by Leah Sottile

The planners of First Night Spokane knew in 2001 that most city residents had New Year's visions of frothy champagne and dancing until the ball dropped.

While the imagery is nice, drinking and dancing on New Year's Eve often means finding adolescents willing to sacrifice their New Year's bubbly to baby-sit the kids at home -- too young to go to parties, or too old to want to tag along with Mom and Dad all night. Conversely, Mom and Dad run the risk of imbibing too much at their destination and getting pulled over on the way home. Not a great way for anyone to start the New Year.

Enter First Night: a non-alcoholic New Year's Eve festival celebrated by cities around the globe that caters to every age group and at affordable prices.

Global Unity -- Carrie O'Donnell, 39, says that First Night was a way for her husband and her two daughters to celebrate the New Year without having to worry about safety, alcohol or finding a baby sitter.

"We usually never did anything. We just watched the ball go down," she says. "When First Night started, it was literally the first time we'd ever done anything on New Year's Eve."

Realizing that most families in Spokane spent the New Year's holiday like the O'Donnell family, Chris Martin knew that bringing First Night here was exactly what people were looking for.

"In this country, New Year's means having wild, drunken parties. That's a turn-off for some people," says Martin, now the Executive Director of First Night Spokane. "I think that Spokane responds to community events very well, with Hoopfest and Bloomsday. I think Spokane's been looking for a holiday festival."

Spokane's First Night celebration is one of three in Washington, and joins cities from San Diego, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Syracuse, N.Y., to Toronto, Whistler, British Columbia, and Auckland, Australia.

First Night International is guided by four pillars: celebration, the New Year, the arts and community. Each participating city is expected to plan its own First Night festivities with those same criteria in mind.

Perhaps the most essential element to a successful First Night is the creation of a safe community -- something that the International organization thinks most cities have lost sight of. In the middle of the night, people can unite through creativity -- like helping to paint a community mural -- while reclaiming their city.

The idea of First Night originated in Boston in 1976. Civic-minded Boston artists wanted to provide a meaningful alternative to the traditional New Year's hoopla for the city's Bicentennial celebration. Soon, many Bostonians were abandoning the funny hats and cocktails to expand their knowledge of the local arts while celebrating the dawning of a new year. It was something that everyone could celebrate despite their differences.

"I honestly believe that New Year's Eve is a significant time for everyone, whether you celebrate it or not," Martin says. "We're celebrating time."

The Arts and Artists -- Like families, figuring out what to do on New Year's Eve can be tough on artists, too. Getting a gig at a bar is competitive for musicians, and the holiday is rarely a day when visual artists can find an audience to view their talents.

First Night allows city artists to take the spotlight at the event. Throughout the night, performing artists provide the public with non-stop concerts, comedy routines and dance numbers. Visual artists compose everything from city murals to ice sculptures -- sometimes with help from the public. Spokane, for one, has 100 performing artists and 50 visual artists for this year's festivities.

Martin says that finding acts to book for First Night isn't difficult.

"We're not trying to compete with bars on New Year's Eve," he says, noting that First Night provides a venue for artists that don't usually perform on the holiday.

What First Night can do is provide a much larger audience than many local artists usually see, and an exposure to a much broader range of ages and tastes.

"We can provide an opportunity for (artists) to perform for the perfect audience. They'll have some of the largest numbers they'll ever play to, and they can bring their kids, too," Martin says.

For 10 Minutes Down, a local punk band, First Night Spokane is a show that the band plans on playing every year.

"We always say that we like to play in front of more people than make $500," says Mike Renes, lead singer for the band.

Renes says that after 10 Minutes Down landed a spot at Spokane's First Night 2001, the band has been able to see just how loyal Spokane listeners are to the local music scene. The band is lined up to perform this year during the 11th Hour Teen Festival.

"It's a better crowd for us -- we're not really a bar band," Renes says. "[First Night has] been a wonderful opportunity to expand [our] range of audience numbers."

First Night tries to book artists who will cater to the broad tastes of all age groups. This year, Spokane participants can listen to a jazz group or a country band, watch the Highland Dancers or laugh at a puppet show.

O'Donnell, for example, says her daughters will go to the teen festival this year with a friend while she and her husband watch ComedySportz across town. She says that there's no other New Year's event where she can feel comfortable doing that.

Bigger and Better -- Now with two years under their belts, First Night Spokane coordinators were able to make this year's event bigger and better than the previous two events.

The group has set up a Web site ( which allows surfers to see the entire First Night schedule, along with artists' profiles. First Nighters can then single out which events they'll attend before the big night begins.

Martin says the committee hopes to set up Web cams throughout the venues and the Spokane streets so people who stayed at home for First Night can view events on the Web.

An event unique to Spokane's New Year's celebration is First Day, a set of activities debuting this year on New Year's Day. The event encourages First Night participants to say out late on the big evening, sleep overnight at a nearby hotel and spend the first day of the new year in downtown Spokane. There will be discounted prices for button holders at River Front Park, the downtown YMCA and the IMAX Theater, among other places. Last year, First Night contributed $850,000 to downtown Spokane -- and Martin expects that number will increase this year with the added First Day activities.

Martin says that Spokane is taking First Night to a whole new level with this year's new, cutting-edge ideas -- but the focus is still the same as always.

"First Nights are done all over the country," he says. "From the Symphony to Elvis impersonators, there's something for everybody. We're giving people the opportunity to [attend] the Symphony who might not ever go -- and Symphony supporters can see a heavy metal band."

First Night Spokane runs at a variety of venues around downtown Spokane, starting at 6 pm on Dec. 31. Buttons that get you into any venue or show are $10 (10 and under are free) can be purchased at Tomlinson Black offices, all Rosauers, River Park Square or by calling 325-SEAT. For details on events, schedules and parking, check out the official First Night Program at the center of this newspaper. Or check their Web site,

Publication date: 12/25/03

MAC's Ho-ho-holiday Celebration @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Saturdays, 4-6 p.m. Continues through Dec. 26
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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...