Downtown Main Street was alive with Christmas on Wednesday as crowds gathered for the Night of Lights, a family-friendly event – canceled last year because of the coronavirus – that features the lighting of Santa and his reindeer on the side of the PNC Bank.
Some families come no matter what the weather. This year, it was so mild, you barely needed a hat and gloves.
Jason Johnson and his son Koby Johnson, 20, have come since Koby was a baby. His father remembered protecting him from the freezing rain as he sat in his stroller. They always start the evening with Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island.
An Indianapolis native, Jason Johnson moved here and welcomed the Coney Island family tradition. Only thing is he orders hamburgers instead of Coney dogs. He remembers buying Coney dogs for his wife when she gave birth to Koby.
“My mom was having Coney dogs when she was having me. That's why I'm obsessed with them,” Koby said as he and his father stood outside the Main Street restaurant, ready to give their take-out order.
Large city dump trucks and other equipment blocked Main Street intersections. Capt. Scott Berning with the Fort Wayne Police Department said the event was the most “locked down” an event has ever been.
Aaron Bentley, a relative of Coney Island's co-owner Jimmy Todoran, said the restaurant would sell between 4,000 and 5,000 hot dogs Wednesday evening. On a regular day, the numbers range between 1,500 and 2,000, he said.
“Today is a little special because Santa is coming to town,” Bentley said with a wink.
Across the street, members of the Fort Wayne Children's Choir sang Christmas music in harmony, directed by Jonathan Busarow, executive artistic director. About a dozen carolers from area high schools sang on the street under his direction. Normally the singers would be inside the Allen County Courthouse, Busarow said, for cocoa and carols, but this year they sang outside, adding to the Christmas feeling.
Rachel Wall, a sophomore at Leo Junior-Senior High School, said she loves Christmas music, especially “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“It makes everything so cheerful,” Wall said, and it's “a coming-back story.” Wall, who joined the youth choir in the third grade, has seen her share of the frosty Night of Lights.
“It's usually so cold,” Wall said. “I'm glad it's a little warmer this year.”
The lighting began at 5:45 p.m. at the History Center on Barr Street and went east on Main Street to the Kris Kringle Village and Arts United Plaza, the Christ Child Festival Nativity lighting, Aunt Millie's Northern Lights on Pearl and the Community Center's Santa's Workshop. Each lighting was five to 10 minutes apart as visitors walk from site to site.
Santa was to be lit at 6:20 p.m. with lightings heading southward at Flagstar Bank, Ash Brokerage, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory and Embassy Theatre and the large Christmas wreath at I&M Plaza. The ringing of downtown church bells was followed by fireworks at Parkview Field, according to a schedule from the Downtown Improvement District.
Rick Zolman, Downtown Improvement District's events and programming manager, said the events draw 20,000 to 25,000 people and this year, with the milder weather, he expected the number to be easily reached.
Even with the lightings approaching, the line at Coney Island only grew longer. Shawn Hall said his family has come downtown for the event for so long, he remembers his grandmother saying she was there as a girl.
In line to order takeout Coney dogs with his son, Jaylan Hall, he had an order for 18 dogs for his immediate family. That wasn't counting all the dogs he'll be ordering during the Christmas season when his brother David Hall comes home from Chicago, where he is a firefighter.