First Night Festivities Ring in New Year With the Arts

IN 1976, a group of Boston artists and citizens started a New Year's Eve celebration that now lights up city streets from Toronto to Honolulu.

It's called First Night - a festival featuring community artists who dance, sing, carve ice sculptures, tell stories, play instruments, recite poetry, and engage in other artistic disciplines at various indoor and outdoor locations.

Boston artists created First Night as an alternative to traditional holiday parties. No public drinking is permitted, and many events are geared toward families. The Beantown festival is the largest in the country, attracting 500,000-plus people. More than 1,000 individual artists are scheduled to perform here this year.

Ninety-one cities, mostly in the United States and Canada, have followed Boston's lead. In the past two years alone, 36 have established First Night programs. Participating cities range from small towns like Rutland, Vt., to large metropolises such as Denver.

Zeren Earls, president and artistic director of Boston's First Night, says the celebrations are a test of a community's vitality. "When you think about 17 years ago, no one had a reason to come to downtown Boston. It was so quiet." First Night helped bring people back into the city. "We're finding this is happening with other communities as well," she says.

While each city's First Night is based on the Boston model of using indoor, outdoor, and historical sites for presentations, the celebrations mirror the culture and color of individual communities. Ms. Earls, who advises other First Night organizations around the US, says, "I encourage each city to nurture its own populations, its own creativity."

Most First Nights include events for children. They often feature a procession with costumes, bands, and towering puppets, and indoor and outdoor performances until midnight. A number of cities end the evening with a gala fireworks display. Each city sells buttons for admission to all events.

First Night Boston, which at $1 million has the largest budget, this year centers around an environmental theme in an effort to educate as well as entertain the public about environmental topics. An installation called "Cycle, Recycle, Lifecycle" reflects this ecological aspect and includes three sculptures by different artists. One - "Trash Temple" - is an American ranch house made from the trash an average family disposes of in a year. "The Christopher Columbus Follies: An Eco-Cabaret" examines Columbu s's impact on the environment of the Americas through music, dance, drama, and puppetry.

While some First Nights are only several years old, they are drawing larger and larger crowds. Honolulu, which started in 1991, saw its attendance almost double to 70,000 in 1992. This year the tropical city expects 100,000. Rainforest floats and New Zealand dance performances are just a sampling of the offerings.

First Night St. Louis, which attracted 18,000 festivalgoers in 1992, its first year, is planning for 30,000. The festivities focus on the myths and traditions of winter solstice. Light and dark are the themes, and the event kicks off with the building and lighting of a fire.

Tonight, Sydney will become the first city outside North America to join the First Night roster. Earl believes the concept will soon spread to other countries. Linda Ryan, executive director of First Night Honolulu, says Earl has "started a worldwide movement."

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