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First Night Spokane 

by Sheri Boggs

Who can forget the dazzling televised spectacle of Dec. 31, 1999? Vast crowds of celebrants, from the toasty and tanned Australians to the happily freezing New Yorkers, welcomed the New Year as it rolled from time zone to time zone, bouncing from city to city. Remember catching some of it on TV -- wherever you were -- and feeling just a tiny bit giddy as the graphics showed the earth turning and the New Year rapidly approaching the Inland Northwest? Of course you do. That kind of once-in-a-lifetime excitement is exactly what's in store this New Year's Eve right here in Spokane when the first ever First Night Spokane takes place in the heart of downtown.

First Night got its start in Boston in 1976. "Their downtown was like a war zone at that time," says Kay Lester, chair of First Night Spokane. "First Night was started by a group of civic-minded individuals to bring some quality activities into the downtown area by featuring arts and cultural activities. It was a huge success, and it's really grown since then."

It's grown, indeed. First Night is now an official organization with celebrations in more than 200 cities in the U.S. as well as a handful abroad. First Nights in Missoula, Toledo and Tacoma provided the inspiration and impetus (along with plenty of help along the way) for Spokane's inaugural First Night gala.

"I attended my first First Night in Tacoma, and I got a sense of what a wonderful thing this was for that city," says Jeanne McGregor, co-chair of First Night Spokane and one of the founders of The Inlander. "As I watched the great procession, the giant puppets, the kids in costume and all the street musicians I could feel that excitement and I got a real sense of this being a smorgasbord of entertainment, and all for the cost of a button you wear on your coat. I wanted to do everything I could to help make this a reality for Spokane."

A quick glance at the program grid for First Night confirms that this is a major metropolitan event. An afternoon and evening of events for kids and adults -- including theater, comedy, live music, visual arts and even a parade (more than 50 events in all) -- culminates in midnight fireworks in Riverfront Park. The event is no-alcohol and for all ages. In addition to the fireworks display at midnight, festival watchers can stay warm around the First Night bonfire. It's an important factor considering the unpredictable (but usually cold) New Year's Eve weather, but First Night planners remain confident that folks will have a good time no matter where the mercury stands.

"A lot of northern climate cities take part in First Night, and they have outdoor activities just like we will," says Lester. "There's been some concern about the weather, but I think having some of the evening outdoors adds an important element."

If there's any one guiding principle or ideal for First Night Spokane, it's to imbue the evening with an air of magic.

"From 4-6 pm, we'll have the Magic Room open upstairs from Art at Work," explains George Lathrop, head of operations for First Night Spokane. "Kids can come in, and we'll have wizards, witches and sorcerers on hand to show them how to make their own magic wands. We'll be outfitting all the magicians in training. Then we'll all meet down in the street by the Children's Museum. All First Night cities have a procession of some sort, and ours is the Procession of Magical Beings."

Among the magical beings are various dancers, jugglers, banner carriers, drummers and enormous puppets. Unlike a parade, bystanders are encouraged to become a part of the festivities.

"Some people might try to stand on the sidelines and just watch, but you never know when a giant puppet might come up and ruffle your hair," says Lathrop.

At 6 pm, the procession will wind its way three blocks over to Riverfront Park, where local boy scouts will have set up a bonfire. At this point, the assembled young wizards will surround the bonfire and help light it, "by magic."

"People don't need to worry about it being like that one at Texas A & amp;M that got out of control," says Lathrop. "This one is going to be a bit more manageable." Adding to the magic in the park will be an ice castle under construction, a fire-breathing copperplate dragon and live glass-blowing demonstrations.

Downtown arts venues will be staying open to host live music, offer visual arts experiences and provide small harbors of warmth and activity throughout the night. Many galleries will also have live music and activities for all ages, ensuring that this night, there really will be something for everyone.

Lester and McGregor point out that an event of this nature comes together through lots of hard work, cooperation and experience. Various community leaders helped in the planning and execution of First Night, including George Lathrop, Larry Schoonover, Denise Bowles, Marty Johnson, Teresa Kafentzis, Chris Martin, Sheri Barnard, Jack Phillips, John Hancock, Martin Phillips, Stephanie Lindsey, June Mather, Don Jamieson and Ed Simpson.

"The city was enormously helpful as well," Lester adds. "The transit system is extending its service to 12:30 so that people can enjoy the fireworks. A lot of the parking lots are cutting down the cost of parking for the evening so people will be able to come downtown. It's just a wonderful thing to have so many groups working together to make sure everyone has a good time."

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