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First Class

Artists of every description
make First Night No. 1

By Gretchen Giles

ONE WEEK AFTER the last bit of confetti had been swept away, after the last reveler had gone home, after the last laser ray had dimmed, the organizers of last year's First Night New Year's Eve arts celebration gathered together once again. Sure, they congratulated themselves on a job well done (an expected 10,000 person attendance had swelled to some 30,000 people filling the streets of downtown Santa Rosa) and they discussed the few problems that the event endured--primarily the presence of fewer food venders than it takes to feed a pony.

And then they started to work on this year's event.

Because while it may take a village to raise a child, a neighborhood to raise a barn, and a carpenter to raise high the roof, it takes at least 51 weeks to raise up the furious wonder that is First Night.

Conceived in Boston in 1976 as an alternative to the usual alcohol bath that most Americans wallow in as the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" drift away, First Night is not only drug- and alcohol-free; it is also a celebration of working artists exhibiting in almost every area of the arts, and every one of those artists gets paid. Now there's an innovative concept.

This innovation extends to a widening of vision for the second First Night, with the artist roster raised from last year's 130 performers to well-nigh 200 this Eve. While a paltry eight food venders tried to satiate the needs of the horde last year, there will be 32 this year, seating at indoor venues is expanding to accommodate 3,500 fannies at a time, and there are 46 venues slated to surprise and delight, up from last year's count of 30. The event's area--termed a "footprint" by First Night organizers--has enlarged as well, stretching the boundaries of Railroad Square and the downtown area to extend up to Sonoma Avenue on Mendocino Avenue, bounded by E Street to the east.

First Night chief organizer Ellen Draper notes that other changes include a simultaneous midnight countdown in four separate areas--rather than trying to pack a crowd that might swell to 60,000 this year into one large squish--with fireworks to mark the new year's start. "We realized that there was no way to safely accommodate everyone," says Draper, who still finds herself amazed at the success of this event.

"We're preparing for 40,000 people, and we should be OK up to 50,000 or 55,000," she says. "If we hit 60,000, we'll be spread thin like last year." Based on crowd swells at the other First Night events throughout the country, Draper estimates that by the time we ring in the millennium, up to 100,000 people could gather downtown to celebrate. "I find that extremely exciting," she understates.

But none of this excitement would be generated if it weren't for the hardworking folks singing under lamplights, making impromptu stages in real estate offices, or twanging their instruments near city hall. The artists, after all, are the draw. Otherwise, you could just throw in some lettuce and call it a farmers market.

WE'RE PROMPTED to do it by the success of last year," says California Museum of Art director Gay Shelton. Shelton, whose organization did not participate in First Night's inauguration, plans to parade an original mural by artist Samuel Fleming Lewis through the streets of the city. Lewis, who is noted for his strikingly original designs based on African masks, is painting the mural expressly for this event, which includes a final planting in Railroad Square with storyteller Georgia Churchill leading fellow fanatics in street theater based upon Lewis' images.

Artist Karen Wagner is returning for the second time to prompt revelers to post their resolutions for the new year. Having created a 12-foot-high tower painted with images of rebirth and of life indigenous to the county, Wagner encourages people to write their resolutions on origami paper that can be coaxed into bird shapes to be hung on gold ribbon from the tower. "It's kind of like a clothesline," she jokes. Wagner will also paint up last year's resolutions so that returning event-goers can check their progress against last year's rash decisions. "There's everything from 'I won't hit my brother anymore' to 'I hope that my sister gets over her cancer,'" says Wagner. "And of course, lots of resolutions to lose weight."

Ben Creed is among the young performers scheduled to fill the streets. An accomplished accordionist, 10-year-old Creed just returned from squeezing his box for the folks at Oscar Mayer, and that's no baloney. This Piner Elementary School fifth grader was plucked from an estimated 65,000 kids auditioning nationwide to sing the inimitable "My bologna has a first name" ditty for a commercial to be aired during the upcoming Superbowl. Narrowly edged out of the ad's starring role by a professional 3-year-old cutie, Creed--the first runner up--could probably be coaxed to sing for his supper with this tune at First Night. "As long as he's the center of attention, he's just fine," says his proud papa.

Architect Jerry Wagner plans to reel out his ambitious "On the Wall" video project, developed in part with the kids at Elsie Allen High School. "This is not TV; this is a video environment," explains Wagner of his proposal to throw large-as-life images on the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre's parking lot wall and encourage passersby to play with the shadows and light as they see fit. "This kind of thing fits in exactly with what First Night is all about," says Wagner. "It's a big party that gets students to participate and has viewers not be consumers of the event, but participants in the event."

Of course, juggler Mark Bennell will be there with his Carnival of Chaos, featuring the obligatory spectacle in which he fire-juggles while perched atop a seven-foot-high unicycle; and puppeteer Roger Mara will personally perform his infamous rendition of the Mousecracker, with a 24-member fabric cast. Richard Crenshaw--aka Martini the Clown--will be painting miniature portraits on the willing cheeks of the so-inclined, having first strolled down to last year's event because he had nothing better to do and having volunteered his impromptu services. (Organizers are obliged to pay each artist, so Crenshaw's volition earned him a small chunk o'.)

As for the spoken word, count on Tonia Taylor and her Poetry to Go stand. Simply provide Taylor with five to 10 words, stand back for a few minutes, and then receive a bit of her wit. Challenged with the terms "tunafish sandwich," "morning reeds," and "bedtime books" (we were hungry and sleepy), Taylor returned with this gem: "The freedom of a tunafish sandwich/ In its unpretension and/ Self-sufficiency,/ Breathes into my noonday/ Uncommon valor of/ Morning reeds./ Soul survival given me/ In bedtime books/ I am fed."

The term "street party" of itself denotes music, and First Night is lousy with tunes, featuring everyone from young blueser Eric Lindell and punkers Siren and the rasta Dubalites to the elegant Diane Swann, from the Santa Rosa Symphonic Chorus to the self-described "warm and cuddly" music of the Junior Anti-Sex League and its self-described "warm and cuddly" . The Sapphire Percussion Ensemble will beat the skins, ending with what musician Yona Fleming asserts is just the usual. The group will hand out instruments to those inclined, forming a drum circle. "Sometimes wonderful music happens," says Fleming. "It just builds and everyone has an equal voice."

Trombonist Ken Winett of the Blue Moon Dance Band has to scoot after First Night to ring the new year in at the Sonoma Mission Inn, but is looking forward to adding some brass to the evening. "We're known as a party band," he says, "and this is the biggest party of all."

First Night begins at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 31, and continues until 12:30 a.m. Participants are encouraged to come costumed.Free parking is available at the Santa Rosa Plaza. First Night buttons are mandatory for admission to all indoor venues: $5 before the event; $10 day of. 579-ARTS.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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