Tag Archives: Barbara Pearson-Rac

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.

Unsung Hero #29

More than 40 years ago, Boston welcomed the new year with a “First Night” celebration. The city was filled with activities: music performances, comedians, kids’ stuff, ice carving. It was fun, family-friendly and fresh.

In the years that followed, communities around the country organized their own First Nights. They were great ways to ring in the new year.

They were also a ton of work. Gradually, most First Nights fell by the wayside.

But not Westport’s. For 22 years, residents — and anyone else who wants to wander by — have flocked downtown on December 31.

We’ve enjoyed carriage rides and bounce houses; dance recitals and sword swallowers; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musicians and classical pianists; comedy troupes and model train displays. We’ve gazed at the stars through telescopes, warmed ourselves by bonfires, and watched fireworks light the sky. (Unless, of course, the river freezes and the barge can’t get near the bridge.)

First Night Westport would not be possible without volunteers. For over 2 decades, Westporters of all ages have helped make it happen.

But none of it would be possible without Barbara Pearson-Rac. She’s the longtime president of the board of directors of First Night Westport — but even that title does not encompass what she does. She oversees — and rolls up her sleeves for — booking, scheduling, promoting, food, volunteers, on and on and on. Quite simply, without Barbara, there would be no First Night.

In her spare time, she’s chair and founder of Westport’s Make A Difference Day, and vice president of the Breast Cancer Survival Center.

Plus, she’s a published author (“On Track: A Diana Jeffries Mystery”).

Barbara Pearson-Rac — shown here at Town Hall, overseeing the 2015 First Night — is the mastermind behind Westport’s First Night.

I hope Barbara does not see that she is this week’s Unsung Hero. I hope she is taking a well-deserved rest, preferably on some warm tropical island.

But I doubt it.

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email dwoog@optonline.net)

 

First Night Is On! (But Fireworks Are Off)

Today — the last day of 2017 — is forecast to be one of the coldest of the year. Temperatures will peak at about 17 this afternoon, then drop to around 13 at night.

That should not deter anyone from First Night. In fact, it should inspire you! Sure, you’ll be chilly moving from event to event. But once inside the various venues, you’ll be toasty warm. And the outside stuff includes snuggle-close activities like horse-drawn carriage rides, stargazing and a warming fire.

In fact, the only casualty of the weather is the fireworks display.

For good reason: The Saugatuck River is frozen.

The Saugatuck River, as seen from Grace Salmon Park. The photo is from 2015 — but you get the idea. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The barge can’t get on the water. So — even though First Night director/guru Barbara Pearson-Rac spent the day with fire officials and the fireworks contractor trying to figure out a solution — that’s been scratched.

But that’s it! Everything else is on. Here are a few highlights:

  • Musical performances from Broadway, movies, jazz and the blues — including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mark Naftalin, award-winning pianist Chris Coogan, musical theater great Michele Grace and the School of Rock
  • A hypnotist
  • Train displays
  • Saugatuck School’s Kids Park, with indoor bounce houses, dancing, sing-alongs, balloon twisters, caricatures, a Magic Genie and ventriloquist
  • Theater acts
  • Puppet shows
  • Vaudeville
  • Family Zumba classes
  • Psychic readings
  • Comedy
  • Magic

Sites include Saugatuck Elementary School, Toquet Hall, the Westport Historical Society, Christ & Holy Trinity Church, Seabury Center, Jesup Green and more. (Click here for the full schedule.)

All performances are within walking distance. Free shuttles run from Jesup Green to Saugatuck Elementary.

First Night kicks off at 3:30 p.m., and runs through 10.

All you need is a button. They’re $15 each (kids under 2 are free), available online or at Trader Joe’s, Westport Library, Westport Historical Society, and Westport and Weston Town Halls. They’re also for sale during First Night itself at Town Hall and all venues.

Who needs fireworks, anyway?

Happy New Year!

(Hat tip: Kami Evans)

First Night: First Photos

Westport’s 22nd annual First Night celebration kicked off this afternoon.

The weather was perfect — no rain, sleet or ice, but just enough of a wintry nip in the air to make it New England-y — as kids, parents and grandparents strolled from site to site.

