- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

What's a New Year's Eve bash without the booze? In 190 U.S. communities, it's known as First Night, an alcohol-free celebration headlined by art, culture and festivity.

First Night programs were conceived in Boston in 1976 by civic-minded artists looking for an alternative to traditional revelry. Participating cities turn their streets into a performance center on New Year's Eve, offering a lineup of family-friendly entertainment and refreshments. First Night International's founding president, Zeren Earls ,calls it "an experience you don't easily forget."

For many participants, the hook is the conspicuous absence of alcohol.

"New Year's Eve is closely associated with drinking," Ms. Earls says from First Night headquarters in Boston. "First Night takes the attention away from that and replaces it with the arts, so it's a communal celebration through the arts. People feel safe to drive and bring their children and friends."

Yet the most important aspect of the celebration, she says, is the heightened sense of community. "There's a magic in a communal coming together. In our daily lives we've forgotten about that. We spend so much time isolated in front of our computer and TV screens we just don't connect that often."

This year, five Washington-area communities will ring in the new year with First Night celebrations. Each host area books its own talent and plans its own activities. Most First Night celebrations require a button or ticket for admission. These are available at grocery stores, libraries and recreation centers.

In Easton in Maryland's Talbot County, First Night will be "incredibly fabulous," says spokeswoman Valerie Bryant. "First Night is a good opportunity to celebrate the New Year as a family instead of everyone splitting up to do different things," she explains. "It's good value for your money."

Many of the performers lined up for First Night Talbot are local or regional, Ms. Bryant says. Highlights include Lollipop the Clown, who will entertain via interactive storytelling. A battle of teen bands is planned, and a visual-art collection called the Tuxedo Project will decorate the town.

"First Night Annapolis 2001: Embark on an Arts Odyssey" promises to capture the imagination with performances and interactive arts experiences for all ages, according to press information. Annapolis will showcase a wealth of international music, including performances by zydeco-roots rock masters Gumbo Junkyard, bossa nova from guitarist Jonathan Stone and African and Latin drumming from Isthmus. Children's activities will include the Russian American Kids' Circus and magician Michael Chamberlain.

Now in its 11th year, First Night Annapolis hosts expect 20,000 visitors.

First Night Frederick will feature performances by traditional Celtic musicians Walt Michael & Co. and several family-friendly comedy groups, including Two Nuts and a Bolt and Slapstick and Lipstick. The Frederick Jaycees will entertain children in an arts-and-crafts studio to be open all evening at the recreation center.

First Night Montgomery, which will be held at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg again this year, will showcase more than 20 acts on 17 stages throughout the day. The event will feature a performance by the swing band J Street Jumpers, puppeteers Dinorock, the well-known oldies band the Fabulous Hubcaps and bluegrass artists Seldom Scene.

In Leesburg, First Night revelers will be treated to more than 100 performances, including classical, jazz, folk, rock and bluegrass music; puppet shows; and storytelling. The activities will be held in more than 22 indoor locations downtown, all within walking distance of one another.

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