It was an unusually cold night by southern Alabama standards when the city’s newest New Year’s Eve tradition was born.
Armed with 5,000 MoonPies and 5,000 cups of coffee, organizers were hoping for a good turnout, despite the weather not cooperating. Little did they know a small lighted replica confection falling onto a barge in the Mobile River would grow into one of the city’s most successful events 10 years later.
“MoonPie Over Mobile,” known colloquially as the MoonPie drop, was born.
“I didn’t start out trying to do anything with the MoonPie,” Councilman Fred Richardson, who is often credited with birthing the idea. “I wanted to take $9,000 and create something with notoriety … something that could corner the market in the Central Time Zone.”
He had seen similar New Year’s Eve celebrations in other cities and thought Mobile could top them. For instance, he mentioned a problem with Atlanta’s peach drop.
“I went to Atlanta and saw the peach drop,” he said. “I’ve never seen a peach anywhere in Atlanta. There are no farms there.”
On the other hand, Mobile — the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America — is well known for tossing the marshmallow-filled confections to crowds during Carnival season, Richardson thought.
“We throw 4 million moonpies during Mardi Gras,” he said. “We need to figure out a way to drop the MoonPie.”
Richardson then got the city involved. At the time now-state Rep. Barbara Drummond was executive director of administrative services for the city under then-Mayor Sam Jones. She agreed to help do the legwork to help bring Richardson’s idea to life.
Drummond said the dismal turnout for First Night Mobile, a city-sponsored New Year’s Eve celebration, was one reason why the idea came about. Using a MoonPie was twofold. Not only was it unique to the city, but it could both help usher in the new year and get people in the mood for Carnival.
“We wanted to make sure we did something to help usher in Mardi Gras,” Drummond said. “The MoonPie [Drop] was a perfect way to add some energy to the night.”
To hear Richardson and Drummond tell it, expectations were low for the first-ever event. Given the roughly 200 attendees of the First Night event the year before, Drummond told Richardson that if 500 visitors showed up it would be a successful event. The turnout was three times that.
“Fifteen hundred people came out,” Richardson said. “The weather was atrocious. The wind was blowing and it was freezing cold.”
So cold, in fact, Richardson remembers organizers coming up with a way to help keep the band members warm.
“Wet Willie performed the first event,” Richardson said. “It was so cold we had to build a fire so the guitar player’s hands wouldn’t get too cold.”
For the first year, Drummond said the team dropped a small, lighted MoonPie from a crane onto a barge on the opposite shore of the Mobile River. There was some grumbling, and officials decided to make changes.
In the second year, Drummond said, 5,000 people turned out for the event. Richardson said organizers had moved the event to Cooper Riverside Park. The Retirement Systems of Alabama would eventually get involved as the event gained in popularity. An upgraded, 12-foot diameter MoonPie now decends from the top of the RSA Trustmark Building — one of the city’s tallest.
“I look back on it … and I’m happy we’re still doing this celebration,” Drummond said. “I’m not surprised it gets bigger. We saw an opportunity to start something Mobile could be proud of.”
The event has steadily grown in stature, attracting roughly 50,000 visitors downtown last year in spite of the rain. It was also televised in 23 markets in the Central Time Zone.
Richardson said the goal for this year is 63,000 visitors, an attainable mark.
“We don’t want any rain; we don’t want any fog,” he said during a press conference on the second-floor balcony of the Battle House Hotel. “We want a day like this, and if we do, we’ll have 63,000.”
The event is planned each year by the Events Mobile board. Kesshia Davis, the board’s president, said planning always begins in late summer.
“We start in late summer, looking at the previous event and trying to figure out how to make ‘MoonPie Over Mobile’ a great event,” she said.
Among the first tasks is attempting to persuade sponsors to donate money or in-kind services to the event. There is also the booking of musical acts, which is handled by Special Events Assistant Manager Greg Cyprian, Davis said.
“He has great contacts within the music industry,” she said. “He starts putting out bids.”
With other cities doing events involving concerts on the same night, it’s a competitive process, Davis said.
“Musical acts have started to see a growth, too,” Davis said. “This is big business for them. It gets us into a bidding thing. This year we put bids out to bands in every genre.”
Davis said the group looks for musical acts that appeal to the masses. The headline acts usually rotate genre types each year, she said. In previous years, the MoonPie event has featured .38 Special, The Village People and Gretchen Wilson.
This year’s headliner is George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Opening act is The Springs.
Ancillary activities include a Carnival-style second line parade, a giant edible MoonPie, a beer garden, a resolution wall, fireworks and a laser light show.
For visitors, the event can be appealing for a number of reasons, Davis said.
“We find people who just like for their families to get together,” she said. “Others like to have that traditional feeling of ringing in the new year without having to travel to New York City.”
For Events Mobile, the MoonPie drop gives families an opportunity to come out and be entertained.
“We just try to offer an experience for them,” Davis said. “That’s what keeps people coming back year after year.”
While the weather and football have both had an impact on crowd size over the last several years, this year appears to set the stage for another success.
Following the 2015 event, Battle House General Manager Margo Gilbert said both Renaissance hotels downtown were off 10 percent to 12 percent. The slight downturn doesn’t appear to be in the forecast this year, with Gilbert reporting a sell-out at the Battle House and a near sell-out at the Riverview Plaza.
“The Battle House is pretty much sold out and the Riverview will sell out in a week or two,” she said.
While occupancy was down a bit in 2015, possibly due to college football playoff games, before establishment of the MoonPie event, New Year’s Eve was much slower for downtown businesses, Gilbert said. In 2005, for instance, the hotels were hovering around 10 percent occupancy for New Year’s Eve.
“It has gained so much momentum over the years,” she said. “For both hotels, the restaurants and bars are now super busy.”
The same could be said for restaurant owners as well. David Rasp, owner of The Royal Scam and Heroes, said he’s noticed a difference in foot traffic since the MoonPie event launched.
“It has been really terrific,” he said of the event. “I know what it was like prior to it and there was not much before.”
The first and second years of the event were kind of slow, Rasp said, but the numbers and business began to pick up in year three.
“In years three and four there was a noticeable difference in foot traffic,” he said. “When you talk about how it was before, there’s no comparison.”
Sales for his two restaurants have more than doubled for New Year’s Eve since “MoonPie Over Mobile” became successful. He estimated most restaurant owners downtown probably also notice a bump as well.
Rasp’s restaurants usually close early, but on New Year’s Eve he now likes to evaluate the situation and might stay open later.
“We do the majority of our business prior to [the event],” Rasp said. “We do 80 to 85 percent of our business prior to.”
Initially, he said, the event had more of an impact in the Royal Street area of downtown, where The Royal Scam is located. However, more recently places on Dauphin Street, such as Heroes, have seen an impact as well.
“I think it has affected everyone,” Rasp said. “I’m sure it has affected everybody.”
MoonPie Over Mobile schedule
8 p.m.: Beer garden opens in Bienville Square on the Dauphin Street side; food trucks open at Bienville Square.
8:30 p.m.: Cutting of the World’s Largest MoonPie in the courtyard of the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel; music by Port City Second Liners.
9 p.m.: Second line parade from the Riverview Plaza courtyard to the main stage. The Chattanooga Moonpie 100th anniversary RV will bring up the rear.
9:25 p.m.: Remarks from Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Councilman Fred Richardson
9:30 p.m.: The Springs
11 p.m.: George Clinton
Midnight: MoonPie drops with fireworks and laser light show