First Night Westport In Peril

For nearly 25 years, First Night has been a Westport tradition.

On New Year’s Eve, Westporters gather downtown and across the river. Indoors and out, they’re entertained by musicians, ice sculptors, comedians and caricaturists. They watch stars through telescopes, and see fireworks shot in the sky. They dance and dine.

It’s a family-friendly, alcohol-free festival.

Once upon a time, there were hundreds of First Nights across the country. Over the years though, they’ve dwindled. Last year there were only 2 in Connecticut: Westport and Hartford.

Now there may be just one.

Last year’s button

Last night, the First Night Westport Weston board voted to end the event — immediately. They’d dissolve their corporation, and donate whatever money is left to charity.

The event costs $50,000 — perhaps more — to run. Ticket sales account for half. The town of Westport chips in $7,000. Weston gives $750 — but may eliminate that, perhaps in retaliation for higher beach fees.

Barbara Pearson Rac — the longtime volunteer director — explained that over the past few years, bank sponsors like TD, Patriot and People’s have pulled out.

Pearson Rac — who is 72, and works full-time as an accountant — notes that it’s been difficult to recruit younger board members. And, she adds, with so many great events throughout the year in Westport now, First Night has “lost its panache. It’s just another thing.”

Last year, the Saugatuck River froze. Fireworks were canceled. Attendance plummeted.

A horse-drawn sleigh was one of First Night’s many attractions.

It sounds like First Night Westport Weston is now only a memory. There is no button design. Venues are not set. Performers already signed have been told it’s off.

But wait! A few moments ago, Pearson Rac agreed that if enough angels step up by a week from today — Thursday, November 15 — First Night might still live.

The First Night ball is in our court. If you’d like to help, click “Comments” below. Or contact Barbara Pearson Rac directly: bpr1946@yahoo.com.

First Selectman Jim Marpe (left) is a long-time First Night volunteer.

7 responses to “First Night Westport In Peril

  1. We stumbled across what I believe was the first First Night ever 1978 In Boston. It has always been a great event for Westport but….. remember St. Anthony’s Festival and later The Italian Festival. I guess time takes its toll. We still do have the Yankee Doodle Fair which remarkably has stood the test of time.

  2. This would be unfortunate but understandable given the diminishing attendance in recent years. Also hard to hype the event if the big draws such as the fireworks are last minute cancellations, while hard to control due to weather, are most definitely gaps that create lower enthusiasm for the next year. Another good example of a well intentioned event that is best financed privately and either continues or not due to old-fashioned market forces.

  3. Bill Boyd... Staples 66

    “Weston may withhold its $750 contribution as payback for raised beach fees….” That is too funny…errr.. lame…let them find their own beach……$750???!!!

  4. Zulma Heidelberg Ernie Heidelberg

    Zulma Heidelberg
    We always look forward to First Night.
    Last couple of years we had volunteered and that was also lots of fun !!
    We will really miss it.
    Please create a “not-for -profit fund” . May be call it ” Funds for First Night” and ask people to contribute.
    Certainly hope that sufficient funds can be collected.
    Zulma and Ernie Heidelberg

  5. There are still quite a few “first Nights / Lights / Strolls” in Fairfield County … very different tho: typically they take place in the center of town where it’s an opportunity for business owners to connect / with their shoppers in a festive fashion – Decorating their shops, opening their doors, offering anything from candy canes to hot cider or other business related trinkets .. of course sponsors are needed for horse & carriage rides, police officers, etc , the rest of the entertainment : local bands, magicians other etc did it for free with business cards in hand – it’s free marketing .

    Last year we had just moved to Westport – My friends & I purchased buttons for our families to support the cause and to possibly (it’s a busy night!) catch the fireworks … I then Learned that it was spread over different locations , and everything was geared towards very young children .

    If local businesses are interested , with a little re-vamping (see above) another night, with earlier fireworks – maybe folding in the lighting of the tree – could be great!!

  6. David J. Loffredo

    How about we get Matt Mandell and his creative crew to create more of an adults version of New Years Eve downtown? Close the street, open up bars and restaurants, music, ice sculptures? Could even drop our own ball at midnight?

  7. It would be a shame for this to end. I own the Winged Monkey in town as well as being a full-time resident of Westport. We would be happy to support this event in some way and Look forward to hearing from whoever is in charge. Please email me at info@wingedmonkey.net

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