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First Night Evanston Returns After 8-Year Hiatus

Organizers are bringing back the New Year’s Eve event to Raymond Park this year, with Grammy Award-winning harmonicist Howard Levy among the headliners.

After an eight-year hiatus, Evanston’s First Night celebration is coming back this New Year’s Eve.

Organizers have been working to bring the celebration back for the last year and a half, and plans finally began to take firm shape this fall—just in time for Evanston’s 150th anniversary celebration.  

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"As we close out Evanston's 150th-anniversary celebration, First Night Evanston symbolizes a brand new start not only for the city but also for families, friends and residents in the Chicagoland area," organizer Emily Guthrie said in a press release.

A group of Evanston residents organized the inaugural First Night here in 1992, inspired by Boston’s First Night festivities, which began in 1976. The celebration continued for 13 years, with a peak attendance of 15,000 people for the Millennium. Then, in 2005, things got rocky, according to Emily Guthrie, who served on the First Night board from 1992 to 2002. 

“The committee just had too much infighting, and 26 people just walked out of a room and quit,” she told Patch.

But she and others were disappointed to see it go. Now, Guthrie says she has a core group of roughly 20 people who meet once a month, and another 60 who have indicated they are willing to help. They have been raising funds from dozens of local businesses, the city of Evanston and through sales of “Evanstonopoly,” an Evanston-themed Monopoly game for sale at the Downtown Evanston office, 820 Davis St.

With dozens of committee meetings under their belt, the group’s plans are big: First Night 2013 will have nearly 30 musical and theatrical performances, a poetry slam and several events for children. Headliners announced this week included Grammy Award-winning harmonicist Howard Levy, folk and blues singer Corky Siegel, jazz guitarist Bobby Broom and bluegrass singer James King. Festivities begin at 1 p.m. with crafts, storytelling, music and a flea circus planned for children.

“The committee wanted to provide a distinctive cultural event that offers entertainment for all ages,” Guthrie said in the release. “We felt it was necessary to ensure families in Evanston and surrounding communities can fully enjoy themselves on New Year’s Eve, taking part in all of the sights and sounds.” 

In previous years, First Night Evanston took place on several blocks between Emerson and Lake streets to the north and south and between Hinman and Ridge avenues to the east and west. Churches, businesses, and other downtown spaces opened their lobbies to the celebration, and at 10 minutes to midnight, people would go down to the lake for fireworks, according to Guthrie. 

This year, the committee will hold the event in Raymond Park, with several indoor venues hosting musicians and artists, all within a two-block radius.

Beyond Evanston’s First Night celebration, there are only two others in Illinois—one in Springfield, and one at Lewis and Clark Community College near St. Louis.  

“One of the things that has always been really gratifying to me is we go to the street fairs and festivals and people come over to us and say, ‘I’m so glad you’re bringing this back. I enjoyed it so much. It was reasonable, it was fun and it was local,’” Guthrie says.

In its previous incarnation, First Night Evanston regularly drew a crowd of 4,000 people, according to Guthrie. This year, organizers are hoping for 3,000.

“I’m hoping we sell out and have to say, ‘Gee, we’re sorry, we don’t have any more,’” she says.

Tickets are now available online for $15 through Dec. 26. Kids ages 9 to 17 are $10, while children under age 8 are free when accompanied by an adult with paid admission. 

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