When Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — who will lead the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration on Tuesday — touches off New York City’s ball drop, the illuminated orb won’t be the only thing falling around the country at midnight.
These days, cities are dropping an array of creative items to cheering crowds as locals mimic the massive Times Square countdown event that has come to symbolize the nation’s New Year moment.
Starting in Eastern Standard Time, there is a possum drop in North Carolina and a Peep drop in Pennsylvania (the marshmallow candy’s home state). Moving west, Wisconsin hosts a cheese drop. Prescott, Ariz., watches a boot drop — and these are just a few examples of oddball revelry.
“There is a real emotional connection” with the dropping ball, said Jeffrey Straus, president of Countdown Entertainment, an organizer of Times Square New Year’s Eve. “It’s a shared moment. So when you think about all other drops, that’s a big sign of our success. It shows the tradition has multiplied.”
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For the last six years, Mobile, Ala., has been dropping a 12-foot electronic MoonPie logo, made of plastic and LED lights, from the 34-story RSA Trustmark building on New Year’s Eve.
Though some were dismissive of the Mobile event at first, now people flock from out of state to watch the MoonPie descent, said Carol Hunter, president of Events Mobile.
Prior to the event’s inception, hotels and restaurants were not so busy on New Year’s Eve. Now, hotels in the area are almost always sold out, and the event generates an estimated $3 million in Mobile.
Atlanta has dropped an 800-pound, 8-by-8-foot fiberglass and foam peach since 1989, said Michelle Lawrence, director of marketing for Underground Atlanta, which organizes the event. It takes about 58 seconds for the peach to descend from a 138-foot tower of lights.
“People look forward to it every year,” Lawrence said, noting there is always a large musical lineup with many artists from the area. Turnout is usually about 170,000, but this year the numbers are expected to be higher because the peach drop coincides with the New Year’s Eve Chick-fil-A Bowl between Texas A&M University and Duke University.
Another tradition is just catching on in Arizona, where Prescott residents will watch an illuminated 6-foot cowboy boot be lowered from a fire engine ladder for the third year.
In a salute to Wisconsin’s dairy industry, the city of Plymouth will drop a decorated metal cheese wedge from a truck ladder raised 100 feet high, according to the Plymouth Arts Center.
Although Easter is usually their busy time of year, Bethlehem, Pa., home to the marshmallow Peep factory, will drop a giant Peep from the top of its headquarters.
In the wildlife category, Brasstown, N.C., drops a live possum and Port Clinton, Ohio, lowers a fish.
The possum drop has stirred controversy in the mountain town because the celebration includes capturing, caging and dropping a possum at midnight. The possum is actually lowered slowly and then set free after the event, but that didn’t appease People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which sued to try and stop event coordinators from using a live possum.
However, a judge recently ruled that Brasstown could continue its tradition and hold the 20th annual event.
Over in Port Clinton, a walleye is dropped to “reel in the New year.” But it’s made of papier mache, weighs 600 pounds and is 20 feet long, according to the event website, walleyemadness.com.
The ball drop that started it all wasn’t initially part of New York’s celebration, Straus said.
In 1904, over 200,000 people gathered in Times Square to watch fireworks and ring in the New Year at a celebration that then-New York Times owner Alfred Ochs had planned to simultaneously commemorate the opening of the newspaper’s new headquarters.
After the city banned fireworks displays in 1906, Ochs had the chief electrician for the newspaper, Walter Palmer, come up with another idea.
Palmer was inspired by maritime tradition, particularly the use of time balls, which were dropped at predetermined times to help ships offshore keep their chronometers in line with Greenwich Mean Time.
“He took that maritime tradition and combined it with the then-new technology of the electric light bulb,” Straus said.
Since then, the event has transformed from spectacle to tradition, Straus said.
“When you think about it we are all really doing the same thing — counting down to the New Year together,” he said. “Whether it’s a ball in Times Square or a peach in Atlanta … whatever it may be, the tradition all started right here, at the center, in New York City.”