Behind the Scenes of New Year’s Eve with Jeff Straus, President of Countdown Entertainment
Interested in finding out what goes into producing the biggest annual event in the world? We sat down with Jeff Straus, President of Countdown Entertainment, Co-Producer of New Year’s Eve with the Times Square Alliance for 22 years. He told us about the planning, the partnerships and the awe-inspiring experience of producing the iconic Times Square New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Times Square Alliance: Tell us a bit about how you are involved in NYE. In this magnificent event, what part do you play?
Jeff Straus: I’m very lucky. I represent the Times Square NYE Ball. You could sort of say I’m the “agent” for the ball. And together with the Times Square Alliance, we co-produce the event.
TSA: Can you give us a brief history of NYE in Times Square? Why here in Times Square? And what’s with the tradition of lowering the ball?
JS: The Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration goes back over 100 years to the birth of Times Square. Back to when the New York Times moved their headquarters up to what was then called Longacre Square. They renamed Longacre Square Times Square, and they brought the New Year’s Eve celebration up from what previously happened at Trinity Church. The first two years they actually had fireworks to celebrate the new year, but the hot ashes rained down on the revelers below, so they had to come up with a better idea. The publisher of the New York Times, Alfred Ochs, asked his chief electrician, Walter Palmer, to come up with a new concept. Palmer was inspired by a maritime tradition that still happens to this day when they drop a time ball at noon, so that navigators out at sea could adjust their timepieces to the local time.
Palmer took this maritime tradition and combined it with new technology, the electric lightbulb, to create a lighted time ball to drop at midnight to mark the beginning of a new year, and it was actually the brightest star in the sky back then. 1 Times Square was the second tallest building in Manhattan, so it attracted hundreds of thousands of people to Times Square to celebrate the new year.
TSA: How far in advance do you plan for NYE?
JS: The Times Square Alliance and Countdown get together right after [New Year’s] to talk about the previous year as we start making plans for the future year, so although it’s very seasonal, we’re actually working on New Year's Eve all year round. People don’t realize that my second busiest month is January, and if you think about it, whenever you have a big party, you have to clean up.
TSA: How many groups come together for NYE? Are there any long-standing partnerships that have been developed?
JS: Times Square New Year’s Eve is an amazing public-private partnership, and the partnership begins with the Times Square Alliance and the owners of 1 Times Square who have been able to work together on the celebration and really grow it dramatically for the entire community and create this huge economic engine, not only for Times Square, but for New York City.
This event would not be possible without our most important partner, the City of New York. NYPD, FDNY, Department of Transportation, Sanitation, you name it. We’re involved with the city agencies that make sure that this is a fun, friendly, safe event every year. We also work [with the Times Square] community. We work with the building owners and all the people here that work together on this great event.
TSA: Can you tell us a little about how Waterford Crystal is involved in the Ball Drop?
JS: Back in the ‘90s, we were getting ready for the millennium. We wanted to do something really magical with the Ball. The Ball has always been this [symbol of] lighting technology, and Waterford came to us with [the idea of] creating a crystal ball for the millennium. The idea of looking into the future with a crystal ball creates all of that romance and wonder and magic around this lighting technology, which is Phillip’s lighting technology. Waterford crystal is this very traditional material, very celebratory, and we’re combining that with the very latest and greatest in lighting technology. It really does symbolize how we reflect on the past, we celebrate today, and we hope for the best in the future.
TSA: What is the week leading up to NYE like?
JS: It’s one of my favorite weeks! After Christmas, the nation’s attention turns to Times Square. We have a press event every day after Christmas where we’re doing something special. On the 26th, we release our run of show. Then on the 27th, we install the Waterford Crystal on the Ball with the new pattern. This year is Gift of Kindness, creating different patterns of hopes and dreams on the Ball. The 28th is Good Riddance Day where we shed and shred our bad memories of the past year so we can start the new year fresh, and then the 29th is our confetti wishes day. Throughout the year, we’ve been collecting all these wishes from all over the world. We test the confetti, and it’s the final day of our confetti Wishing Wall. We’ll collect all those wishes and release them at midnight [on New Year’s] along with our 3,000 pounds of confetti. Then on the 30th, we have our Phillip’s Ball test, where we actually test the Ball, make sure it goes up, make sure it comes down. And then we’re ready for the big show on the 31st. At 6pm, we’ll start with the lighting and raising of the Ball and then we go to 12:15am. That night, thanks to the NYPD, who create these safety lanes, you’ll meet people from all over the world. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s in this wonderful mood to celebrate the future.
TSA: Do you hear stories about people getting to know each other and making friends because they’re in those pens together?
JS: Absolutely! Volunteering to stand there in anticipation of this wonderful moment, and being entertained throughout the night, gives you the opportunity to share a common bond and to build on that and to share stories. Every year, I’ll see people get down on one knee and propose. That brings everybody together! There are different reasons people come, but it truly is one of those bucket list experiences. People see all that amazing craziness out there and want to be a part of it.
TSA: There is all this time and effort leading up to NYE. How do you feel at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s?
JS: * Laughs * There’s… happy. I could say relief, but you know what? It’s happy. If you’re talking right at midnight, when that confetti’s flying, and the Ball just went down and we’re all celebrating and we’re hearing Auld Lang Syne, it’s extremely emotional. You feel that energy from the crowd that we’re all celebrating together. My wife and I have this tradition where we’ll reach up into the sky and pull down confetti until we get a confetti wish and read it to each other.
TSA: What are a few of your favorite stories about NYE?
JS: One of my favorite years was [when I was] up on the stage with Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor and my wife. I remember so clearly, hearing the song “New York, New York” and my wife turned to the supreme court justice and said “Let’s do a kick line!” And there I was kick-lining with a supreme court justice!
Also, the millennium. We were up 48 hours straight preparing for this 24 hours of celebrating New Year’s Eve throughout the world. I remember at 3am being down on the Square and meeting a couple from St. Louis, Missouri, that had been watching the celebration back in St. Louis throughout the day. They got so excited, they got on a plane, flew to New York City, and drove in to Times Square to be there for the end of the celebration. That made me realize how impactful this event is.
And after 9/11. We were struggling with how do you celebrate New Year’s Eve after you’ve been through so much loss, to actually create an opportunity for the city to come together to sort of honor those we lost and celebrate the future. At 6pm, as we raised the Ball, the crystal triangles had the names of all the countries that lost citizens and all the rescue organizations that lost members. And, we organized bells to ring throughout the city in [a moment of] silence. You could hear bells all over the five boroughs from churches, mosques, synagogues ringing out.
TSA: Is there anything else you would like our local audience to know about New Year’s or your role in NYE?
JS: I’ve met so many business owners in Times Square during my 22 years here, and I can’t thank them enough for their support of this event because, yes it’s a huge economic engine for Times Square, but it’s also a huge effort. It’s a huge effort by all of us Times Square community members that we participate in together, and we’ve had so much cooperation throughout all these years that has been mutually beneficial. I can’t thank everyone enough for what they’ve contributed to this event that makes it the greatest New Year’s Eve event in the world.
Photo Credit: Countdown Entertainment