Tom Benson, executive director of First Night Missoula, the annual celebration of the arts that occurs every December 31, says the best part of the day is seeing the community come together to enjoy the performances, which range from Greek dancing to puppet theater to juggling comedians to the Big Sky Mudflaps.
Last year's turnout was the highest ever, he says, numbering around 8,000 people. "That's more than 10 percent of Missoula," Benson observes, adding that the number of festival attendees has grown by more than 1,000 for each of the five years that First Night has taken place. The success of Missoula's First Nights has even led to the formation of the first annual First Night celebration in the Flathead Valley this year, hopefully the start of a new tradition.
First Night activities began in Boston in 1976 and are now celebrated by over 200 cities in several different countries. Benson says it was conceived as a grassroots community effort to encourage citizens to revel in local arts. New Year's Eve was chosen because of the festive associations with the holiday, but early on First Night was declared alcohol- and drug-free.
Initially, Benson says, there was a bit of tension over the booze-free atmosphere, but that doesn't mean he disapproves of folks sipping a drink or two in the progression of the evening. "A lot of people have a drink along the way," Benson says. "First Night is not a temperance organization."
First Night is, however, the chance to see a large and varied number of performances happening simultaneously in one day, from 3 p.m. to about midnight, at nearly 35 locations in Missoula, including the University Theatre, the Boys and Girls Club of Missoula and the Missoula Children's Theatre. The admission button, $7 in advance and $10 on December 31, entitles patrons to see any or all the events. Beach school buses will transport button wearers free of charge to different venues until 1 a.m.
Benson says his goal is to visit every performance location and ticks off a few that should be highlights, including the all-day ice sculptors on the Missoula Courthouse grounds, the now New Jersey-based ska favorites the Skoidats and the "phenomenal" Celtic traditionalists Dublin Gulch from Butte.
"We try to have something for everybody," Benson explains.
No matter how frigid the weather, a grand finale featuring a countdown and music by the Drum Bothers will take place at midnight in Caras Park.
Benson and other First Night committee members have already begun planning next year's millennial blow-out. He says at this point there are only ideas, nothing concrete, but he predicts there will be some sort of incorporation of landscapes, such as the river or a bridge, as well as a huge parade involving various sectors of town merging in the center of Missoula.
"There's also talk of a permanent art structure to commemorate the day," Benson says, noting that the only thing certain about 2000's First Night is that it'll be "big."