First Night continues through 10 p.m. tonight. Fireworks are set for 7:30 at Jesup Green — right near an outdoor warming fire, stargazing telescope and kettle corn.

Happy New Year!

A mother wrangles her young son at the Saugatuck Elementary School bounce house.

A mother wrangles her young son at the Saugatuck Elementary School bounce house.

A face painter gets ready for action.

A face painter gets ready for action.

First Night can't happen without volunteers. The crew at Saugatuck Elementary School included (from left) First Selectman Jim Marpe, his wife Mary Ellen, Rob Hauck and Johanna Rossi.

First Night can’t happen without volunteers. The crew at Saugatuck Elementary School included (from left) First Selectman Jim Marpe, his wife Mary Ellen, Rob Hauck and Johanna Rossi.

Dennis the Train Man is a popular attraction at the library. A retired conductor, he punches a ticket for a very intrigued youngster.

Dennis the Train Man is a popular attraction at the library. The retired conductor punches a ticket for a very intrigued youngster.

The Survivors provided swing music in the Westport Library's Great Hall.

The Survivors provided swing music in the Westport Library’s Great Hall.

Buses provide transportation between downtown and Saugatuck Elementary School. Enjoy the crane -- it won't be there for First Night 2017.

Buses provide transportation between downtown and Saugatuck Elementary School. Enjoy the crane — it won’t be there for First Night 2017.

The Westport Astronomical Society sets up a telescope outside the library. With the sun down now, the viewing is great.

The Westport Astronomical Society sets up a telescope outside the library. With the sun down now, the viewing is better than when this photo was taken.

A mixture of old and new: horse-drawn carriage rides passes Bedford Square construction on Church Lane.

A mixture of old and new: a horse-drawn carriage passes Bedford Square construction on Church Lane.

Barbara Pearson-Rac -- shown here at Town Hall -- is the mastermind behind Westport's First Night.

Barbara Pearson-Rac — shown here at Town Hall — is the mastermind behind Westport’s First Night.

First Night 2016 - program guide

First Night Forges Forward

Barbara Pearson-Rac’s life is intertwined with First Night.

She lived in Boston when that city inaugurated the original First Night — an alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration at a variety of venues, with performances, entertainment and fun for all ages.

She moved to Westport 21 years ago — the same year our town started its own First Night celebration.

She joined the board 2 years later. Now she’s president.

First Night 2015 logoAnd though other First Nights have come and gone, Westport’s remains vibrant and strong. It’s one of only 3 left in Connecticut — and, judging from their websites, ours blows Danbury’s and Hartford’s out of the water.

Barbara is a strong believer in community service. She chairs Westport’s Make a Difference Day and is involved in breast cancer awareness, among other activities.

First Night — a happy, upbeat event, on a day when everyone looks forward and feels fresh — holds a special place in her heart.

“It’s live entertainment,” she says. “It’s a way of introducing children to talent, and for adults to have plenty of fun too.”

But keeping First Night alive is hard. There’s a perception that it’s only for kids (it’s not). More families now travel over the holidays. Non-residents don’t think they’re invited (they are). And the threat of bad weather always hovers overhead.

Fireworks in winter -- a tradition that moves this year to Jesup Green.

Fireworks in winter — a tradition that moves this year to Jesup Green.

First Night is an all-volunteer effort. Attendance — by button-buying people — is crucial. Costs include performers, sound engineers, insurance, police and fire support, and pyrotechnics. (A barge is being rented this year, because the new Levitt Pavilion is no longer a viable spot for shooting fireworks.)

Westport’s First Night lives on thanks to the ongoing support of sponsors and the town of Westport, along with a very fiscally responsible board. While many First Nights have folded, Westport’s is now 21 years years old. “We’re legal!” Pearson-Roc jokes.

But it’s still alcohol-free.

(New events this year include a fashion show with a “Project Runway” contestant; 2 children’s performers; telescopes on Jesup Green, with Westport Astronomical Society members offering guidance, and popular college comic hypnotist Jim Spinnato. Regular keyboardist Mark Naftalin — hot off his election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — is back at the Westport Historical Society. For a full schedule, and information on buying buttons, click on www.firstnightww.com.)

Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band organist -- and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member -- Mark Naftalin is a First Night regular.

Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band organist — and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member — Mark Naftalin is a First Night regular.