The Fabulous Confetti Fête: A Times Square New Year’s Eve

A tribute to the Dispersal Engineers who toss the tons of festive paper that bedeck a million revelers

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Gary Hershorn / Reuters

Confetti is dropped on revelers at midnight during New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square in New York City, on Jan. 1, 2013.

[In the dozen years since the first version of this story ran, Mary Corliss and I have continued as members of the Times Square confetti dispersal battalion. One of our dear friends has retired, and two others have passed away; but new members from across the country swell Treb Heining’s ranks. The event has found new corporate sponsors: Nivea now pays for the revelers’ blue hats and balloons, and so much more. This year’s guest performers include Miley Cyrus, Melissa Etheridge, Macklemore + Ryan Lewis and the USO Show Tour. What hasn’t changed is the Corlisses’ delight at being part of the world’s biggest, briefest and most cheerful winter carnival. Happy New Year, everyone! —R.C.]

On the midnight stroke at your New Year’s Eve party, between champagne swigs and kisses, you might glance at the TV image of Times Square: a million people celebrating in a neon-illuminated swirl of confetti, as if God had unleashed a pretty blizzard right on cue.

But She has nothing to do with it. I do.

Somebody has to drop the 7,000 pounds of varicolored tissue and motley Mylar, interspersed with wishes for the new year sent by people all over the world and printed on strips of paper that will flutter down at midnight. Tossing it, ever so artfully, is the task of about a hundred volunteers perched on roofs and setbacks of seven buildings from 43rd to 48th Streets. They work under the guidance of confetti master Treb Heining, the Newport Beach, Calif., balloonatic whose company, Treb, Inc., is the go-to outfit for balloon effusions at national political conventions. Since 1991, Treb has coordinated the confetti fête for the Times Square Alliance, the business association in charge of the big show.

(READ: Joel Stein on Treb Heining’s preparations for a Very Special New Year’s Eve

Mary Corliss and I have been proud members of the New Year’s Eve corps of Confetti Dispersal Engineers since the Millennium Bash of 1999-2000. Among our chers amis are Giacomo (Jim) Ghiozzi, Davie Lerner, Victor Nelson and Gilbert Ireland, all CDEs of many consecutive years’ standing. We don’t have to blow up the 20,000 balloons due to be given out to the crowd; that task goes to other people with more capacious lung power … no, actually they use pumps. But we are on duty for more than six hours, as the elves in Father Time’s workshop.

We convene at 6:30 p.m. in a conference room in the Westin Times Square Hotel for Treb’s roll call, indoctrination and pep talk. As a member of this covenant I’m sworn to secrecy on matters of timing and mechanics — the technique, for example, for avoiding the dread occupational hazard of “confetti arm.” But I am permitted to quote a few of Treb’s dicta. Confetti dispersal, he intones, “is a physical, violent act,” a therapeutic exercise that will purge, Treb says, “all your aggressions from the past year.” (He knows us so well.) We are to remove wristwatches, bracelets, rings, necklaces and other gewgaws that might slip off during our pitching exertions and do harm to the crowd below. Treb also expects us to apply ourselves with the ascetic, aesthetic devotion of Trappist monks: “We do not do drugs nor alcohol. We do confetti.”

(SEE: CDEs perform an “Air Worthiness Test” for the New Year’s Eve confetti)

As in any military operation, the regiment is broken into squads, each commanded by a captain (ours is Giacomo-Jim) in radio contact with Gen. Treb. Under the captain, Treb says, “You will be instructed in how to fluff confetti,” which isn’t quite as salacious as it sounds; it means opening large cardboard boxes of tightly packed confetti and spreading it among six or eight boxes, to be tossed at the magic moment. With a final invocation Treb sends us — mostly New Yorkers, but including recruits from California and Georgia — to our battle stations. We’ll be there until after midnight, when we will have fulfilled our final mission: confetti accompli.

