by Ann M. Colford

Spokane's newest super-sized community event, First Night, kicks off its sophomore effort next Tuesday -- when else? -- New Year's Eve. Nearly 15,000 people turned out for the inaugural party last year, and since then, the volunteers behind First Night Spokane have been hard at work planning for this year's event. With more venues (41), more performers (72 acts), and more visual artists (35) this year, First Night Spokane 2002 (or 2003, depending on how you look at it) promises to turn downtown into a carnival of color and creativity

Like any new event, First Night was not without a few glitches last year, but the volunteer organizers have listened to the comments and done what they could to address the issues raised. Board President Teresa Kafentzis says comments about and criticisms of last year's debut event fell into three areas.

"The three main comments we got were that there were not enough restaurants open, that the kids' activities didn't last long enough and that we had nothing for the high school and college crowd," she says. "So we've made changes to address all three of those problems for this year."

Local restaurants adjusted their schedules for the night, the children's festival expanded and a whole new venue geared to the rock and hip-hop audience came on board. With so many choices, it's a good idea to plan ahead. The First Night program contains all of the details, but here are some of the highlights.

Food, Glorious Food -- To ease the revelers' hunger, more than 40 downtown restaurants will remain open throughout the evening, with many hanging on through midnight and even beyond. The vendors of the Crescent Court Food Court will have quick meals available, and other Spokane area eateries will participate in an outdoor food court near the Main Stage in front of River Park Square. Espresso drinks will be available at several locations to warm both hands and hearts.

Kids' Stuff -- The Children's Festival, scheduled from 3-5:45 pm, moves to the Convention Center this year, allowing for more room and more activities. Three stages of music, magic and movement will keep the atmosphere lively, while kids and kids-at-heart enjoy a variety of fun, creative activities. Spokane's drum-meister, Michael Moon Bear, will be at the Convention Center for a drum-making workshop from 4:35-5 pm and then will help lead the procession down to the Main Stage area for the opening ceremonies.

"We're going to make drums out of plastic water jugs," he explains. "I've got a whole bunch of reflective tape, like you see on highway signs, and we'll cut it into suns and moons and other shapes to decorate the drums. Then, we'll put straps on them to carry them in the procession. Once the drums are made, I'll give [the kids] a rhythm pattern to play, so we can all drum together as we march."

Moon Bear has done drum-making workshops in area schools before, and he says children are drawn to drumming. "It's a great thing to do with kids," he says. "Everybody like to play the drums, and kids are especially good at it."

Perhaps it's the joy of being encouraged to make noise for once. Whatever the reason, says Moon Bear, "It's a party for everyone. Plus, the kids get to take a drum home when it's all over."

After the procession, the Children's Museum will remain open for all manner of fun. And of course children are welcome at all venues throughout the evening.

Grand Procession & amp; Opening Ceremonies -- The full festivities get underway at 6 pm with the procession from the Convention Center to the Main Stage area at Main and Post Streets. The theme this year is "It's About Time," and children will lead the way with the drums, masks and clock faces that they made in the afternoon.

"We'll have giant puppets in the procession, too," says Chris Martin, event chairman. "It's meant to be a Mardi Gras-type of procession, with everyone joining in. Whether you're wearing a parka or dressed up like a giant lizard, there's a place for you in the procession."

The Main Stage will be the scene for the opening ceremonies, featuring Cirque de Flamb & eacute;, a group from Seattle billed as the world's only vaudeville fire circus. Local artists and performers such as 10 Minutes Down will join in as well. Cirque de Flambe returns to the Main Stage at 8:30 to premiere their newest fireworks performance as something of an early finale for those who prefer to mark midnight at Eastern Time.

"The Edge" -- After the youngsters clear out of the Convention Center, the spaces will be transformed into "The Edge," a live music and dance party inspired by a group of local high school and college students. "We're partnering with radio stations The Peak (105.7 FM) and Wild 103.9 for this event," Kafentzis says. "The Peak will emcee the six live bands in one area, while Wild 103.9 hosts a Wild dance party with a DJ spinning vinyl in another area."

