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First Night: 15 venues, 70 performances, 13,000 people

Columbia’s First Night celebration will bring revelers downtown tonight to usher in 2007 with alcohol-free festivities.
Sunday, December 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting; an incorrect figure had been given for the First Night organization's budget.]

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A year ago, performers and participants rang in 2006.

Clockwise from top left: The Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, the City-Wide Drumline & Rhythm Band, Mike Fruin of The Joe Willett Jazz Ensemble, and

Camille Leparmentier making a crown in the children’s art area

On New Year’s Eve 1995, folk musicians Paul and Win Grace had to introduce themselves from the stage at the Episcopal Church. The duo was two songs into their concert, Win Grace recalls, when the lone First Night emcee rushed in from one of the other three venues and made the formal introduction.

“That’s when I thought, I think we need more people involved,” Win Grace said.

First Night, a community celebration of the new year with music, art, performances and festivity, has come of age in Columbia. This year, the event boasts more than 70 performances and activities at 15 downtown venues.

The newest venue is at Stephens College in the Kimball Ballroom at Lela Raney Wood Hall, where professional dancers and a small orchestra will entertain through the evening and teach celebrants the steps to Irish, Cajun and ballroom dances. The ballroom, built in 1938, reopened in April after a renovation.

The dance routines will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Orchestra, a five-piece chamber ensemble from Colorado that recreates small orchestras from 1890 to 1930.

First-timers at First Night Columbia, the Mont Alto Orchestra will also be performing the score for the silent movie “Sherlock Jr.” at 7:30 p.m. in the Missouri Theatre.

Another out-of-town and first-time act for First Night Columbia is Grammy-nominated Cajun fiddler Al Berard from southern Louisiana. Joined by his guitarist daughter and an accordion player, he will perform at 8:15 p.m. in the Kimball Ballroom. Berard won the “1992 Fiddler of the Year” award from the Cajun French Music Association. His original music can be heard in TV shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Northern Exposure” and “Double Jeopardy.”

A country duo from Nashville, the Woodys, who collaborated with Steve Earle and Chris Hillman and whose debut album featured Emmy Lou Harris, will perform at the Missouri Theatre and Windsor Auditorium.

A returning performer is Jason Ringenberg, whose children’s music character goes by Farmer Jason. Jason will bring his new children’s CD, “Rockin’ in the Forest,” with educational lyrics about ecology, exercise and history. He will perform at 6:30 p.m. in Windsor Auditorium and 9:30 p.m. in the First Christian Church.

Karen Ramey, director of operations, said that about 12,500 people attended First Night last year and this year’s crowd is expected to be near 13,000. The economic impact, based on information about hotel bookings, shopping and restaurants from the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau Tourism Development fund, is estimated at $1 million, she said.

“I think we get better at organizing it every year,” Ramey said. “The public seems to really embrace it, and our number keeps going up.”

Residents will have the opportunity to explore and enjoy many activities during the six hours before the midnight fireworks display at the Boone County Courthouse.

A First Night admission button opens the door to a wide range of music and other entertainment that includes jazz, polka, swing dancing, rock, children’s performers, bluegrass, Irish dance, storytelling, rhythm and blues, magic and a venue just for teens.

Buttons are $8 for those 8 and older and can be purchased online until 4 p.m. today. After 4 p.m., they will cost $10.

Ramey said that only a quarter of the First Night organization’s $80,000 budget comes from button sales; donations and grants account for the majority.

The event is part of First Night International, held in about 150 U.S. cities as well as Canada, New Zealand and England. The idea originated from a group of civic-minded artists in Boston in 1976, who began the tradition of bringing communities together to celebrate New Year’s Eve in an alcohol-free event filled with entertainment.

As director of entertainment, Jane Accurso has helped select acts and organize technical support. A musician herself, Accurso said she consults other artists in town and plans the event all year long.

“There is nothing I love more than throwing a huge New Year’s Eve party for the community I love,” she said. “And we’ve had good feedback, people enjoy the diversity, and I try to have something for everyone.”

The Graces will return this year with their folk music. They remember when the event was being organized by a small group of locals, among whom was Greg Ahrens, a visual artist.

“I had heard about (First Night) from previous years in St. Louis, and there was some people here who went to the First Night International conference in St. Louis in 1993 and talked to people from smaller towns, more Columbia’s size,” Ahrens said. “We thought it sounded good, and we started to plan a small event.”

After organizing it for two years, the group decided to cancel Columbia’s third event and begin planning for the next year. But they managed to raise enough money to send Win Grace to participate in an International First Night conference in Monterrey, Calif. When Grace returned, she was determined to get the event rolling again.

“I basically called everybody I knew, my friends who were artists and musicians, my friends from the community,” Grace said. “I was excited and all charged up from the conference about the possibility of creating a new tradition in Columbia for New Year’s Eve.”

Grace was also drawn to the event because of its alcohol-free nature, emphasis on the arts and family orientation.

“I really liked the idea of having an event where people of all ages — singles, couples, and families — feel welcomed and comfortable and feel that they are part of a community,” she said. “You can dance, do art, sing and be exposed to all kinds of new and different things. I really wanted it to become a tradition in Columbia.”


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