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For First Night, the work precedes the fun

Puppet maker Sara Peattie was at her shop on Newbury Street testing a Dream Snake puppet for Boston's First Night celebration. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The year 2016 put us through the wringer. It’s time for a little fun, and the puppets are nearly done.

The seven ice sculptures will soon be assembled, too. Frosty chunks of “Maritime Legends,” this year’s theme for the sculptures, already sit in insulated boxes in Copley Square. Expect a crystalline kraken and the USS Constitution to make appearances.

After 41 years, First Night — Boston’s annual rite of passage for Father Time and its embrace of a new year — perseveres because of those who love the tradition.

It has become a free and centralized affair, but remains the event at which families can ring in the new year. It takes a village of sponsors, performers, volunteers, and city support to sustain it, because, after all, making fun requires hard work.


“What Times Square is to New York, we want Copley Square to be to Boston,” said Dusty Rhodes, the founder and president of Conventures Inc., a Boston event planner.

Her company, known for throwing galas and bringing tall ships to Boston Harbor, took on the production of First Night and First Day — that’s the daylight sibling of the venerable evening event — pro bono as a labor of love last year.

She’s expecting 300,000 people to show up between Saturday and Sunday.

To make it all happen, they’ve dedicated 3,000 hours of work. Planning began in May.

Once again, money needed to be raised. Roughly $400,000 was required to break even.

Then, acts were needed. Hundreds applied earlier this year — fire-twirlers and acrobats and acoustic guitarists. That was whittled down to 200 performers, some on the main stage, some among the crowds, over two days, said Hanna Demirjian, entertainment manager for First Night First Day with Conventures. This includes salsa dancing, ballroom dancing lessons, bands, street entertainers, and an indoor puppet theatre.


Expect fireworks over Boston Common and a pyrotechnic display at midnight in Copley Square, which counts down to 2017 on the face of the Boston Public Library.

There was a survey a few years back, said Steve Rose, ice sculptor and owner of Ice Effects in Rockland. It asked people about the best part of First Night. All agreed it was the fireworks and the ice sculptures.

Rose said he has worked on the event since 1987. He has missed only one year since, after he blew his knee out while skiing.

This year, he has some sculptures that are 8 or 9 feet tall. Others are 14 to 15 feet tall.

They’re planning to finish carving on site over the next few days.

“Somewhere along the lines, ice sculptures became synonymous with First Night,” Rose said.

For those who want to avoid the crowds, NECN/NBC Boston will broadcast the First Night festivities this year.

For those who want to be in the mix, the People’s Procession is always looking for volunteers to carry puppets through the crowd.

Sara Peattie, cofounder of the nonprofit Puppeteers’ Cooperative, has brought puppets to First Night since the first year.

This year, she drew inspiration for the puppets from the city. The display features a dreamy bunch of illuminated buildings, birds, and a large inflatable snake.

Peattie expects to have 50 or 60 puppets, but may grab morefrom the Puppet Free Library in the basement of Newbury Street’s historic Emmanuel Church. Peattie sees First Night as an annual renewal for Boston to do some self-reflection.


“The city has a collective consciousness, and it evolves that consciousness by dealing with itself through events like this,” Peattie said. “It’s a way of the city considering itself emotionally and visually rather than intellectually.”

Puppet maker Sara Peattie has brought puppets to the First Night celebration since its first year.Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff

There are 12 city departments involved in First Night, including the Police Department, Parks and Recreation, mayor’s office, Public Works, and Inspectional Services.

“If the nonprofit corporation behind First Night had to pay for the public safety support, there’s no way this could happen,” Rhodes said. “The City of Boston is very much a partner in this.”

Rhodes’s favorite moment is two minutes before midnight. As loved ones stroll hand-in-hand, they can hardly imagine what is about to happen overhead. Rhodes said she savors the moment when the hoots and the yells start as the crowd looks in awe at the colorful display.

“I would like to see this grow into something really warm and wonderful that’s there every year,” Rhodes said.

“I think we’re on the right path. It needed to be totally rethought with a new brand and new idea. That’s what we did in ’16 and that’s what we’re hoping to do in ’17.”

Some of the Puppet's made by Sara Beattie at her shop on Newbury Street. Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff/Globe Staff

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.