Tens of thousands of revelers descended today on Boston for a day-long New Year’s Eve party that offered something for almost every taste: fireworks and fried dough; face painting and international films; Israeli jazz and improv comedy.
Kids bopped in their seats to the beat of African drums. Nearby others ooh-ed and aah-ed as men on trick bicycles shot off ramps into the air like corks off champagne bottles.
“It’s a New Year!” said Roberto Figueroa, as he led about 50 people in a Latin dancing class in Hynes Convention Center. “It’s party time!”
Unseasonably warm weather helped draw crowds to Boston, where low-slug clouds hid the tops of the Hancock and other skyscrapers. Organizers anticipated that roughly 1 million people would flock to First Night, an arts and culture festival which had 40 venues scattered across the metropolitan area, from Boston Harbor to Cambridge, Copley Square to Boston Common.
Families brought children for puppeteering, coloring, and magic shows. They watched dance troupes – imagine Irish Step blended with West African rhythms and infused with hip-hop.
Others came to ogle at five ice sculptures, which included a piece by Donald Chapelle titled “The Looking Glass,” an ode to the four seasons. Another carving, depicting frogs, commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Tadpole Playground on the Boston Common.
“It looks like an Elmo made of ice,” said 4-year-old Leo Velyvis of Wellesley who had a bird’s eye view of the carving from his perch atop his father’s shoulders.
On Boston Common, Lew Burleigh, 71, recalled that he had attend almost all of the First Night celebrations since the original was held 36 years ago.
“It’s a wonderful thing for families,” said Burleigh, who lives on the waterfront in Boston. “But it’s also a time for artists to strut their stuff.”
That included some of the headliners: the soulful Mavis Staples, of The Staple Singers; singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega; and master raconteur Mike Daisey, who was scheduled to perform one of his famed monologues at the Boston University Theatre.
First Night is a nonprofit with an annual budget of just over $1 million. For entrance to some events, the group sold $18 buttons, which accounts for roughly 45 percent of its annual revenue, according to Joyce Linehan, director of media relations for the organization. Web traffic and online button sales were up prior to today’s festivities, but it will take several months before organizers determine how many people attended and whether the nonprofit raised enough revenue to cover costs, Linehan said.
But not everyone came to celebrate. The crowd included members of Occupy Boston, the protest group evicted earlier this month from their two-month encampment on Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. A small group stood with a red wagon draped in a miniature canvas tent emblazoned with the message, “You can’t evict an idea.”
“We really want to get the message out that we’re still here,” said Kevin Maley, 27, of South Boston as he handed out “We are the 99%” buttons. “Our objective is to keep the movement going and connect with people.”
But much of the focus was on children, who made wands, tiaras, and other crafts for marching accessories for the annual Grand Procession, a 1,000-person parade led by Mayor Thomas M. Menino that include Zumba dancers on stilts and sashaying Chinese dragon puppets.
The evening’s first blast of fireworks came just before 7 p.m., a 12-minute volley of red, greens, and blues. Technicians shot some 3,800 pyrotechnics from the ball fields on Boston Common, exploding in a tapestry of colors 350 feet above the crowd.
Spectators cheered throughout the display, and many of them captured it on their cell phone cameras.
Donna Sutherland, of Acton, gave the display high marks and also offered up a New Year’s resolution.
“Just good health and peace, really,” said Sutherland, who declined to give her age but said that she and her husband “fall into the senior category.”
A second helping of fireworks was scheduled for the stroke of midnight, greeting 2012 with a 10-minute display shot from barges in Boston Harbor. The shells, which ranged in size from tennis balls to basketballs, were set to shower the night sky in colors, exploding roughly 1,500-feet above the city.
Earlier in the day in Copley Square, twins Samantha and Rachel Kaplan, both five-and-a-half years old, watched in fascination as an ice sculpture of the sun with radiating flames was set into place a few feet away from Trinity Church. Standing on the railing around the sculpture, they pointed and laughed as ice sculpture technicians used a chainsaw and giant iron pincers to set up big ice blocks around the base of the sculpture.
“I’m going to stay up late!” said Samantha, smiling. Rachel nodded her head, but looked serious.
“But not until midnight,” she said. “That’s really late.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com.