Boston's First Night - safe and sane New Year's Eve spreads

Ten years ago a group of artists and civic-minded Bostonians, weary of the drunkenness and even violence that too often mar New Year's Eve, proposed an alternative celebration to welcome the new year. They called it First Night, designating it as the opening night or arts festival premier of a new year. The group raised $30,000 and 60,000 attended.

Little did they realize that First Night would become a year-round project and a nonprofit corporation, said Zeren Earls, a founder, president, and director throughout the first 10 years.

``What you have done is proving to be a special model for other cities to follow,'' said Rosemary Sansone, speaking for Mayor Raymond Flynn at a reception announcing programs and plans for the city's 11th First Night.

Every facet of First Night spells growth, Mrs. Earls says. From its modest beginnings in 1976, the cultural festival has ballooned into an extravaganza involving more than 1,000 artists and 400 volunteers this year. There will be more than 100 scheduled events.

Earls heads a year-round, full-time staff of four who plan and orchestrate the New Year's welcome. They also meet observers from other cities, some of them eager to learn how Boston can maintain such a program.

When Boston opens its arms to 1987, First Night will have spent $500,000, much of it donated by the business community. More than 400,000 people are expected to participate.

More than double that number will frolick in First Night style across the United States, moving to the West Coast and to the South for the first time. New First Night cities will include San Francisco; Milwaukee; Albany, N.Y.; York, Pa.; New Bedford, Mass.; and Charlotte, N.C., says A.Robert Phillips, the board chairman for Boston's celebration.

``This celebration is the biggest public statement of citizen participation in support of the arts in Massachusetts,'' he says. ``It expresses the people's right to come together to enjoy the many cultures'' of Boston.

First Night has been a key element in awakening Boston, Earls says. ``Ten years ago the Hub's downtown slept each night away, including New Year's Eve,'' she says. ``From 9 to 5 downtown bustled. Then everyone left for home. ... Boston's downtown is bristling with action now. We want to feel that the diversity of First Night activities has provided the New Year's atmosphere that has caused other cities to adopt the idea.''

Local founders did not anticipate that other cities would come to Boston to study their program and borrow the idea, Earls says. ``Nevertheless, we don't encourage other people to use our name, First Night, unless they also retain our goals, to showcase their community's arts,'' she says.

The Boston group is often criticized for maintaining this attitude, she admits. ``We can't afford to allow anyone to call a New Year's Eve program `First Night.' ... We've never said to any community, `You can't do this, or you can't do that!' We offer no basic formula or pattern for First Night, but any First Night sponsor must recognize it as an arts celebration. Otherwise, each city designs its own celebration,'' she says. ``This is a fun night, a family and community enterprise, one that's safe and sane.''

Of the 1,000 artists participating in the Hub's festivities, 80 percent are from Boston and vicinity, she says.

Boston will have several innovations this year. Each celebrant is invited to wear a costume, at least a mask, Earls says. ``One artist, Gifford Booth, is making 7,000 masks. We'll give those away to people at the opening parade.''

This year's most elaborate addition will be a portable ``street'' on Boston Common displaying how local architects see the Boston of 2076, one century after the original First Night. Most Boston First Night activities are planned for outdoors, but indoor programs will accommodate 100,000 people. They include events in theaters, churches, and the Opera House.

Costs will be low - a $5 button for entree into all events except three specials, priced at $8 each. These include performances by the Boston Philharmonic, the Cantata Singers, and the Handel and Haydn Society. People may purchase buttons and tickets in advance.

More than 100 individual programs are scheduled, beginning with family programs at 2 p.m., followed at 5 p.m. with a parade of people, then a series of programs starting at 7 p.m., and concluding at midnight with fireworks.

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