May 21, 2017

Editorial: Farewell to First Night as we know it

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Colorful, cold and bold. First Night Worcester changed a little every year, but it was always those. And for more than three decades, it was always there.

It’s too soon to say what, if anything, will replace it after its top official, Howard McGinn, said in a statement last week, “After careful review, we have decided the 35th [last year’s] would be our last event.”

But First Night Worcester Inc.’s decision to “discontinue operations” after 35 years is not necessarily a bad thing.

First Night was great in a lot of ways — and took a ton of talent and dedication to pull off every Dec. 31 — but the brand may have simply run its course. A New Year’s reorganization could be in order, and is apparently underway.

First things first — and foremost. We must thank First Night Worcester Inc. for a festive, safe and creative string of New Year’s Eve celebrations. That goes for all the nonprofit’s sponsors, partners and button-buyers, too.

Our First Night, the nation’s second-oldest after Boston’s (whose First Night is still alive), outlasted numerous other First Night organizations around the country. And Worcester’s — well, we’re biased, but we feel ours was pretty special. There was the inevitable shoestring budget, but also, year after year, there was freshness and sparkle, and a sense of a community coming out not just to be entertained, but to take part.

Over the years since 1982 there have been dancers, singers, ice sculptures, fortune tellers, magicians, jokers, mimes, jugglers, hot-air balloons, jazz, rock, choirs, story slams, parades and even, once (because the idea bombed), a bubble-wrap stomp on the steps of Memorial Auditorium. Thousands stayed up to watch fireworks go off above their frosty breaths. For what turned out to be Worcester’s last First Night, Sasha the Fire Gypsy wowed folks at Institute Park to help 2016 flame out.

But booking acts is expensive, and keeping things fresh and interesting — while also reliable and traditional — is a challenge.

First Night valiantly fought tight finances, the vagaries of weather, and sometimes thinner crowds than wished for. It strikes us as sad but appropriate for the organization to take its bow, and also to do so now, giving plenty of notice for performers and revelers to make other plans.

The decision also leaves time for the civic and artistic leaders to work their imaginations. Signs point to a new start, possibly for 2018, or perhaps taking a breather for a new year.

The statement from First Night Worcester indicated that a partnership between the city of Worcester, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and Discover Central Massachusetts might develop a new New Year’s format.

It includes a quote from chamber President and CEO Timothy P. Murray: “A lot of good things are happening throughout Worcester and in the downtown. A community celebration to mark the beginning of the New Year should be one of them. … Along with City Manager Ed Augustus, I want to thank the First Night board, management and volunteers for their great work over the years.”

We encourage area artists and organizers to give some thought to what’s next after First Night. What works, what should we chuck, what could we try?

In our view, Worcester’s venues have been too spread out, making First Night planning for the typical family overly complicated.

Also, the Common has been underused. We would center the city’s celebration there, allow skating on the Oval all afternoon and under the stars, and shoot fireworks timed for the grand finale at midnight.

Shuttle buses would transport people to and from parking areas. Taking a cue from the Latin American Festival, food trucks would ring the Common, offering hot chocolate, hot dogs, full meals, and treats for kids big and small. A range of activities and delights, indoors and out, would be within easy walking distance.

As long as we’re daydreaming, Notre Dame des Canadiens Church would serve as a warm spot to duck into on New Year’s Eve, to see a show, make a craft, chat, revel, rest, and reflect on the old and the new.

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