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Cashing in on First Night

Organizers tap American music and offer 23 venues. Calling it a business, they also hope to make money.

By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- To present the seven-plus hours of arts and entertainment called First Night, organizers work more than a year. They seek cash from sponsors, sign up in-kind contributions, audition musical acts, find artists with interactive creations and line up fireworks shows for the New Year's Eve bash.

Then they pray it won't rain or turn too cold.

The alcohol-free celebration is put on by a not-for-profit corporation of mostly volunteers and emphasizes the arts as the best medium to send out the old year and welcome in the new.

But First Night must function as a business, and as such, must worry about making enough money to keep going. The tab for this year's celebration is $125,000, said Pat Mason, executive director of the event since it started in St. Petersburg in 1992. Only once in that time has First Night not been able to pay its bills. It is faring well when others across the nation, including Tampa's, have been canceled.

"I think we have a lot of support from a city government interested in seeing First Night continue," Mason said. That includes a $25,000 contribution this year and cooperation from recreation, traffic and police officials.

In 1999, 225 cities across the nation participated in First Night, the largest number since the celebration began in Boston in 1976. That number has fallen way off in the past few years. This year there are 135, according to Naima Kradjian, president and chief executive officer of First Night International in Binghamton, N.Y. Part of the fallout came from those who signed on for the millennium arrival and have since dropped out. Others are facing budget crunches.

Kradjian believes First Night overall is holding its own and doing well to do that.

"I think that is a good thing in recessionary times. You see arts agencies in general getting cut," she said. "Corporate sponsorships are down across the board for all festivals and events. First Night has had difficulty raising the same amount of funds."

That was true of St. Petersburg this year. Mason said First Night hoped to get $45,000 from sponsors but received $37,500.

St. Petersburg's First Night 2001 (New Year's Eve 2000) was a casualty of the weather financially. It was so cold, the festival did not attract enough participants to pay the bills. The First Night organization was forced to dip into its savings account.

Mason said the group wants to build up its savings to one year's costs so it is prepared if the weather again keeps people away.

Last year approximately 10,000 tickets were sold and about half again as many people showed up to sample parts of the celebration that are free, such as the fireworks, Mason said.

Mason said First Night wants people to buy the buttons or tickets for the venues, however.

"Button sales help us put on the event," she said.

This year is St. Petersburg's 10th First Night. It will be marked with a birthday party, cake and balloons during part of the festival. But mainly it is about the arts.

"It brings arts out on the streets. It shows people arts are important to their lives," Mason said.

First Night is not against alcohol, according to Kradjian of First Night International.

"It's just not the focus. We do not accept sponsorship (from alcohol-related businesses) and do not serve alcohol. But you do want your bars and restaurants downtown to be happy," Kradjian said.

"Part of what First Night does is bring people into the heart of their city," she added.

In St. Petersburg, the celebration is held on the city's public waterfront and venues nearby, stretching east to the Pier, as far north as the Palladium on Fifth Avenue N, south to American Stage on Third Street S and west to the Arts Center at Central Avenue and Seventh Street N. Many of them are clustered near Williams Park.

Planning for this year's New Year's Eve in St. Petersburg began in October 2001 with preparation of a state grant application. The schedule was ready by August so that it would be printed and available by mid November. That meant talent auditions early in 2002.

Mason said the festival gets help from businesses that donate services or give breaks on costs, such as discounts printing programs and posters.

The largest single amount paid out, Mason said, is for the talent, between $40,000 and $50,000. She would not disclose the individual amounts paid to acts. She said none of the artists volunteer time; all are paid. The amounts depend on what the art or performance is and how much in demand the acts are.

In addition to the money contributed by sponsors, and the city's $25,000, Pinellas County put in $6,700; the state of Florida, $6,000, and First Night International, $400.

The rest of the money comes from the sale of admission buttons. This year's events technically are paid for from last year's button money. Advance-purchase prices for First Night 2003 are $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12. Children age 5 and under are free. The price for adults rises to $10 at the event. One reason for that, Mason said, is so not so much change has to be made with $1 bills.

The "organization" that puts on this festival consists of Mason, who earns $26,000 per year for what is nearly a full-time job, and one part-time staff member. It is run by a volunteer board of directors. Free office space is provided by Bankers Insurance, Mason said.

This year there are 23 venues. First Night's theme is American music and 10 stages will offer a variety of it, ranging from piano concerts of Aaron Copland music by Giancomo Franci to swing dance lessons by the owners of the Savoy South ballroom in Pinellas Park to jazz with Buster Cooper. Classical, gospel, blues, blue grass and rock and roll also are featured.

A video with musical excerpts from a new play about the Manhattan Casino will be aired in one venue. The play premiers in February and tells the story of a club that was an essential part of entertainment for African-Americans in St. Petersburg, drawing the likes of Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.

Firstkids includes body art, mask making, a portrait studio and a chance to play music with the Second Time Arounders Marching Band.

In addition to swing dancing, First Night will have ballet, modern dance, cloggers, folk dances and American Indian dance with storytelling and crafts.

First Night buttons

First Night buttons are $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12, if purchased ahead of time. The buttons are available for advance purchase at:

Publix at Northeast Shopping Center.

Tyrone Square Mall-City Hall booth in the mall.

The Pier.

Bayfront Center box office.

City Hall at Fifth Street and Second Avenue N.

The Arts Center, Seventh Street and Central Avenue.

Chamber of Commerce, Second Avenue N and First Street.

Selected GNC stores.

-- At First Night, buttons may be bought at all major venues or the First Night information booth at Second Avenue and Beach Drive.


