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THE START OF SOMETHING NEW : Fullerton Welcomes '92 With First-Time, 'First Night' Tradition of Arts Over Alcohol

December 26, 1991|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

The singing Del Rubio Triplets. A woman who spins wool from live Angora rabbits. A man who bills himself as "Mr. Tesla Coil." A troupe of tap-dancing seniors.

Fullerton has reached into some odd corners of the entertainment field in hopes of weaning revelers from the bottle this New Year's Eve. In addition to these winsome bits of esoterica, the city also has arrayed some more conventional acts, ranging from ragtime to improvisational comedy--almost 100 activities and performances.

It's all happening under the title "First Night Fullerton," a moniker borrowed from an event that started in Boston in 1976 and has since spread to 75 cities in the United States and Canada. Fullerton is one of 20 cities trying it for the first time this year and is the first city in Southern California to have a "First Night."

The idea for the event "grew out of the need to do something creative as an alternative to traditional New Year's Eve revelry," explains Zeren Earls, one of the founders of "First Night" in Boston. "The focus is on the arts, and not your traditional parties."

In Boston, the family event drew 60,000 people its first year; last year, estimates were half a million. In addition to being an alcohol-free way to ring in the New Year, the event has served to give exposure to local artists and arts organizations and is bringing people back to downtown Boston, where the events are centered.

"You had no reason to come to downtown Boston on New Year's Eve 16 years ago," Earls says. "Now, there's not a hotel room to be had."

The "First Night" concept has been adapted by communities of every size, from New York City to British Columbia's tiny Gabriola Island, which has 2,000 residents. "You have a concept here which is very flexible and works in a wide range of communities," says Earls, who runs the International Alliance of First Night Celebrations. The organization is host to annual conferences and is a clearinghouse for information on mounting "First Night" events.

Fullerton Museum Center director Joe Felz and city special events staff member Joe Garber had earlier discussed bringing "First Night" to Fullerton, but the idea picked up steam when the city hired special events coordinator Ann Mottola a year ago. Mottola had served as a volunteer at "First Night" celebrations in Providence, R.I., where she lived before coming out West.

Officials in Fullerton were attracted to the idea largely from a public safety standpoint, Mottola says, because it encourages people to celebrate without alcohol. But she and Felz were also excited about the chance to showcase local artists.

The city sent a call for proposals to more than 1,500 artists, performers and performing groups throughout Southern California; about 70 returned applications. A panel of visual artists and performers reviewed the applications and helped shape the final lineup.

"I wanted things that seemed a little more interactive," says Mottola. "On New Year's Eve, people want to be active, rather than just a passive audience."

Artists and performers are paid for their participation. "They're not asked to volunteer, as they are so many times in the year," Mottola says. "First Night" has received about $10,000 in support from businesses, with the rest of its budget coming this year from the city's Redevelopment Agency.

Mottola says the event needs to break even, or come close to it, to ensure that it will return in future years. The city expects to attract between 10,000 and 15,000 revelers this first year.

Festivities begin at 5 p.m. and conclude with a fireworks show at midnight. Events will be staged in downtown Fullerton on sidewalks, in parking lots and in a variety of buildings, including churches and vacant shops and restaurants as well as traditional theater spaces. Local artists have created special installations for some of the event sites.

People must buy a $5 "First Night" button for admission to all events. Buttons are available in advance at several sites in the city: the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave.; Community Services Department, 303 W. Commonwealth Ave.; Independence Park, 801 W. Valencia Drive; Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., and Fullerton Senior Multi-Service Center, 340 W. Commonwealth Ave.

A number of community groups are also selling admission buttons in advance, for which they keep $1 per button. Buttons will also be sold at the event, at information booths on Harbor, Wilshire and Amerige avenues, and at Wilshiree and Plummer auditoriums.

For the event, Harbor Boulevard between Chapman and Commonwealth avenues will be closed to vehicle traffic, as will all of Pomona Avenue and portions of Wilshire and Amerige avenues. Mottola insists that "First Night Fullerton" is not to be confused with the annual "A Night in Fullerton," held in April. "A Night in Fullerton" is designed as a tour of arts events throughout the city in their traditional settings; "First Night" brings artists and events into the downtown area.

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