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UNSCRIPTED ‌ First Night Lost?

Community New Year's Eve scaled back nearly to death

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What is it about New Year's Eve that's so damned special, anyway? People in almost every western culture go apeshit for the night. It's like your birthday, the Fourth of July, and a bachelor party all rolled into one. Or it's supposed to be, anyway.

In reality, as most of us have come to realize, what New Year's Eve is about these days is relentless pressure to throw down with friends and against all odds churn out the most exciting, entertaining evening of your entire year by enduring hordes of annoying, drunken idiots, overpriced tickets, elbows to the face in crowds you'd never tolerate on any other night, terrible bar service, Dick Clark's mummified visage, and some stupid song nobody knows the lyrics to or meaning of because it's sung in Scottish. The highways crawl with cops like fleas on a dog, and if you're not planning on boozing, then why the hell would you want to get out at all? There's no reason, really.

If you have a family, of course, it's an even less rosy scenario.

A lot of people eventually decide that New Year's Eve simply sucks, and they say to hell with it. That's pretty much what Zeren Earls and a group of fellow artists living in Boston concluded in 1976, when they decided to reinvent the idea of the evening as a genuinely celebratory event -- a time for ritual and family and friends and the kind of partying that goes beyond Jäger shots and dirty dancing. So they started a city-wide community event they called First Night Boston (because it was about the year to come, not the year that had passed) and they rooted it in the visual and performing arts, because that seemed like a natural way to express joy and celebration in a uniquely creative way.

The idea caught on like crazy, and 20 years later there were about 150 First Night events scattered around the country, including one here in Charleston that I helped start.

The point was simple: that real celebration involves more than cooking up a hangover. It requires ritual and community and creativity. And that's what we and scores of volunteer community organizers brought to downtown Charleston every December 31, beginning in 1997. We blocked off entire streets and jammed them full of street performances, vendors, street decorations, and unique artistic installations. We packed hundreds of performing artists into any possible space downtown, the more unusual the better: storefronts, balconies, outdoor stages, hot air balloons, churches, hotels, even abandoned sites like the old County Library. A single $8 button got you into every performance and subsidized the cost of the event, along with generous sponsorships from public, private and corporate sponsors.

First Night was booze-less in order to make families feel welcome, but anyone was free to pop into a bar or restaurant for a splash and rejoin the party at any time. (I know I did.) At the end of the evening, as many as 20,000 people gathered behind the U.S. Custom House to watch more performances, followed by a huge, brightly lit pineapple sculpture that dropped from a crane above the stage for a countdown. Finally, at the stroke of midnight, they cheered a massive fireworks display that was shot from a barge in the harbor.

After the Millennium, however, leadership for the non-profit changed several times. The volunteer board of directors seemed to lose interest in fundraising, began ending the event at 10:30 p.m., and dramatically scaled back programming. In 2004 the board pawned off the event to the City Office of Cultural Affairs, which had its hands more than full producing Piccolo Spoleto, the MOJA Festival, and countless other smaller events throughout the year.

This December 31, OCA is putting up a free, bite-sized event confined mostly to Marion Square and called Happy New Year Charleston. It's got some music from a party band, some improv comedy, some chamber music. It ends at 10 p.m. No truck-sized bonfires, no fireworks, no pineapple drop. Still, they're to be commended for it; OCA is a municipal office, not a production company.

But Charleston deserves a real community-wide New Year's Eve celebration. The money's out there; it was in 1997 and it could be again. All that's missing is passion, leadership, and someone to use it.

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