Reclaiming the Magic: First Night Boston

(The Man from City Hall, Mags Harries)

Long before it served as a model for New Years Eve celebrations in over 200 cities across the globe, First Night began as a simple idea in the mind of local artist and arts advocate Clara Wainwright. In 1974, Clara dreaded the thought of “yet another odious New Years Eve party” where people stand around just before midnight and hope they are with someone that they want to kiss. She remembered less complicated times, like when she was sixteen and found herself ice skating on a frozen pond with a boy she had a crush on just as the clock struck twelve. So simple, so amazing.

Where had the magic gone from New Years Eve?


(Bill Wainwright at First Night)

After ringing in 1975 at a lame party commensurate with her worries, Clara wasted no time in rallying a group of local artists around her dining room table (a location that has served as the birthplace for some of Boston Arts best ideas) to discuss what measures could be taken to reclaim the magic of New Years Eve.

The first meeting of the minds was raucous to say the least. With so much excitement and ideas being shouted every which way, Clara had to (lovingly) kick everyone out and arrange for a second meeting where they could methodically and coherently work out a gameplan.

“My husband said, ‘Why don’t we just go around the table and each person throw out what they think would be important to have happen?’. And that’s when it happened. Someone said, ‘The artists should be the people who interpret this strange night for everyone else. It’s about death of an old year, birth of a new one, and it can be quite a traumatic evening.’ and someone else chimed in, ‘The artists should be able to have any space in the city they want, and we’ll all go to bat for them. If they want to perform on top of the John Hancock building, we’ll figure it out.’ and then the psychiatrist of the group said, ‘We should blur the line between the observer and the observed.'”

It was from this constructive exchange of ideas that First Night began to take form.

(Inflatable sculpture by Otto Piene)

Unlike other cities, Boston’s New Years Eve celebrations would focus on family friendly all-day happenings as opposed to solely evening activities. The founders envisioned a festival that featured indoor and outdoor performances in art, music, and theater that engaged the talents of the local artist community.

And after months of hard work, fundraising, and the transformation of “whacky ideas” into realities, the very First Night was born on December 31st, 1975.

(Bread and Puppet Theater)

It was an incredible success. Clara remembers how Boston police underestimated the eccentric artist driven endeavor and, assuming no one would show up, staffed only a handful of policemen(“maybe one or two?”) at the event itself. It was clear that the BPD did not anticipate the over 65,000 revelers who came out despite subzero temperatures.

(Geometric Progression Band)

Fortunately for law enforcement, festival goers behaved themselves. And although police were caught off-guard for the inaugural event, they rallied behind future First Nights. City officials quickly saw the joy it brought Bostonians and more pragmatically, recognized the benefit of having an alcohol-free event as an alternative to traditional boozy holiday parties.

With a limited budget, the original First Nights centered around public spaces that included churches, halls, and subway stations near the Boston Common. They incorporated enchanting works from some of Boston’s best artists, many of which still live and work in the area today.

And after receiving the initial OK from the City for the festival itself, Clara and her team of fellow creatives were allowed to let their imaginations run wild.

Here are a few of my favorite images from the early days of First Night:

Trash Temple-John Tagiuri

“Tagiuri has also used his artwork to speak out for the environment. He supported recycling by building a full sized ranch house, the Trash Temple, out of the trash that an average family of four produces in a year.  The Trash Temple was erected on Boston City Hall plaza and was seen by five hundred thousand visitors.  Trash and the image of the American dream house were juxtaposed and joined in this provocative piece.” 

Cake Full of Cake-John Tagiuri

“When First Night was ten years old, John Tagiuri and his wife made this huge cake carriage which was drawn by a pair of Clydesdales down Boylston Street. They were seated next to the cake dressed as a knife and fork and when they arrived at City Hall Plaza, the side of the carriage opened up to reveal an enormous edible version inside that was cut up and handed out to First Night attendees.”-Clara Wainwright

The Man from City Hall(Mags Harries) and the Oracle(Bill Wainwright)

“A bowler hat and jaw were added to the iconic architecture of Boston’s City Hall, transforming the building into a character in Boston’s First Night festivities for New Years Eve.  The design incorporated direct elements of the building’s architecture: the Council Chamber windows were used as the Man’s eyes and a steam vent became the Man’s smoking cigar. Man from City Hall served as a vehicle for audience members to address questions to a second character, The Oracle–created by the artist Bill Wainwright. The performance parodied City Hall politics and confusion of city bureaucracy. changing the windows of the Council Chamber into the Man’s eyes, projected with animated video.”

“Participants from the First Night crowds were raised by scissor lift 30 feet up into the jaw of the Man, the stage from which they addressed The Oracle. While talking, video of the right and left profiles of the Question Raiser were projected into the eyes of the Man as though two people were talking to each other.  The Oracle’s responses were created impromptu by a group of poets and issued in a slow ominous voice accompanied by percussions and opera singers. Between questions the animated eyes of the Man perused the crowd below.”

(The Oracle, Bill Wainwright)

Looking at these pictures makes me SO happy.

These days, Clara is busy mending Boston and doesn’t have much time for internet surfing. So when she asked me if I knew what was happening for this year’s First Night, I filled her in on the insane comments that came out of the Boston Herald’s article about local artist Peter Zebbler‘s(yes, the Mooninite guy) involvement in tonight’s celebrations.

She laughed and told me she was thankful that most of her endeavors were executed before the scrutiny of the internet. Her hiccups remain undetected.

(Zeren Earls and Clara Wainwright)

And although Clara passed on the First Night torch long ago, a team of dedicated arts advocates have taken on the task of fundraising, dreaming big, and ensuring that the celebrations will continue for years to come.

Will you be there? Learn more about Boston’s 2014 First Night celebrations and see the full schedule of events here.

(Bread and Puppet Theater)

And wherever you find yourself at midnight tonight, may it be pond or party, I hope you have a magical evening.

See you next year. ♥

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