First Night warms up holiday chill

Twins Nyla, left, and Jayla Williams ring the New Year's bells in Sidney Friedman Park. Wednesday, December 31, 2014 is the First Night State College celebration in downtown State College.
Twins Nyla, left, and Jayla Williams ring the New Year's bells in Sidney Friedman Park. Wednesday, December 31, 2014 is the First Night State College celebration in downtown State College. CDT photo

The excitement of New Year’s Eve usually ramps up as midnight approaches, but that didn’t stop revelers from spending the afternoon and early evening hours downtown at First Night State College.

First Night may be more recognized by the “night” portion of its name, but families, vendors and sculptors were out by early afternoon taking advantage of a sunny, albeit cold, winter day.

Criss-crossing a closed South Allen Street, families watched ice sculptors wield chain saws, handheld rotary tools and other implements that shaped walls of ice into eagles, castles and even a giant “2015.”

Slicing grooves into the ice with a chain saw, Gary Glenn shaped several blocks into the form of a fish leaping out of water. Working off a drawing laid on top of the ice, Glenn was ignoring some of the original lines for a design he felt worked better.

“We draw them,” he said, referring to the other sculptors of the DiMartino Ice team, of Jeannette. “But sometimes I don’t care too much for the original, so I stand back and adjust it.

“All the carvers do that — put in their own twists.”

The ice itself, known as Clinebell blocks, doesn’t come from any special water, he said, but rather a process that creates the clear blocks. A container is lined with plastic and filled with water, which is then refrigerated from below. As the water freezes from the bottom, a circulation pump pushes all the impurities to the top.

When the ice is frozen solid, he said, the top is cut off, removing the impurities and leaving a crystal-clear block. It’s then cut into 10-inch-thick blocks measuring about 20 by 40 inches.

Glenn, the director of nutrition and culinary services for Mount Nittany Medical Center, said he started carving in 1984 while working as an apprentice for a chef in Pittsburgh. The chefs would create ice sculptures for Sunday brunch He was so impressed that he wanted to learn how to carve.

While low temperatures help maintain the sculptures, they also help provide a little boost to downtown businesses where residents might duck in to get out of the cold.

This helps bump up business a little for shops like Appalachian Outdoors, which has a front-row seat to all the carving.

General manager George Schettler said that whether or not First Night helps his business depends on the temperature. When it’s colder, he’s more likely to see people coming in to buy some gear to keep warm, like gloves or chemical warmers.

“We make sure we keep stocked on those items, especially the warmers,” he said.

2000 Degrees pottery offers something for the creative each year. People with a First Night button can buy a coffee mug for $7 and paint it, employee Kelly Mangan said. The shop will glaze and bake the cups and return them within a week.

Greg Paulsen, of State College, was there with his family, wife Kelley, daughter Ainsley, son Zach and Zach’s friend, Oliver. Painting the cups is a First Night tradition for the Paulsens.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he said. “We have a cabinet full of mugs.”

One with ‘2K14’ painted on it was on the table as Kelley painted a vessel adorned with tree limbs tipped with hearts. Ainsley’s was already finished and taken to be glazed and baked. Hers was blue, white and black striped, she said.

“It was really cool,” she said.

While the event is a tradition for some, others were just discovering First Night. Matt and Alex Brahlek were there with their daughter Amelia, 1, and beagles Dobi and Joey. Amelia napped in Matt’s arms as they walked along South Allen Street.

They recently moved to the area and were attending on the recommendation of a neighbor.

“She said, ‘Go walk around, you’ll find something good,” Alex said.

The dogs like walks and people and were enjoying First Night, she said. Other attendees enjoyed the dogs. Some children stopped and asked if they could pet them.