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A fresh start for Scranton’s First Night ...

2009 was almost the first year there wasn’t a First Night in Scranton since the event’s inception. After 10 successful years of the New Year’s Eve celebration, organizer Scranton Tomorrow decided to bow out. But instead of that spelling the end of First Night, it proved to be a new beginning.

At the behest of Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, Andrea Talarico and Salvatore “Sam” Schiavone took over, and First Night was saved. For nearly a year, Talarico, a bookstore owner, and Schiavone, a financial consultant, became co-chairpersons and along with other volunteers have been working to make sure First Night remains a reality in downtown Scranton.

This year’s theme is “Under The Big Top,” and 21 different venues will host diverse musical performances, comedians, magicians and other activities. Tying in with the big top theme, Pittsburgh troupe Zany Umbrella circus will headline the event with its blend of puppetry, circus, music, storytelling, street theatre and visual arts at the Mellow Theater.

During an interview earlier this month at Talarico’s Scranton store, Anthology Books, she and Schiavone said they initially hoped to start from scratch and revamp First Night. But after starting the planning process, they realized how good of a job Scranton Tomorrow had done.

“In the beginning, we had delusions of grandeur of completely turning it on its side,” Schiavone said.

The challenges revealed themselves quickly: Finding the right entertainment and pairing it with the right venues. Finding volunteers for an event which used to, but no longer, pays some of its workers. Appeal to families and younger people while keeping First Night alcohol-free.

One way they worked on the latter task was by adding some local bands that, Talarico said, “tend to appeal to a younger crowd, ‘the drinking crowd,’ I say politely.” So Cabinet and And The Moneynotes were added to the roster of performers. Both bands, Talarico said, were excited to play at First Night.

“They had not been approached before,” she said.

Schiavone said one of the biggest surprises for him was how many performers needed little convincing to sign on.

“The thing that really shocked me was being able to book really good entertainment on that night,” he said, noting many bands are often booked for New Year’s Eve. “We were flooded with so many people that wanted to get involved. Previously, there were barriers to entry.”

“The hardest part,” Talarico said, “was turning people down.”

The performers are paid via money from the city and event sponsors.

While inclement weather is always a possibility in December, First Night has plans in place to make the event as convenient as possible, with free parking at several city lots as well as free shuttle trolleys all night. And, besides the main stage, all of the venues are indoors.

To help raise money and publicity for First Night 2009, fundraising events were held at downtown bars The Bog and Kildare’s. The committee has also used Facebook (facebook.com/firstnightscranton) to reach potential volunteers and event goers.

Talarico and Schiavone said they met with previous First Night organizers get a feel for the planning process. Bruce Miller has acted as a liaison between the city and the event committee. The chairpersons also credited the help of Kevin Mitchell from the city’s Office of Economic and Community Development and city lawyer Gina McAndrew. Also, students from Johnson College painted and carved the pillars which will serve as markers for the venues.

Admission buttons, which sell for $10 before Christmas and $12 thereafter (free for children under five years old and seniors over 65), are available at all Gerrity’s supermarkets, Duffy Accessories (218 Linden St ), Outrageous (515 Center St.), Anthology Books (also at 515 Center St.), The Mall at Steamtown and the Viewmont Mall. Beginning at 6 p.m. on Dec. 31, they’ll also be sold at the First Night headquarters in the Scranton Life building (536 Spruce St.)

Talarico said they expect between 4,000 and 5,000 attendees, and during the midnight fireworks display at Courthouse Square, up to 10,000 revelers can spill into the streets.

Asked about the first thing she did when she was tapped to help take over First Night, Talarico joked “freak out” and “hyperventilate.” But she and Schiavone are looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labor. And, she added, with the only other semi-local First Night events being in Hazleton and Binghamton, N.Y., the Scranton festival’s draw should reach beyond the city limits.

“We’re trying not to think of it as a Scranton thing, but a greater Scranton-area thing,” she said.

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First Night Scranton, Thursday, Dec. 31, 6 p.m.-midnight, at various downtown venues. Visit scrantonfirstnight.com for list of events, venues and where to buy admission buttons, which sell for $10 before Christmas and $12 thereafter.

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