With Public Drinking Banned, Zeren Earls Makes Sure Boston Pops Its Cork on 'First Night'

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Thirteen years ago, Zeren Earls and some artist friends were whiling away a so-so New Year's Eve sitting around a kitchen table in Boston, trying to create the perfect party hat. This was not the most fun they had ever had. There had to be a better way to ring in the new, they mused. Then inspiration struck: They would create the perfect party—and invite the whole city to it.

So began First Night, Boston's all-day extravaganza of music, dancing and artistry. It is the city's answer to Mardi Gras, but with a temperate twist: No public drinking is allowed. The teetotaling apparently hasn't dampened many spirits, since this year's 13th annual New Year's Eve superfestival is expected to lure more than a half-million people, who will pay $5 each for a button admitting them to 100 events. There is even an afternoon party for children that includes mimes, puppet shows, storytelling and sing-alongs.

First Night has become an instant tradition in a city where Paul Revere is still considered the new guy in town, and it is spreading fast across the U.S. and Canada, where 23 other cities also hold celebrations. "It's a way to bring the community together and get away from drunken revelry," says Earls, 51, a former teacher who became the full-time director of the gala eight years ago.

One day of wholesome fun turns out to require a full year of diligent planning. Assisted by a handful of paid staffers and hundreds of volunteers, Earls must solicit the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations needed to finance the event. Meanwhile he must cope with a deluge of applications from all the string bands, big bands, choirs and performance artists who ask to participate. There are also contracts to be worked out, as well as permits and equipment rentals—including forklifts to stack enormous ice blocks in Boston Common, where chain saw-wielding artists shape them into sculptures.

Almost every step of the Grand Procession, a parade of about 1,000 celebrants that snakes along Boylston Street, is choreographed, except perhaps for the shimmying of the all-female Brazilian samba band marching this year. At midnight, the extravaganza ends with a fireworks display over Boston Harbor, telling revelers that it's time to go home and Earls that it's time to begin work on next year's festival.

—Paula Chin, and S. Avery Brown in Boston

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