- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dave Sullivan did not always enjoy New Year’s Eve — that is, the boozy, adults-only-party aspect of it he remembers from his childhood.

“New Year’s Eve, at least when I was a child, was not a family event,” he says. “It was about mother and dad going out and dancing and drinking. We watched the ball drop and had no idea what it meant.”

Today, the Binghamton, N.Y., resident is executive director of an international organization that rings in the new year in a very different way, and he revels in the difference.

“What makes First Night so interesting and so different — First Night is a community celebration of the arts, and it uses the downtown environment as a stage. It is an alcohol-free public festival … marking the passage of the old year into the new with art, ritual and festivity,” he says.

First Night International, begun 29 years ago in Boston and based since 2002 in Binghamton, helps communities and families welcome the new year with warmth and pizazz at boozeless celebrations built around family, community and the arts.

Artists, musicians and other performers are brought together to entertain in community buildings and churches and on city streets.

This year, First Night celebrations will be held in several communities near Washington. Among those closest to town are Alexandria, Warrenton, Leesburg and Annapolis — and this last will play host to Mr. Sullivan.

The First Night phenomenon began in 1976, when a group of Boston artists sought to create a New Year’s Eve celebration that focused on art and community. The festivities, which doubled as a finale to the city’s bicentennial events, were a hit.

“It was clear there was something very right about First Night,” Mr. Sullivan says.

That first year’s success, he says, disclosed a real need.

“People were really hungry for an alternative to what they were used to on New Year’s Eve.”

Since then, the First Night vision has spread to more than 123 cities. Most are in the United States, but cities in Canada and New Zealand also participate. The organization expects 3 million people to attend First Night festivities this year.

That’s a lot of partygoers — but not as many as First Night cities once saw. In 1999, First Night International had 220 licensed cities. Today there are 123. One city that no longer holds a First Night license is Silver Spring, which began hosting First Night Montgomery in 1995 and held First Night events until 2001.

“There were issues about budgets and expenses,” Mr. Sullivan says.

Some communities joined the organization just to celebrate the millennium, and others have dropped out because the cost of putting on such events rose sharply before 2000 and never leveled out.

“Fireworks that cost $1,000 per minute used to cost $500 or $600 per minute,” Mr. Sullivan says.

The Washington area won’t be lacking for festivities this year, however, so grab family and friends and head to any close-by First Night community to take in the sights and sounds.

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The theme in Annapolis this year is “Light up Annapolis.” Festivities will begin with activities and performances oriented toward young families, with lots for children to see and do.

Annapolis organizers are especially excited about a newer feature cropping up in many First Night cities: a community processional. In Annapolis, performers and attendees will walk from Maryland Hall down to Church Circle, where the evening’s events will center.

Participants in the processional — people, oversized puppets and non-motorized vehicles such as wagons — will wear costumes that reflect the “Light up Annapolis” theme.

“The area is absolutely rich with all kinds of performers, national and international, as well as local,” says Bob Keil, who is heading preparations. He says about two-thirds of the evening’s performers and artists call Annapolis home.

Among the day’s approximately 230 performers will be Allyson Walsh and Adele Nichols, also known as the Psy-Dentical Twins. These identical twin sisters will “deliver messages from loved ones and friends and spirit.”

The Screaming Puppets, an improvisational comedy troupe, will perform skits and games based on audience suggestions. Comedians, historical re-enactors, circus performers and puppets also will appear.

No First Night is complete without music, and organizers have ensured that Annapolis will be abuzz with sounds as varied as the Appalachian clogging of Step Jam, the local harmonies of the Voice of Rapture Gospel Choir, and the music of the New Orleans-based Junkyard Saints, a favorite from past First Night Annapolis events.

Blues, Celtic, Colonial, bluegrass, Tahitian, pop and Gypsy are just some of the other musical styles that will lend an up beat to the gala.

The evening will conclude, as it has in the past, with a fireworks display over City Dock.

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The Warrenton and Leesburg First Night events are put on by the Bluemont Concert Series, a nonprofit community organization. Peter Dunning, who is in charge of both cities’ celebrations, says they will focus on quality and community.

“They’re both smaller than [First Night celebrations in] Boston or some of the bigger cities,” he says, “but we focus on having a variety of quality things that are appropriate for families.”

In Warrenton, the partying will start at 4 p.m. with a pre-event family supper at the Bistro on the Hill restaurant. Later, revelers will meander through the historic downtown streets and enjoy the music of the local old-time string band Free State Ramblers; the a cappella Renaissance harmonies of Musikanten; and an eclectic fusion of Brazilian, jazz, Latin and R&B; tunes from the World Jam Club.

Other performers will juggle, do magic tricks, dance and deliver comedy routines. Bingo the Clown and the puppets of the Blue Sky Puppet Theatre will keep youngsters entertained.

Leesburg will see a similar celebration, with appearances by a such well-known musicians as Grammy-winning country entertainers Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.

Each year in both towns, First Night ends with a Grand Illumination. This tradition is a quieter, more intimate counterpoint to popping fireworks or loud brass bands. Attendees will hold candles and sing traditional tunes like “The Christmas Song” (better known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) and “Auld Lang Syne” as a prelude to the countdown to the new year.

“If you want to spend New Year’s Eve with your family, you don’t want to go someplace where there are people throwing kegs,” Mr. Dunning says.

“What both the Leesburg and the Warrenton projects are known for is real quality performances … It’s got this really wonderful feeling.”

“Of course, we have the biggest and the best,” says Ann Dorman of First Night Alexandria. “There’s no place better than the ‘fun side’ of the Potomac.”

Alexandria’s roster boasts such award-winning performers as world champion fiddler Bonnie Rideout and Grammy-nominated country-Western guitarist Bill Kirchen.

The historic town’s First Night preparations represent a “truly public-private partnership in Alexandria,” Ms. Dorman says. She says finances from the event are provided in approximately equal parts by local private sources and grants from the city.

Like other First Night towns, Alexandria will offer musicians, performers and artists. In addition, this year the festivities will feature an event put on by teenagers from local high schools.

“They actually planned their own venue,” Ms. Dorman says. “They chose where they wanted it to be. They chose what kind of entertainment they wanted.”

The teens organized a youth talent competition, the winner of which will receive a contract to perform for pay at next year’s First Night Alexandria.

At 11 p.m., the countdown to midnight will begin with an a cappella singalong on the steps of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, better known as the Masonic Temple. A group of children will count down to a fireworks display, ensuring that the new year — like all First Night new years — starts off with a bang.

Though events are different and tailored to each area, organizers say one feature will be prominent in every First Night city: community.

“People are really aching for a sense of community,” Mr. Sullivan says.

“One of the things that makes First Night so attractive is the fact that it is an event for everybody. For the purchase of a button, you can go out and mark a moment in time in a positive way.”

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