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Eleven Pipers Plus: Outdoor events are fewer in the revamped First Night, but the grand procession stops for no man.

Prescription: Party

Last year, Santa Cruz's beloved First Night celebration appeared to be so done you could stick a fork in it. But with a lot of clever strategizing, tough love and seriously hard work, organizers brought it back from the dead--just in time to celebrate its 10th year rocking this town's New Year's Eve.

By Mike Connor

For a lot of us who never had a community event like First Night growing up (but for me in particular), New Year's Eve was nothing more than an excuse to stay up late playing Monopoly while Mom got loaded. In high school, we traded Monopoly for a cheap bottle of booze and rolled in the New Year with a bellyful of regret.

If only we'd grown up in Boston.

Because back in 1976 during the Bicentennial New Year's Eve, while the rest of the country was binge drinking and fudging their way through "Auld Lang Syne," Boston organized the very first "First Night" celebration. Rather than focusing on drunken reveling and sentimental lamentations of another year gone by, the city of Boston encouraged its communities to come together around an alcohol-free celebration of the arts. Costumes, dancing, puppet shows for the kids and live music from around the world colored the event. Sound familiar?

Of course it does, because today there are over 100 First Night celebrations around the country, all modeled on the four pillars that guided the original. We could tell you what those pillars are, but then of course we'd have to kill you. But let's just say that we've got it all going on here, thanks to First Night president and founder member Trink Praxel, who saw the event in Boston and brought it to Santa Cruz in the creepy aftermath of the downtown riot on New Year's Eve in 1993.

After eight consecutive years, the cancellation of First Night last year seemed more than a bit strange--like if Santa were to send out a PSA saying that the elves are on strike and, well, there's just not going to be a Christmas this year.

Because it's getting to the point where First Night isn't just something that happens on New Year's Eve in Santa Cruz; it is New Year's Eve. However, unlike the other holiday celebrations, which happen mostly in the privacy of our own homes, First Night is a gigantic community event requiring a huge team of organizers, volunteers and sponsors to make it happen. And last year, during the economic bust and facing major budget shortfalls, former First Night executive director Marc Murai decided to call it quits just three months before the fateful countdown. With little time to regroup and rehire, the First Night board decided to cancel the festivities save for the early evening procession.

But First Night is back this year for its 10-year anniversary, and it's gonna be a big 'un. While preliminary plans called for a sharply scaled-back event, new executive director Blake Smith says that things have snowballed; he expects the event to be at running at nearly 80 percent this year. So far, they've raised over $50,000 for the event--only about half of what was spent during the lavish years. And thanks to a generous City Council, the $30,000 police fee that the event would normally require has been waived, the logic being that the city would end up shelling out the money for beefed up police presence anyway.

"We're financially positioned to bring it back not just this year, but next year, too," says an optimistic Praxel.

Back for Good: Organizers say they've raised enough money this year to ensure that First Night is safe at least throught next year.

Button It

This year there will be plenty to do, but only if you buy the all-access First Night button this time, because they'll be scaling back the free outdoor events more than anything else.

"Button sales have been declining in the last few years," says Smith, "and we felt like we were competing with ourselves by having a lot of free stuff out in the street. The board wanted to make sure people bought buttons--it's a huge part of our income supporting the event."

The problem he's describing is one that most First Nights around the country eventually run into--and, let's face it, there's only so many ways to deal with it. In Santa Cruz, they're trying to keep some of the charm outdoors, hosting a few performances and community art projects in the street, while emphasizing--and maximizing--the indoor experience. Anyone who's fought the lines to get into the more popular events will be happy to know that the organizers have taken a step to shorten the long waits. As of 5pm at the ticket booth, each button holder can reserve five advance tickets for their three favorite performances, guaranteeing them seats and, hopefully, shorter lines.

Of course, everybody's invited to the outdoor Grand Procession at 5:30pm, as well as the midnight finale at 11:45pm at the Town Clock--two events that have become the foundation of the New Year's Eve experience in Santa Cruz over the last 10 years.

In fact, in a weird parallel to the circular nature of the calendar that we celebrate every New Year's Eve, this year's First Night is going to look a lot like the first one 10 years ago.

"The first year we did it," recalls Praxel, "we started with about 17 venues, we had a small stage by the Town Clock, and we had pretty much the same structure, with afternoon performances primarily for the kids and then evening performances ending with the gathering at the town clock. We sold 9,000 buttons that first year; we were pretty amazed."