Manhattan first celebrated the new year’s arrival in Times Square in 1907 — with a 78,000-pound ball of iron and wood — and except for two years during World War II, has done so every year since. Over the decades the ornament has lost a lot of weight, svelting down to a 150-lb. aluminum ball in 1955. In the old days the thing dropped through the efforts of six burly workmen and a guy with a stopwatch. Now it’s all done by computer.

(READ: Megan Friedman on the Tech Behind the Times Square Ball Drop)

The crowd has changed too, in size, tone and demographic. On New Year’s Eve 1966-67, in my Columbia U. days, I came out of a 42nd Street movie theater, noticed that it was a few minutes after midnight and was able to call my mother on a pay phone just around the corner from the revelers, who probably numbered in the low hundred-thousands. These days you’d need to be the Mayor, or whatever pop star is the featured performer, to get access to in that spot. The crosstown streets are barricaded from late afternoon, and to get a good vantage point you need to arrive by about 3 p.m. and be prepared to stay in one of the block-long pens that contain the crowd. Hold your water, too: some of the local eateries charge between $5 and $20 for pee breaks.

Treb used to work in Special Events (party designing) at Disney theme parks, and the Times Square Alliance has learned a lot about crowd control from the Mouse House. Since an attraction at the Magic Kingdom typically entails standing in line for a half hour or more before four minutes of the ride, Disney keeps the customers from getting too restless and ornery with a “pre-show” of filmed or live infotainment.

(READ: Richard Lacayo on the history of Times Square, from Devil’s Playground to Disney Theme Park)

For Times Square visitors, the “ride” on New Year’s Eve is about the same length — four minutes of shouting, singing and hugging at midnight — but it’s preceded by eight or more hours of standing in the cold in one of those pens. So the pre-show comprises live and taped music acts and, at the top of each hour from 7 p.m. on, a countdown to zero second and a feed from whatever region (London, England; Ponta Verde, Brazil) is celebrating its midnight moment. That’s when Treb’s troops, over the years, have flung into action, unfurling, say, the Mylar strips that blanketed the sky with what looked like glitter done by ILM. Some freelancers, stationed in the few Times Square high-rises with openable windows, will unfurl toilet-paper streamers — two-ply contrails that, caressed by wind currents in the concrete canyon, glide and twirl through the night air for minutes on end.

On New Year’s Eve, the police officers are genial Joes and Janes, whose main tasks are to snap pictures of tourists on request and to say, at the dozens of checkpoints, “You can’t go there.” But early in the evening, we CDEs are minor celebrities. Around 7 p.m., we make our way from the Westin to our designated station — in our case, the Renaissance Hotel on 48th Street. A flash of our plastic badges with the magic word CONFETTI, and sawhorses magically part, as if we had backstage and dressing room passes at a Springsteen concert. This is a class society, and for a few moments we are among the elite. As we stroll through restricted areas, the visitors in the pens wave their sausage balloons imploringly at us. They all seem to be having a splendid time.

(READ: How Manhattan turns itself into a Winter Wonderland for Year-End Visitors)

Why? How to explain the eager docility with which the revelers accept their status? Like the Broadway theatergoers (mostly out-of-towners) who form orderly queues instead of pushing to get inside first, they acknowledge the social importance of good behavior; it’s the price they’re willing to pay to be entertained. And they take to their roles with the same unquestioning good nature as college fans at the Homecoming game. Sometimes the temperature approach 50, once in a while they are below freezing. But whatever the weather, it’s a beautiful night for an outdoor party.

And, really, the folks on the streets are the stars. At the final countdown to midnight, we CDEs festoon them with confetti. The words to “Auld Lang Syne” flash on one of the Jumbotron screens for a million-person singalong. Cameras send pictures of good cheer and warm passion around the globe. To be in this group, even 28 stories above them on the Renaissance roof, is to show people in a hundred other countries that tough old New York can radiate an exhilarating warmth of community.

So pay attention, world: we launch the new year in fun, style and peace. Why not follow our lead for the next 365 days?