First Night 2019 festivities canceled

WESTPORT — For the first time in 25 years, Westport’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration has been canceled.

“I’m sorry we’re disappointing everyone,” said Barbara Pearson-Rac, president of the First Night board, citing lack of funds and last year’s bitterly cold weather as reasons behind the cancellation. The townwide tradition is one of only two remaining First Nights in the entire state, the other being in Hartford.

“The fundraising just wasn’t there. ... The weather last year was just so horrible and we never experienced such a severe weather situation on First Night, so our attendance was down.”

When it came to organizing the 2019 celebration, Pearson-Rac said everything had already been planned, until the volunteer group realized the previous year’s low attendance resulted in less revenue going forward for this year, in addition to fewer sponsorships. The group typically relies on sponsorships and button sales to fund First Night.

However, there may be hope for the event’s return in time to ring in 2020.

“We may return next year. We are on a hiatus,” Pearson-Rac said. “Lots of people have expressed that they will miss the event. We have to decide what we want to do.”

Despite the cancellation, residents won’t go without New Year’s Eve festivities in town. The Westport Historical Society has stepped up to offer several family-oriented activities on Dec. 31.

While not nearly as grand as First Night, the event, dubbed “First Light,” will include face painting, crafts, movies, a digital caricaturist, musicians and food trucks, according to historical society Executive Director Ramin Ganeshram.

TD Bank is parnering with the society to offer a ballet troupe performance of parts of “The Nutcracker.”

“We put this together in about three days,” she said, noting some activities are still pending town approval. “It just shows the will and drive of the town to come together when they really need to.”

Similarly to First Night, the historical society is selling buttons as tickets for $10 online or $15 in person. Children ages 2 and under are free. The event will take place from 4 to 9 or 10 p.m. at the society’s building at 25 Avery Place, Ganeshram said.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said First Night has always been special to Westport because it gives families an opportunity to have fun as part of the larger community.

“I continue to be supportive of the First Night concept and admire and appreciate the efforts Barbara Pearson-Rac and her committees have put in over the years. I will be working with them to hopefully bring back First Night in 2020,” he said.

The idea of First Night originated from Boston in the 1970s as a drug and alcohol free New Year’s Eve alternative open to all ages. Throughout the years, the arts-centered party featured dozens of events throughout Westport for children, teens and adults, including music, dancing, comedy, ventriloquists, balloons and inflatable rides, star-gazing, horse-drawn carriage rides and fireworks.

As of Friday, the organization’s website and voicemail contained messages informing the public of the decision to cancel the event.

Includes previous reporting by Justin Papp;, 203-842-2582