Originally created 12/14/03

Boston's "First Night" is nation's biggest, oldest



BOSTON -- You won't find the best New Year's party in Boston in a trendy bar or swank hotel. You'll find it everywhere around you, in the "First Night" arts festival that draws a million visitors each year to the city's streets, churches and public buildings.

This arts-adoring city invented the "First Night" New Year's Eve festival 28 years ago, and the idea has since been emulated around the country. This year there will be more than 100 local First Night celebrations in 29 states.

But Boston remains home to the biggest First Night. This year's festival will feature 1,000 artists and 250 exhibitions in 40 different locations, some indoors and some out, despite the usually frigid weather. Highlights include a parade and fireworks.

If you can't find something you like here, you won't find it anywhere.

There are musicians (classical, folk, bluegrass, gospel and rock). There are dancers (ballet, tango, Irish, Chinese and swing). There are storytellers and sculptors, puppets and painters, films and fish (at the New England Aquarium), not to mention choirs, cartoons and comics.

What you won't find is boozy raucousness.

"It's a family-friendly event," said Joyce Linehan, a spokeswoman for the event. "The programming in the afternoon is specifically geared towards children. Towards night time, it's more for the whole family."

Some of the artists have been performing here every year since First Night Boston began in 1976, when it drew no more than 10,000 people.

"From the very first, this gathering, this parade, I've always felt this is the most wonderful thing, and every year it gets bigger and bigger," said Brother Blue, a storyteller who has participated in every First Night Boston.

Events start early in the afternoon at locations around the city, though many of them are concentrated in and around the Hynes Convention Center. A $15 button gains admission to anything you want to see.

But seeing everything is impossible. Linehan strongly recommends a visit to the Web site, www.firstnight.org, which contains an interactive planner organized by themes (classical music, for instance, or events appropriate for toddlers).

"If you don't have a plan you'll probably get shut out of things," she said. "Everything is first come, first serve, so you should definitely have a backup plan."

Linehan also advises dressing so that you'll be comfortable whether you are at an indoor concert, an outdoor parade or ice-sculpting. Use layers that can easily be added or removed.

And finally, try to use public transportation since parking is difficult and expensive and some streets will be closed off. The subway system, run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and called the "T" by locals, is convenient and easy to use, with lines coded by color. The trains usually shut down around 12:45 a.m., but they will keep running until around 2 a.m. on New Year's.

"Things are generally contained in a pretty small geographic area," Linehan said. "You don't have to travel very far. You certainly don't have to walk if you don't want to, it's all very MBTA- accessible. It's all very doable, just dress in layers."

If You Go...

WHEN AND WHERE: First Night events begin at 1 p.m. New Year's Eve at a variety of locations around the city, including the Hynes Convention Center, area churches, museums and other public buildings. The event concludes with a fireworks display at midnight over Boston Harbor. The Grand Procession moves down Boylston Street beginning at 5:30 p.m.

GETTING IN: A $15 button, available online at www.firstnight.org and area retailers, provides admission to all events, but seating is first come, first served.

GETTING AROUND: Some public parking is available in several garages, including the Prudential Center and Boston Common, but taking public transportation is highly recommended. The MBTA Green Line subway stops at Hynes Convention Center and Copley are most centrally located, but some events are not within walking distance and require Green line trips to other stops, such as Coolidge Corner and Science Museum. Most rides are $1.25 and a one-day pass allowing unlimited rides will cost you $6, but all service is free on New Year's Eve after 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.mbta.com or call (617) 222-3200.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Hotels fill up quickly but several offer special First Night packages. For information, contact the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau at (617) 536-4100 or by visiting www.bostonusa.com.

ACCESS FOR DISABLED: Many programs are interpreted in sign language, and all sites are wheelchair-accessible except a small screening room at Coolidge Corner Theatre and The Boston Park Plaza Terrace Room.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Complete schedule and planner available for Boston events at www.firstnight.org or call (617) 542-1399.

FIRST NIGHT ELSEWHERE: There are more than 100 First Night celebrations in 29 states around the country. For links to First Night information for other cities, visit www.firstnight.com/cities.php.