On August 18, it will have been a year since Nolan Gibbons passed away in his sleep, and two of his best friends in the music world are still trying to process their loss.
“A year before, I was doing Acapella Academy and he was my roommate at that camp, and I got to spend a lot of time with him,” said Preston Howell. “On top of all the Acapop! stuff we did, and now, it was just weird, it was like not believing it was real.”
Preston, a 17-year-old from the Miami area, and Dallas native Eliza Pryor, 14, met Nolan through Acapop! Kids, the 2019 creation of Pentatonix co-founder Scott Hoying. Nolan was a gifted singer and beatboxer for the nationally known 17-and-under a cappella group.
Eliza said the news of Nolan’s passing “was the most unreal thing that’s ever happened” in her life. The time she had spent with Nolan, she thought, was only the beginning of a friendship she would have her entire life.
That’s how hundreds of participants attending Sunday night’s Nolan Fest at Silvershell Beach felt about a special young man from Marion who was beginning to light up the world with his rare talent.
“I used to think of myself as one of Nolan’s mentors, but I think ultimately what’s happened is he was mentoring me,” said Providence-based event coordinator John K. McElroy, describing the inspiration that Nolan brought to the theater. “He was just so wise beyond his years.
“Nolan embodied poise and grace, and he had talent that came from somewhere else…. It was other-worldly…. He was going to win a Grammy; he was going to win something. There was just too much talent for him not to. He was on the path.”
The emotional spectrum was wider than the sky as Warren and Sheila Gibbons, Nolan’s parents, received many hugs at the event while reuniting, consoling, and celebrating with friends.
Nolan Fest filled the Silvershell Beach parking lot to the brim, as an enthusiastic and emotional gathering of people was entertained for over four hours.
Along with Eliza and Preston from Acapop! Kids, performers included members of Break a Leg Theatre in Plymouth; Music Career Mastermind founder and recording artist Melissa Mulligan; Showstoppers; members of the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; the cast of Oliver 2016 from the Marion Arts Center; along with tributes and videos.
“We met Nolan at the same time that we got into Acapop!. We all met for the first time; we did our first four videos (together)…. ‘Shallow,’ we were all in that one,” said Preston, whose soaring career saw him appear at age 14 on the NBC television show The Voice, where he drew a four-chair turn from celebrity judges Kelly Clarkson, Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, and John Legend. “I told my mom after the audition that when I was looking at them, it felt like holograms. It didn’t feel like real.
“We were all best friends from the start. And it didn’t matter what age, we were just talking about that earlier, too, like we didn’t feel like there was any…. The youngest was, like, nine, and the oldest was 14 – it didn’t feel like that.”
Starting at 4:00 am, the kids spent long days on stage in Acapop! Kids creating a video lip-synched to match their own studio recording of the music.
“We’re all from different places, so we did not know each other; but, instantly, we had a bunch of fun,” said Eliza, who has appeared on the Netflix series Team Kaylie and hopes to continue with music and acting because “it’s been such a special part of my life…. Even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still be doing it on the side, you know? I hope I can continue to do that in the future, but who knows what my life will be?”
Preston’s dream is to someday direct and have his own ideas come to life. “Right now, though, within the next five to 10 years, I hope to be continuing the music, but TV and movies. I love film,” he said.
More than his own talents, Nolan’s gift for friendship made a bridge from the national music scene to Marion, where all of the children Nolan knew who participated and/or attended on Sunday shared a mobile theater and honored their friend.
McElroy says it took “an incredible team” to pull Nolan Fest together, but it was worth all of the effort, considering he feels related to the Gibbons family and considers Nolan his nephew. They played father and son roles in the Stadium Theater’s production of Mary Poppins.
“Nolan’s parents are actually a huge part of the team; Nolan’s aunt, Nolan’s mom’s best friend, and one of my good friends all came together and became this team,” said McElroy. “I’ve been in charge of figuring out performances and getting volunteers set up and getting our stage-management team together, just trying to make sure that everything seamlessly goes together. But it really, truly has taken a village.”
The center of that village was brought to Marion by Nate McNiff of Salem, whose “mobile theater” is an innovation for stage performance. On the outside, it looks like a standard-issue, 20-foot box truck that functions as a mobile stage, but the Salem State graduate’s experience as a theater performer inspired him to customize the truck with state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, a pop-up tent, weather awnings, and, in the back, dressing rooms fitted with lighted mirrors and even a generator.
In 2019, McNiff brought his idea to the non-profit EforAll, which works with inventors who are first-time entrepreneurs and lends financial support. Now he hopes his travels help non-profits, like Nolan Fest, save money.
“We’ve been doing some very important cultural events, and this falls right in line,” said McNiff, who created his mobile theater in 2019. “I never got a chance to meet Nolan, but just here talking to his dad, talking to John (McElroy), clearly he’s one of my idols. He’s somebody I absolutely would have been good friends with in high school. It means a lot that we’re able to be here in some small part to help honor him.”
Funds raised from the inaugural Nolan Fest will help offset the costs of holding Sunday’s event, but plans for a foundation in his name and some longer-range goals are in the works. During the 2020-21 school year, the music room at Old Rochester Regional High School was dedicated in Nolan’s honor and a plaque placed at the doorway.
Nolan still appears on the Acapop! Kids website, and his page says Billie Eilish is his favorite musical artist and his favorite food is his dad’s homemade square waffles with bacon on the inside.
“I’m not over it, and a lot of us aren’t,” said McElroy. “This is very cathartic to do this, and for me, it’s been really, really helpful to run this festival because I have something to do and can honor him in some way because there aren’t any words. We all feel that same way … but to find a moment to do something … to pay tribute to this incredible young man that we all just feel really lucky that we got to know.”
By Mick Colageo