NEW YORK — As the clock ticks down on New Year's Eve, a giant puppet parade will entertain revelers in Santa Rosa, Calif. Atlanta residents will paint 140 wood and fabric panels on a spiral labyrinth to depict their concept of peace, unity, and healing. And New Yorkers will tango under the painted stars of Grand Central Station's arching roof. All three celebrations will have one thing in common: no alcohol.
The concept of offering residents boozeless entertainment continues to grow. This year, 156 cities in the US and Canada will present an organized alternative to getting sloshed as part of First Night International.
First Night, which started in Boston in 1976, uses culture as an alternative to the traditional New Year's Eve revelry. For the cities involved, the festivities can foster a sense of community and draw people downtown to see artists display their work, jazz musicians blow their horns, and gospel singers shout "Amen." This year, as many as 4 million North Americans are expected to purchase a button for $5 to $20 to attend the events.
"I think it fills a vacuum in people's lives," says Zeren Earls, the president of First Night International in Boston. "It's a wonderful opportunity for people to walk the streets and wish their neighbors a 'Happy New Year' without the influence of alcohol."
In many cities the impetus for First Night began with a visit to a city hosting one. That's the case in Kennewick, Wash. The local police chief experienced a First Night in St. Petersburg, Fla., and brought the idea home. Over 15 months the project grew as 25 different organizations endorsed the plan. On New Year's Eve, residents will be able to attend everything from the opera Die Fledermaus to gospel singing.
Some cities view the idea as a good way to keep families together for a relatively low-cost night. "I tell people you don't need a date [or] an expensive dress," says Mary Ann O'Sullivan, an organizer in Torrington, Conn. "Where else can you go for $5?"
St. Paul, Minn., organizers are hoping the event helps showcase the city's downtown. "Our city needs people downtown. It's a real jewel, but it has a sort of feel like a slow death march," says organizer Christi Gray. The concept has galvanized the business community, and companies like 3M and the St. Paul Companies have bought a large number of buttons at a discount. Ms. Gray is expecting 50,000 people to attend. "I think it will change people's perception of how to ring in the new year," she says.
That's certainly what's happening in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where First Night events ranging from bagpipes to ballet drew pre-Christmas button sales of 2,000. Lack of interest led the City Center to cancel its traditional all-you-can-drink New Year's Eve party for 2,000. "I think those things are fading; people are not as interested in them anymore," says Patrick Kane, a volunteer organizer.
Not necessarily in New York City though, where cultural events go on all the time. First Night is expected to draw just 15,000, while an estimated 500,000 will crowd into Times Square for the nationally televised midnight countdown.
In many cities the alcohol-free approach often results in fewer law-enforcement problems. Santa Rosa, Calif., celebrated its first First Night last year and saw alcohol-related arrests fall from between 15 to 20 to 3. The California Highway Patrol reported it was the first and only weekend of the year without an alcohol-related death or injury in Sonoma County.
For a Santa Rosa artist with an alcohol problem, the event took on a larger significance. "He said it was the first time he had been sober on New Year's Eve since he was a teenager," recounts Ellen Draper, one of the organizers. The artist told Ms. Draper he enjoyed the sobriety enough to make a resolution to stay clean.