A. Classical Stage 1, St. Peter's Sanctuary, 140 Fourth St. N.

7 to 7:30, 8:45 to 9:15, 9:30 to 10, 10:15 to 10:45 -- Eckerd College Winter Sun Quintets.

7:45 to 8:30 -- Crescendo Singers.

B. Gospel Stage, First Methodist Sanctuary, 212 Third St. N

7 to 7:45 -- Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church Choir

8 to 8:45 -- The Mass Choir at Bethel Community Baptist Church

9 to 9:45 -- Belinda Womack and Gospel Praise.

C. Cajun Stage, First Methodist Fellowship Hall, 212 Third St. N

7 to 12 -- Porchdogs, Cajun food.

D. Native American Stage, Williams Park

7 to 11:30 -- Big Thunder Enterprises.

E. Swing Stage, Central Avenue between Second and Third streets

7 to 12 -- Swing dancing with Savoy South.

F. Rock 'n' Roll Stage, Jannus Landing, Second Street and First Avenue N.

7 to 11:30 -- Barely Pink.

G. Bluegrass Stage, the Plaza, Second Avenue and First Street N.

7 to 11:30 -- Gypsy Wind.

H. Classical Stage 2, Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE.

(1) 7 to 7:45, 8:45 to 9:15, 10:15 to 10:45 and 11 to 11:30 -- Winter Sun Festival players.

(2) 8 to 8:30 and 9:30 to 10 -- Aaron Copland Concert, Giacomo Franci.

I. Blues Stage, North Straub Park.

8 to 10 -- Walter Smith and Chicago Nights.

10 to 12:30 -- The Mick Sharp Band.

8 to 8:30 and 9 to 9:30 -- Moving Current Dance Company in the Bombax Tree.

7 to 12 -- Trip to St. Petersburgs -- Florida to Russia.

J. Jazz Stage, the Pier.

7 to 12

(1) The Buster Cooper Band.

(2) Herb Snitzer, photographs of jazz greats.


1. Bayfront Medical Center's Firstkids, the Arts Center.

5:30 to 8:30 -- The Hat Salon -- First NightCaps; mask making; musical petting zoo; portrait studio -- Beth Reynolds takes your picture; Great Explorations -- tile making; Body Art -- make an arty body with Bayfront Medical Center.

6 to 6:30, 7 to 7:30 and 8 to 8:30 -- Razzmatazz Theater, Lowell Tauzik.

6:30 to 7:10 and 7:30 to 8:10 -- Whimsical Notions Theater.

2. Sunshine Center

(1) 8 to 8:30 and 10 to 10:30 -- Mental Mystery Tour.

(2) 7 to 7:45 and 8:45 to 9:45 -- Suzanne and Jim Oldetime Entertainment, banjo pickin'.

3. Mirror Lake Library

(1) 7:45 to 8:30 and 9:30 to 10:15 -- Windell Campbell storytelling.

(2) 7 to 7:30, 8:45 to 9:15 and 10:30 to 11 -- Harmonica Troubadour.

4. St. Peter's Hall

7 to 8 -- Baroque guitar and flute, featuring Joe Braccio and Barbara Prescott.

8:30 to 9:30 -- Manhattan Casino Excerpts (musical excerpts from the new original play by Bob Devin Jones premiering in February 2003 at the Coliseum).

5. Municipal Services Building

7-10 -- American Stage -- Arts Center Video.

6. American Stage

7 to 8:30 and 9 to 10:30 -- Dragon Fire -- American Stage's FirstStage Children's Theatre.

7. The Palladium

7:15 to 7:45 -- Southern Jubilee Cloggers.

8 to 8:45 -- Bits and Pieces Puppet Theater

10 to 10:30 -- The Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus.

8. Central Avenue between Second and Third streets.

10 -- Cake served

(1) Birthday cake balloons, balloon arch.

(2) Scott Smith, "Uncle Sam" balloon making.

(3) Rasta Pasta -- Joe Braccio, Dave Holmstrand on the steel drums.

9. Bank of America Tower, Central Avenue and Second Street

7 to 11 -- The Birthday Party, the Oiseaux Sisters and Betsy Lester.

10. Florida International Museum, 100 Second St. N

1) 8 to 8:30 and 9:30 to 10 -- St. Petersburg Folk Ensemble -- Russian folk dance.

2) 7:15 to 7:45, 8:45 to 9:15 and 10:15 to 10:45 -- Boris Lebedinsky plays the balalaika.

3) 7 to 11 -- 100-300th birthday celebration kickoff -- Robert and Cathy Schott, muralists, will paint a mural commemorating the birthdays. (Third Street side).

11. Baywalk, First Street, Second Avenue N

8 to 8:45 and 9:30 to 10:15 -- Dundu Dole Urban Ballet

7:15 to 7:45 and 8:45 to 9:15 -- Youth Arts Corps, Drum and Dance.

12. South Straub Park, Beach Drive

1) 7 to 11:30 -- Bridging St. Petersburgs, an art quilt project.

2) 7 to 12 -- The Labyrinthe.

3) 7 to 12 -- Bayfront Medical Center's Ribbon of Hope.

13. Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. N

1) 8:15 to 9 and 10 to 10:45 -- "Salvador Dali -- Dream This."

2) 7:30 to 8, 9:15 to 9:45 and 11 to 11:30 -- Manhattan Casino film, Live Arts Peninsula,

14. The Pier

7-11 -- Mask making.

At the Vinoy Basin

9 -- First Fireworks

Midnight -- Finale Fireworks.

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