Headliners for the live band event are local favorites 10 Minutes Down, who just celebrated the band's fifth birthday with a sold-out show at the COG on the GU campus. These guys from Spokane have been touring more than they've been at home, so this is a rare chance to see them on their home turf. The band was a last-minute addition to last year's debut First Night event, but the experience made them want to come back.

"Our primary focus has always been the all-ages crowd, because they're there to hear the music," says Kyle Bradshaw, the band's bassist. "First Night is a good fit for us -- all of our music is all-ages-friendly."

Their set will wrap up the live band performances at about 11:45 pm, right before the fireworks in Riverfront Park, Bradshaw says. "Yeah, we're going to get them all revved up and warmed up just in time to out and freeze their tushes off."

Visual Arts -- Dozens of area artists plan to offer demonstrations of their work at sites all over downtown, and there will even be the chance for some participation. Among the more unusual offerings is the Raku Race, a timed event where up to a dozen raku pottery artists will do the final firing of a pot within three hours, with judging of the final products by noted local artist Harold Balazs. Denny Young is coordinating the event, which takes place in Riverfront Park and the Alley Art Area.

"The neat thing about raku is that it's probably the only participatory activity in pottery," he deadpans. "I like to play to an audience. And you don't usually see artists' output in the form of a race. In fact, I think we may be inventing it, right here."

In raku, the final firing of a glazed pot is done in a kiln at temperatures reaching 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. At the peak of firing, the potter removes the red-hot pot from the kiln using long tongs and drops it into a trash can filled with sawdust, then immediately covers the can. The combustion of material in the oxygen-starved interior of the can produces amazing and often unpredictable results in the finished glaze. The process also makes a stunning visual spectacle, especially on a cold, dark night.

Music -- With so many performers taking part, there's bound to be a musical offering to please just about anyone in the crowd. Classical fans may choose from Allegro and the Westminster Chamber Orchestra in the Bank of America buildings, and the Spokane Symphony at STA Plaza, while jazz and swing fans have the Spokane Jazz Orchestra in the Ridpath Empire Ballroom and the Tuxedo Junction Big Band at the Masonic Ballroom. Several duos and solo performers offer more mellow fare, while Coeurimba, Moko Jumbie and the Celtic Nots (with the Haran Irish Dancers) bring the sounds of the world back home. And there's always the six local rock bands at the Convention Center.

Dance -- First Night is not just a spectator event; participation in the creative festivity is a key part of the experience. That holds true for several dance opportunities during the evening. Ballroom dancing to the sounds of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra will be encouraged at the Ridpath, while the Spokane Scottish Country Dancers will invite the audience to join in on some numbers.

The Spokane Folklore Society has been holding New Year's Eve contra dances for many years now, so it was only natural that the group would join in with the First Night family.

"We're a non-smoking, non-drinking event, so we fit right in with First Night," says Folklore Society member Mary Naber. "It's definitely family-friendly."

This year's dance takes place from 9-11:30 pm at the Odd Girls' Hall with caller Ray Polhemus and music by Out of the Wood. Even if you're not sure what a contra dance is -- it's a form of traditional dance where the dancers face each other in lines and follow the directions of a caller, by the way -- or you haven't taken part in one before, the group encourages you to give it a try.

"All of the dances are called and taught," says Naber. "We're definitely going to focus on newcomers. We're encouraging our experienced dancers to come, so they'll be able to help show people what to do."

Individual dancers are welcome as well as couples, she says -- there's a tradition of asking different people to dance each time, so the atmosphere is both welcoming and safe. And if your bones are chilled from standing out in the cold, a couple of turns around the dance floor will warm you right up.

Theater -- It's tough to squeeze a theatrical production into the available time slots of First Night, but some local actors are up to the challenge. The Small Actors troupe plans highly abbreviated versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with one as short as one minute. And improvisation -- along with audience participation -- is the name of the game for Low Commitment Theatre, Comedy Sportz and the Blue Door Theatre.

Finally, Fireworks -- Of course, the entire evening culminates in a spectacular display of fireworks at midnight in Riverfront Park. The final performances at the venues will wrap up by 11:45, allowing everyone time to convene in the park for the countdown. And after midnight, there's a whole new year of revels ahead for Spokane.

Our Legacy: Our Voice, Our Action, Our Power

Thu., Sept. 24, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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