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First Night Needham: growing in popularity

Posted by Your Town  December 24, 2008 07:30 AM

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By Denise Taylor, Globe Correspondent

She knew warm weather might imperil the ice sculptures. She knew each performer would need just the right stage set up. She even knew to advise downtown restaurants to stay open for the rush. But the one thing Jean Cronin Connolly didn’t expect to happen at last year’s New Year’s Needham was that admission buttons for the First Night-style event would sell out.

‘‘We had 2,500 buttons made and we ran out,’’ said Cronin Connolly, volunteer cochairwoman of the event. ‘‘It was our first year. We didn’t know if there was a need for a local celebration. We thought there was a need, but we didn’t know if people would come.’’

Come they did. And so for next Wednesday’s event, organizers are printing 5,000 buttons. They also expanded performances from 40 to 50 acts, increased programming for children and teens, upped the number of performance venues from 10 to 17, and added extra shuttles between venues. And while last year’s festivities ran only until 9 p.m., this time the streamers will be flying at two final events at midnight.

‘‘I do believe now that it’s a tradition,’’ said Cronin Connolly. ‘‘We got so much positive feedback last year that I think this will go on.’’

Organizers have set up an ambitious program despite a decline in cash grants and donations. ‘‘We’ve been hit hard by the economy just like everyone else,’’ said the other cochairwoman of New Year’s Needham, Louise Miller. ‘‘But our expenses were lower this year because things we are reusing like the banners hanging in town, which cost $5,000, were paid for out of last year’s budget. We’re also hoping button sales this year will help out.’’

Community support is also taking up the slack. Many local performers are donating their talents, and the town is providing venues and fire, police, public works and other services. Area businesses donated funds to the event as well as gift certificates that will be raffled off to those who purchase buttons. Local organizations donated performance space. Others have volunteered skills, such as designer David Linde of 18 Studio Group in Needham, who designed all the program materials gratis.

‘‘The town has been fabulous. You have to have fire crew and police for an event like this and they’re providing it,’’ said Cronin Connolly. ‘‘They have really made our lives so easy and they have been very supportive.’’

Events are centered in downtown Needham and feature 12 hours of live entertainment starting at noon on New Year’s Eve. Dancers will perform everything from hip-hop to ballet. Needham musicians and student bands will share concert lineups with headline acts including singer-songwriter Thea Hopkins and indie-folk rocker Chris Wilhelm. Magic acts, all-day craft activities, storytelling, movies, karaoke, and train rides await the kids. Meanwhile, all ages are invited to don masks and march in the Grand Masquerade Procession, and everyone can kick up their heels at the square and ballroom dances.

The program is also dotted with the unique. The daring duo known as F.A.D.E. (Fire, Acrobatics, and Dance Entertainment) will put on a juggling and tumbling show that turns playing with fire into a high art. Award-winning all-ages storyteller Katie Latimer will present Edgar Allen Poe’s murderous short ‘‘The Telltale Heart.’’ And Synesthesia will merge cello, clarinet, and chant with the words of National Poetry Slam champion Regi Gibson.

‘‘We have amazing musicians and dancers, but this year we also wanted to bring in some more unusual acts,’’ said Cronin Connolly.

Teens are also a new focus. They get their own party at the high school, with a live concert featuring teen rock bands born out of the Plugged-In program, Needham’s own civic-minded School of Rock.

‘‘We didn’t realize so many teenagers would turn up last year,’’ said Miller. ‘‘So we moved the teen programs to the high school, which holds more people, and we extended the entertainment until midnight. This year, teenagers will have somewhere safe to ring in the New Year.’’

A survey conducted on last year’s festivities came back overwhelmingly positive. Downtown businesses also reported that they reaped a few rewards.

‘‘It was the best night of the whole year for us last year,’’ said Ladda Arakputhanun, co-owner of the Rice Barn restaurant, who donated dining gift certificates to the button raffle. ‘‘It was great for us, so I wanted to donate to give back to the community.’’

And community, said Miller, is the main point. ‘‘It’s just so great to see people coming into the center of the town and celebrating and having a good time,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s a great way to start a new year.’’

New Year’s Needham, noon-midnight Wednesday at various locations in downtown Needham. Full schedule at www.needarts.org. Admission buttons: $5. All are invited to march in the 5:30 p.m. procession (bring masks, flashlights, and noisemakers).

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