Annapolis festival crowds growing First Night organizers say turnout strongest since event's inception

January 03, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

It began as a tiny, alcohol-free celebration of the arts. Eight years later, First Night Annapolis has exploded into a spectacular display of music and entertainment that attracts almost as many people to the city on New Year's Eve as there are residents.

Organizers estimated yesterday that 24,000 people flocked to Wednesday's festivities, which boasted almost 400 performances. Although exact figures had not been calculated, organizers said they believe the turnout was one of the strongest since the event's inception.

"It was a stellar evening," said Elizabeth Welch, co-executive producer and co-founder of First Night, which is a nonprofit organization. "It was cold and crisp, and the spirit downtown was wonderful. When you realize we're taking a wonderful, historic city like this and we're turning it into a wonderful stage, it's really amazing."

First Night typically attracts about 10,000 people, but 20,000 turned out on a particularly warm New Year's Eve in 1992. And in 1996, about 24,000 people showed up.

Patterned after a similar event that was started in Boston in 1976, First Night Annapolis offers performances ranging from mimes to folk music to classical pianists.

Working with a $400,000 annual budget and donations from businesses and organizations around the state, organizers pull the downtown show together with the help of 500 volunteers, Welch said. Admission buttons, which allow viewers to enter performance sites, were $10 before Dec. 20 and $14 afterward.

Big attractions Wednesday included bluesman John Jackson, who played to packed houses at the Goldstein Treasury Building; illusionist David Seebach, who attracted long lines at Key Auditorium on the St. John's College campus, and the Yale University Glee Club, which sang in Latin in the overflowing sanctuary of St. Anne's Episcopal Church on Church Circle.

"I think it's terrific," said Susan K. Zellers, the city's eco-

nomic development director.

"It brings people into the city who might never get into the city. And overall, while people might not spend money that night, they might see a shop and say, 'Hey, honey, let's come back.' It's a great introduction to our city."

For Welch and her co-workers, there is no time to rest.

Volunteers have cleaned up the downtown Historic District, and the organization already has started contacting sponsors and performers for this year's celebration and beyond.

"The ball is already rolling," Welch said. "We're planning for the millennium."

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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