Annapolis welcomes 'First Night' in family fashion

January 01, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Four-year-old Brittany Jordan celebrated New Year's Eve with her parents and 1-year-old sister, Michelle, listening to the story of John Henry, the steel drivin' man.

Her parents, Alfred and Alison Jordan, declined a black-tie evening in Washington to spend at least part of the night with their kids and John Henry, but they didn't seem to mind a bit. It was the first time the family had found a way to welcome the new year together.

"It reminded us of going to Williamsburg [in Virginia] around this time of year," Mrs. Jordan said. "Our orientation is different now that we have a family, and this seemed a nice idea."

On a night with a reputation for debauchery and excess, New Year's Eve earned a G-rating in Maryland's capital last night as the city was visited by an event called First Night Annapolis.

Elsewhere in the state, people greeted 1991 in bars and restaurants, in bowling alleys and churches and in the homes of friends and relatives.

Throngs gathered in Baltimore for a midnight laser show and fireworks at the Inner Harbor -- the culmination of an alcohol-free party at the Convention Center.

At the State House Rotunda in Annapolis, a storyteller, a mime and a magician performed for a packedaudience of children and adults looking for an alternative to champagne and noisemakers. The overflow crowd of 300 at that particular event forced State House security guards to bar visitors at the door.

"I've never liked New Year's much -- it's for drinking," said Melissa McNitt, an Annapolitan who watched First Night performances with her 2-year-old son, Evan, and husband, Jim. "It's nice to have an alternative."

Substituting apple cider for alcohol and the performing arts for drunken revelry is the notion behind First Night Annapolis, organizers said.

The eight-hour celebration, the first of its kind in Maryland, was patterned after a 15-year-old tradition in Boston. At least 55 other communities nationwide have successfully copied First Night Boston, said Elizabeth Welch of Annapolis.

Mrs. Welch and Lana Nelson, First Night's executive directors, said they started organizing the event almost a year ago. Special event planners by trade, the duo signed up a host of sponsors -- ranging from the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drugs to First National Bank of Maryland -- to help finance the venture, bTC and organized an army of at least 150 volunteers to staff it.

"The thing has just caught fire," said Mrs. Welch, who expected between 7,000 to 10,000 people to pay the $8 admission fee by evening's end. "We have the perfect setting in Annapolis, and this city has always been predisposed to the arts."

The 24 acts ranged from the conventional -- folk singers, solo and group, were well-represented -- to the unique: The state's official African folklorist spun tales, and a Cajun music band hauled out the fiddle, squeeze box and rub-board.

Spread throughout the city's historic district, an area of perhaps a dozen blocks, revelers could ride the free trolley or simply walk to any of 80 performances. They gained admittance by flashing a button with the pink, white and black First Night logo.

The scattered venues of performances, including several Colonial-era homes and government buildings, proved to be half the fun. Where else can you hear a guitarist croon, "Roll on you muddy old Tennessee River" before a Circuit Court judge's bench or watch a one-man band play the bones in Maryland National Bank's lobby?

"This is kind of a new experience," said Bob Devlin, who performed on a stage yards away from the teller cages. "I was kind of hoping they'd put me in the vault."

Couples in tuxedos and formal attire mixed easily with those in flannel shirts and duck shoes. Almost every performance site was packed despite the cold weather.

"It's a neat experience to go hopping from one place to the next, knowing you're safe and can go out and see the town," said Janis Zachman of Annapolis, escorting her 3-year-old son, Nicholas.

Alcohol was banned from all events, but "First Bite" stands hawked cookies and hot chocolate and cappuccino to help ward off the cold. In a demonstration of considerable merchandising confidence for a first-time event, they also sold First Night sweat shirts and First Night T-shirts.

"New Year's is getting away from being a drunken brawl," said Al Boswell of Annapolis, a First Night volunteer.

Among the non-traditional events, six members of The Next Ice Age, a Baltimore-based artistic ensemble skating group, glided, jumped and spun across an ice rink in the U.S. Naval Academy's Dahlgren Hall for four performances.

The skaters did not wear period Victorian costumes, as billed in First Night's 13-page program, because the zippers tore on the fragile outfits during a rehearsal, explained Nathan Birch, the group's artistic director and a professional figure skating instructor.

"I think this is so smart," said Mr. Birch, a Boston native who attended the first First Night in 1976. "Art can be found in so many places if people are willing to look for it."

Organizers said the event had strong support from the city's downtown business owners. While some merchants may have been concerned that First Night would lure paying customers out of their restaurants and bars, there was little evidence of that last night.

At the Maryland Inn on Church Circle, the hostess for the Treaty of Paris restaurant said New Year's Eve dinner reservations were booked solid a week ago.

Nevertheless, "Not all merchants are body counters," said Paul Pearson, general partner of Historic Inns of Annapolis. "This event is just perfect for Annapolis, and Annapolis is just perfect for it."

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