wunderle's Big Top Adventures aims to spread joy, create memories and inspire dreams," he said.

Acting as de facto hosts for the event will be Justin Lander and his partner Rose Friedman, who perform as Modern Times Theater, well-known regionally for their modern take on the Punch and Judy Show.

"We've performed at First Night for the last three years, two with Vermont Vaudeville and one as Modern Times Theater with our Punch and Judy show," said Lander. "This year Modern Times Theater is contributing in two ways. First, we're providing another Punch and Judy show, themed for this year. And second, we're providing some bits that will be spaced throughout the whole eight hours. These are short films, three to five minutes each, that explore some of the interesting people and places of St. J."

The roster of performing talent also will include Broadway star Ray Walker, Marko The Magician, Tritium Well, Bob and Sarah Amos, and the St. Johnsbury Academy Hilltones.

First Night North 2021 will be broadcast on Thursday, Dec. 31, from 4 p.m. to midnight, on Kingdom Access Television. For more information, including a complete schedule of performances, visit catamountarts.org.