By Kristi Niemeyer
Twenty-one years ago, Tom Benson harmonized with a quartet as part of the inaugural First Night Missoula. It was bitterly cold, he recalls, and their venue – the old Mammyth Bakery – was overflowing with an appreciative crowd.
When he joined a throng at the county courthouse for the countdown to midnight, he heard the same stories all around: venues were packed and the audiences loved it all.
“That’s when I realized this is not about one act, it’s about the whole shebang,” he says.
Benson is now director of “the whole shebang,” as well as First Night’s umbrella organization, the Missoula Cultural Council. And he continues to be energized and inspired by the artful embrace of the New Year.
First Night Missoula was launched by a University of Montana graduate student, Graham Dewyea, who had experienced First Night celebrations in Burlington, Vt. He thought it was a good fit for Missoula and spent a year “recruiting converts.”
Benson says the first event proved that Missoulians “were just hungry for entertainment and connection on New Year’s Eve.”
And they weren’t alone. The First Night phenomenon, born in Boston in 1976, had spread to 200 cities by the turn of this century. But an economic slowdown and the sheer logistics of organizing a community-wide arts celebration took its toll. Now, around 45 towns, large and small, host First Night, including Kalispell and Spokane.
For First Night Missoula, part of the recipe for success came from its eventual merger with the Missoula Cultural Council. As one organization, First Night and the cultural council share staff and fundraising, while the celebration serves as the council’s flagship event. “It doesn’t work for everyone,” says Benson, “but it works for us.”
Over the years, First Night has flourished, expanding from its first home in downtown Missoula to the UM campus and Southgate Mall. Attendance has leveled off at between 7,000 and 8,000 people, who partake in up to 80 events and activities at 30 venues.
Benson likens First Night to “an old-fashioned barn-raising. People lend whatever they can – whether it’s artists, financiers or volunteers – they come out of the woodwork and say, ‘how can we help?’”
“It really is a community-building project,” he adds.
Although he no longer performs for First Night audiences, Benson takes time from his duties to watch and listen.
“I really enjoy the human energy and excitement. At its heart, it’s a celebration of art, place and the passage of time.”
Find a First Night in your neighborhood:
Missoula, Kalispell and Spokane welcome 2015 with First Night, a community-wide celebration of the arts.
Missoula: The Missoula Cultural Council’s 21st annual First Night showcases 80 performances and activities at more than 30 venues on Dec. 31.
Special events include the Children’s Parade of Hats at Southgate Mall at 1 p.m.; ice carving on the courthouse lawn; the First Night Spotlight High School talent competition; performances by Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre, Dublin Gulch, The Celtic Dragon Pipe Band, Malarkey, Salsa Loca, the John Floridis Trio, Tom Catmull’s Radio Static and many more; and the Grand Finale at the University Center with a choice between the Ed Norton Big Band and the Drum Brothers.
Buttons are $15-$18 and free for children ages 7 and under; call 541-0860 or visit www.missoulacultural.org.
Kalispell: The 16th annual First Night Flathead kicks off with free family activities from 1-4 p.m. at the Kalispell Center Mall, followed by musical performances from 7 p.m.-12:30 a.m. at various downtown venues. Performers include Rob, Halladay and Guthrie Quist, the Kenny James Miller Band, Jack Gladstone, Luke Dowler, Tra le Gael, and the Tropical Montana Marimba Ensemble. Call 257-1535 or visit www.firstnightflathead.org.
Spokane: The city’s giant New Year’s Eve celebration wraps up with a grand finale at Riverfront Park. Call 509-456-0580 or visit www.firstnightspokane.org.