When the nonprofit that organized First Night for nearly four decades was abruptly shuttered in June, Tom Menino declared the city would continue the New Year’s Eve tradition.
Everyone envisioned a stripped-down celebration: a little music, a few ice sculptures, and we’ll call it a night.
That’s not how this mayor rolls.
First Night, he made clear to his staff and anyone else who would listen, would be bigger than ever. Never mind he didn’t have a dime committed. Never mind he had only six months to pull off something that takes a year to plan. Never mind it would happen during his last week in office, when lame ducks are supposed to be packing up.
“We are the oldest First Night,” he said. “We couldn’t allow this to be a second-rate event.”
If you have never been or haven’t been in a while, this is the year to go. It will be big. Patti Smith and The Blind Boys of Alabama, 15 ice sculptures instead of three, and as always, the Mardi Gras-style processional down Boylston Street and harbor fireworks at midnight.
But Menino hasn’t saved First Night; he’s just done his part. The rest is up to us. Buy a button (only $10), show up, and support the festival as we never have done before. Afterward, if you want the celebration to happen again, someone out there needs to step up and carry on the tradition.
That someone could be you.
First Night was born out of Clara Wainwright’s dread of making New Year’s Eve plans. It’s a night on which everyone feels compelled to be somewhere with somebody, doing something. She wanted to re-create the feeling of a magical Dec. 31 when she was 16, skating on a frozen lake at midnight with a boy she had a crush on.
New Year’s Eve celebrations could never measure up to that evening — until 1976, when Wainwright was turning 40. A group of fellow artists (and a psychiatrist) gathered around her dinner table in Arlington to cook up an idea for a party that wasn’t centered around alcohol or waiting for the stroke of midnight. The event would start earlier in the day, involve families, and engage artists to help us reflect on the end of one year and the beginning of another.
With a budget of nearly $35,000, the inaugural First Night, held in churches, halls, and subway stations around Boston Common, drew about 65,000 revelers, despite the subzero temperatures and an inch of snow on the ground.
First Night became a phenomenon. A million people come into Boston on New Year’s Eve, pumping millions of dollars into the economy. As with so many things we do here, other places followed our lead. Today, the First Night name is licensed to about 35 cities.
Ours requires a small full-time staff working year round, and a budget, at its height, of well over a $1 million. There were good and bad years, and the weather had a lot to do with it. The festival relies on sponsorships, but also generates revenue from button sales.
Outdoor events are free, but people need to buy buttons for admission to indoor programming (such as concerts). Many people decide whether to go at the last minute, depending on the forecast. Freezing temps, snow (think wintry mix), or even a prediction of bad weather can chill sales. You’ve got to feel for a business model subject to New England weather.
The finances began to unravel when you factored in weather, the Great Recession, and changes in giving. Corporate and nonprofit sponsorships began to dry up as organizations shifted their focus to supporting social justice and educational causes. The fete became more dependent on button sales, forcing organizers to raise prices to $18. Annual sales bounced between about $325,000 to $538,000. At its peak in 2007, First Night sold about 38,000 buttons and hit a low of under 15,000 in 2010. Last year, just 22,000 were sold.
As it struggled to break even, First Night cut its budget to $800,000, pared programming, and looked for new ways to make money. Not knowing what each year would bring, the nonprofit began shopping for a partner or someone to outright take over First Night, said Laura Roberts, chair of the organization’s board.
“Nobody expressed an interest in taking the festival on,” said Roberts, and “we didn’t think we could survive as a stand-alone.”
On June 11, after two hours of intense debate, nine board members voted unanimously to close the First Night office and leave the responsibility of the party to someone else. They didn’t know whether there would be a First Night this year or ever again.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Roberts recalled.
That morning, the board delivered the shocking news to Chris Cook, the city’s arts, tourism, and special events director. The city quickly decided to adopt the celebration this year, but Cook wasn’t sure it would resemble what we know.
But Menino was. It’s as if the mayor called in all his chits so he would have a fitting last hurrah for him and Boston. He raised nearly $500,000 in sponsorships from corporations and foundations, more than double the previous year’s.
The first to say yes was the Highland Street Foundation , and the answer came so fast the city didn’t know how much money it wanted. Cook came up with a number — $100,000 to be the lead sponsor. Done.
If “that’s all it took to keep First Night going, it was too easy,” said David McGrath, whose family started the foundation in 1989.
You’ll see the foundation’s name on the buttons, so what is it? It’s based in Newton and was set up by David’s late father, David J. McGrath Jr., founder and owner of TAD Resources International, a temp agency. He was one of Menino’s earliest supporters.
Getting that first pledge made it easier to unlock contributions — $50,000 each — from Bank of America, State Street, Liberty Mutual, and others.
But the administration had another goal: Sharpen First Night operations so they’re sustainable. Among the changes: cutting button prices nearly in half, making it easier to buy them through a partnership with CVS, and centralizing festivities around Copley Square.
Mayor-elect Marty Walsh hasn’t decided what role his administration will play, but a co-chair of his transition team is Joyce Linehan, the longtime spokeswoman for First Night. You can be certain she’s going to give him plenty of advice. “I know he is committed to this,” Linehan said. “He is motivated to make it work.”
Roberts, chair of the First Night board, told me it is prepared to hand over the trademark to the right person or group. And the founder, Wainwright, who at 77 is still going to the celebration, said she’ll open up her kitchen once again.
“I would be happy to invite anyone who has ideas and sit around my supper table,” she said. “They can bring whoever they want and drum up something new. I just hope it continues.”
Will this First Night be our last? It’s up to you.