Reveling in Creativity

The region's biggest New Year's bashes take place in Saratoga Springs and Albany, where First Night festivities celebrate the arts and provide fun for the entire family.



Reveling in Creativity

 

Out with the old and in with the arts ¡ª that¡¯s the impetus behind the region¡¯s exciting First Night celebrations on New Year¡¯s Eve

 

by Ted Spiegel

 

One Saratoga First Nighter confided her memories of New Year¡¯s Eve a half-century ago in Albany: ¡°It was the biggest party and drinking night of the year, and the Albany police were out in force, ready to issue hundreds of DWIs, which I¡¯m sure taught people a lesson ¡ª until the next year. My folks invited their friends over to our newly furnished basement recreation room. All of the bottles went downstairs, and us kids were packed upstairs to watch a black-and-white TV set fitted out with rabbit-ear antennas. Our grandparents weren¡¯t invited because they wouldn¡¯t ¡®fit in.¡¯¡±

 

How times have changed. Look around the Capital District¡¯s First Night throngs, both in Albany and Saratoga Springs, and you will see entire families out together ¡ª from the smallest baby in a backpack to great-grandma with her cane ¡ª enjoying everything from acrobatics to zydeco. Since alcohol is out and culture is in, there are no underage or over-age celebrants. And the price is right: $12 for an all-events admission button in Saratoga; $10 in Albany. (Children under five are free at both events.) Garb is country-casual: warm, with comfortable walking shoes.

 

In Saratoga ¡ª whose festivities this year have been dubbed ¡°A Celebration of Imagination¡± ¡ª events for children will start at 4:30 p.m., with most of them occurring within the two gyms and classrooms of the Lake Avenue School. A five-kilometer run starts off from Skidmore College at 5:30; the $15 entry fee assures that you are one of the 1,000 runners, all of whom get a long-sleeved tee shirt. All of Saratoga¡¯s 35 entertainment venues will be going full tilt between 6 and 11:40. The latter time gives revelers 20 minutes to saunter down to Lake Avenue (behind City Hall) to wow and gee at the county-sponsored pyrotechnics. (You can also join in a Dixieland-style funeral procession to the fireworks. New this year, it¡¯s a novel way of bidding adieu to 2004.)

 

The Saratoga City Center ¡ª which holds 3,000 ¡ª will provide the stage for two favorite North Country bands: The Mc­Krells, who offer a convivial blend of Irish and bluegrass numbers, alternating with Hair of the Dog, which sticks to a straight Irish repertoire. An elaborate program grid indicates the who, what, when, and where of First Night. All of the acts ¡ª and there are dozens, with names like Annie and the Hedonists, Stitch the Juggler, the Insert Something Funny Improv Troupe, and Captain Squeeze and the Zydeco Moshers ¡ª are professional.

 

Store windows along Broadway, which is festively lighted throughout the holidays, will feature works by local artists. And First Nighters are invited to try out their own creativity within the interactive ¡°Fairy Ring,¡± which they can help paint in the Prime Hotel Gallery Space. This 12-foot-diameter, Irish-inspired evocation of the world of magic is the brainchild of artist Nancy McGrath.

 

The why and how of First Night are easily explained by Maureen Duda of the YMCA of Saratoga, which hosts the annual event, now in its ninth year: ¡°It¡¯s a fun-filled fund-raiser that focuses on the celebration of the arts within a community rather than partying and drinking until you drop.¡± Duda marshals the energies of a corps of 150-plus volunteers, some of whom help with the yearlong planning, then man the doorways and keep track of stray kids. With only 10,000 buttons to sell, Saratoga always has a sellout crowd, so buy early.

 

It makes one smile to hear Duda confess that ¡°helping people celebrate has become a kind of passion. Just witnessing all the happy faces coming together at the end of the evening for the midnight fireworks, knowing that they will all feel just great the next morning, is my real reward,¡± she says.

 

When Albany¡¯s Tricentennial Celebration was being planned for 1986, some of the committee volunteers experienced Boston¡¯s pioneering First Night party. That other Colonial town started the First Night movement in 1976 as part of the American Bicentennial. This novel way to celebrate the arts and New Year¡¯s Eve is now enjoyed in 118 American municipalities and has even spread to Europe. Albany¡¯s first First Night was the wrap-up celebration of the city¡¯s Tricentennial Year.

 

In the capital, the festivities are spearheaded by Dottie Dack, the city¡¯s director of special events. Her entertainment roster challenges a family¡¯s capacity to compromise. Choices must be made, since there are dozens of performance venues throughout the downtown¡¯s 10 square blocks. The Clancy Family and the Makem Brothers will be regaling celebrants with Celtic favorites at the Palace Theatre. Elsewhere, there will be dancing Greeks, gyrating Chinese dragons, and toe-tapping Irish steppers. A score of ear-opening rock acts will contrast boldly with the mellow, all-male Mendelssohn Club choir and the skirl of the Albany Police Pipes and Drums, providing a chance to ¡°listen up¡± across generations. Everyone will thrill to the Grand Finale Fireworks, which sparkle over the Hudson River at midnight.

 

Albany¡¯s First Night starts with what you could call ¡°First Afternoon,¡± with child-related activities. The Jingle Jog race takes off from Academy Park at 2 p.m.; there is also face painting and lots of other activities. At 6:30, adults get a chance to strut their stuff in a 5K race through Washington Park, where 800 worked up a sweat last year. You can stay sweatless at the City Hall starting line, then turn around and go into the building to enjoy the jazz riffs of the Cole Broderick Trio at 7. It is one of more than 60 groups taking the stage throughout the night. Admission to all is paid for by your button fee.

 

While in City Hall, be sure to get your free New Year¡¯s resolution postcard. The building¡¯s rotunda contains a 30-foot-high ¡°tree.¡± Hundreds of people write resolutions on a self-addressed card, which the volunteer staff hangs on a ¡°limb.¡± Six months later, the cards are sent home to their writers.

 

The resolutions cover the usual gamut: a desire to lose weight, stop smoking, or be kind to a brother or sister. Dack confesses that her own desires wind up on the tree: ¡°Last year, I probably resolved to lose 10 pounds ¡ª and that¡¯s probably what I resolved to do the year before, too. You can keep resolving, you know. And every year you can resolve the same thing.¡± ¡ö

 

For more information about First Night Saratoga, call 518-584-8262 or log on to www.ymcasaratoga.org/firstnight. For information about Albany First Night, call 518-434-2032 or log on to www.al­banyevents.org/first_night.

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