'First Night' Could Be The Start Of An Annapolis Tradition


December 28, 1990|By Candy Thomson

Many people can recollect a New Year's Eve or two when they could no longer feel their feet. That's if they can remember anything at all.

My favorite memory also involves sensory deprivation of the lowest extremities. It was New Year's Eve 1985, a street corner in Portland, Me.

The air was clean and cold, almost brittle. The snow crackled under your feet like cellophane. Your breath ballooned in front of you and turned the night sky white. Your fingers and toes ached, then went numb.

A bunch of us had driven two hours to get to this street corner, where we joined several hundred other people. We waited a spell, stomping up and down, flapping our arms.

Then four middle-aged men stepped outside, conferred briefly and began to sing a cappella. They did classic doo-wop, remade rock hits in their own style and shouted the gospel.

We grinned, sang along, danced, begged for requests. And pretty soon it wasn't cold anymore.

That was First Night Portland.

* Monday is not really First Night Annapolis, truth be told, but who would go to an event billed as "Last Night Annapolis?" Probably the same kind of people who bought up last year's calendars hoping to make a killing if 1989 ever rolls around again.

Semantics aside, if Monday's event sticks to the script of the other celebrations bearing the same name, Annapolis' inaugural shebang should be worth the price of admission, which, by the way, is $8.

First Night Annapolis is modeled after Boston's 15-year-old party, a celebration dedicated to dispelling the myth that laconic Yankees don't know how to do anything in the winter but feed the wood stove and bemoan the fate of the Red Sox.

Every year, on the last night of the year, thousands of New Englanders tramp around the streets of Back Bay Boston and historic areas in sub-freezing temperatures. For what?

Perhaps it's to experience the joy of dancing in the aisles of 200-year-old Fanueil Hall, to the strains of Jewish folk tunes. Or maybe it's to join the throng of just-plain folks who get drawn in to the New Year's Eve parade down Boylston Street in a bizarre takeoff on the "Music Man," no apologies needed to Robert Preston. Or to marvel at the glistening ice sculptures, the jugglers, the mimes and the other street performers, wrap their hands around a paper cup of steaming hot chocolate and wait for the midnight fireworks.

Whatever the reason, the idea was so popular that it was copied by Portland and Providence, R.I. and Concord, N.H., to name a few. All follow a simple rule of thumb: provide something for everyone.

The Annapolis organizers have followed that rule, booking everything from face-painters to folks artists, magicians to medieval musicians, and ending with the obligatory First Night fireworks at midnight.

If luck and the weather cooperate, the evening event should be the first of many.

* Keeping it a family celebration is the secret to success. Talk to veteran organizers of First Night celebrations and the police, and sooner or later they'll tell you about how well-behaved the crowd is.

That's something downtown Annapolis neighbors are counting on.

John Prehn, president of the Ward One Residents Association, a group that has long battled the New Year's Eve madding crowd, said members favor First Night.

Prehn's group met with the organizers of First Night, and came away feeling the event might make the city a quieter place than it's been in previous years.

"We came away feeling very positive," Prehn said. "I think it will have a dampening effect on rowdiness downtown."

* If the Annapolis organizers are lucky, they may get a visit from the national media. It happened in Concord, N.H., at that capital city's inaugural First Night.

One of the people to arrive in Concord that day had traveled all the way from New York City, seeking a respite from his troubles.

Bernard Goetz was on the lam after shooting several teens in a subway.

He got to Concord just as the party was getting cranked up. Bernie turned himself in to the local police and turned the national media upside down New Year's Eve 1984, as reporters scrambled from New York to New Hampshire.

The press biggies arrived to find the streets around the police station, right behind the State House, jammed with bundled-up New Englanders, out for a First Night on the town.

A reporter for one of the New York tabloids assumed the locals had nothing better to do on New Year's Eve than mill around in the cold, hoping for a glimpse of a well-known, big-city fugitive. Next day, 1.5 million copies of that New York paper told its readers about those curious Yankees.

By Jesus, they were so happy for something to do, they even shot off fireworks at midnight.

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