Praxel says the event grew for the next four years, riding the wave of an exciting new event that had something to offer to more than just the town drunks (most of us are really nice people, once you get to know us). Community television broadcast one of its first programs during the first First Night, and covered it consistently thereafter, inciting viewers to come check out this new event.

We Are Not Alone: Not even the threat of invasion from cute but no doubt deadly aliens such as these can keep First Night down for another year.

But then the four-year plateau hit. Eerily enough, this snag had been predicted by First Night International, an organization that grew out of the original First Night Boston and helps cities around the world organize their own New Year's Eve celebrations.

"We hit our five-year mark just around the time of the millennium," recalls Praxel. "At the time, there was a lot of concern about terrorism. We saw a drop in button sales during that period as people were concerned about going out."

It was tough luck for first-time executive director Murai, who not only had to dress up like a clown for Cirque du Santa Cruz two years ago, but also took the helm as the economy was grinding to a halt in the wake of the very real Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even the cheery pony brigade--undoubtedly one of the coolest community art projects this town has ever seen--couldn't buoy dampened spirits.

"It got to its lowest point two years ago," says Praxel. "It rained a week solid before the event, and everyone assumed it would also rain on New Year's Eve. The day of the event turned out to be a wonderful day--we sold more buttons that day than we ever have in any one single day before, but it wasn't enough to make up for the lost sales. We were down to where we were the first year."

But if that was the lowest point, it's only because they're not counting last year's disaster.

"Marc Murai resigned in September of 2002, so the board didn't feel like they had enough time to fundraise and hire a new ED to put the event together," says Smith. "It was really a sign of the times; the economic bubble burst and the board felt like it was a really challenging environment to raise the funds. And we're talking about raising a hundred thousand dollars."

Sidewalk Talk: Community scribbling makes a return this year with the 'Hollywood Chalk of Fame.'

The Making of 'Movie Magic'

This past April, the board organized a phone-a-thon and raised $10,000 toward a new director's salary. It was enough to get Smith started, but let's just say he had to hit the ground running to raise the necessary funds.

At well over 6 robust feet tall, Smith's size might be imposing, if not for his baby face and gregarious, accommodating character. Originally from Los Altos, Smith has spent the last five years working with a company that organizes bike trips around the world. Having led hundreds of bike trips from here to Tuscany while accruing a wealth of marketing experience along the way, Smith has developed that rare quality of shrewd tactfulness that makes everyone feel like they're on the winning team.

With only one half-time administrative assistant and two UCSC interns in the office, Smith leans heavily on the hundreds of volunteers who make this event possible, as well as on the expertise of Praxel, Marty Ackerman and the rest of the Board, and a strong paper trail that shows how things were done in years past.

Amazingly, Smith and his team have already hit their fundraising goals. They've secured their permits and planned the event down to the last detail, from reserving the venues and booking the acts to making sure there are plenty of porta-potties. Now it's time to deliver the show they've promised for us.

"There's a lot of green between here and there," says Smith, resorting to golf metaphors and chuckling at himself for it. "Even though we're just two weeks away, I feel like there's a mountain between here and New Year's Eve."

"Movie Magic" is the theme this year, manifesting itself in the form of movie star look-alikes, mock paparazzi and a bunch of movie-related games and activities. ImageSnap! will dress you up and take a digital picture of you and your Oscar™. At the corner of Cooper and Pacific, artist Terry Grove will help you create your own star at the Hollywood "Chalk" of Fame. At the Del Mar, Ross Gibson will present an historic overview of films made in Santa Cruz, as well as films made by Santa Cruzans. Speaking of which, the Vets Hall will be hosting a Youth Film Festival, showcasing young local filmmakers who've created short and full-length movies.

Community Television will also celebrate its 10-year anniversary with a live broadcast from 6 to 8pm, featuring Bruce Bratton and Community TV director Geoff Dunn discussing (with an array of special guests) what's happened to Santa Cruz within the last 10 years, and what might become of it the next 10.

For the firebugs out there, show up at the Pit at the north end of Pacific Avenue, where you can light a candle for the giant Mandala. Then stick around for the grand finale, which has been taken on by the city of Santa Cruz this year.

"It's going to be very similar to last year's event, but probably with a lot more people," Smith says. "In the past, they've boarded up the fountain and put the DJ on top of it--that was before the big stage and the lasers that burned everyone's eyes. This year we're helping them; there's going to be DJ music from 11:30 to 12:15am, and a countdown and surprise at midnight."

We could go ahead and tell you what the surprise is, but again, we'd have to kill you. Please, save us the trouble and just find out for yourselves.

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From the December 24-31, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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