An interview with Emily Guthrie, Board member since 1992 and current vice president
"First Night Evanston (FNE) began in December of 1992 after the idea was brought here by Anny Heydemann who attended one in Boston with her son and his family. She took the idea to Joe Zendell, staff person for the City of Evanston Arts Council. He found funding from the Illinois Arts Council, the City of Evanston, Northwestern University, the Evanston Arts Council, Downtown Evanston and many other local businesses and organizations.
The first event was held on the eve of 1993 and drew several thousand people. Eventually 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 Lakefront for fireworks, according to Guthrie.
To celebrate the millennium in 2000, over 15,000 people from 70+ zip codes joined in the daylong events. Evanston's was one of the largest New Year Eve’s events in the US with a budget of over $250,000. There were over 100 acts at more than 40 locations, all located in or near the downtown, with 500 volunteers helping staff the sites.
Then, in 2007, with the economic downturn, things got rocky. Many First Nights across the country and in Illinois had difficulty in getting funding. A lot of them closed shop. First Night Evanston found itself in the same position. In October 2007, the organization disbanded. All bills were paid, the corporation formally dissolved, and the 501c3 status abandoned.
As 2013 approached and planning began for the 150th anniversary of Evanston’s incorporation in 1863, several former First Night board members discussed bringing back the event to cap off the year following all the many other events taking place (nearly one a day). The organization re-incorporated with the State of Illinois and renewed the 501c3 status. A core group of roughly 20 people met once a month and were aided by another 60, all volunteers. Funds were raised from dozens of local businesses, the City of Evanston and through sales of "Evanstonopoly," an Evanston-themed Monopoly game.
So, on December 31st, 2013, despite 6” of snow falling by 6 p.m., over 3,000 people attended the renewed First Night Evanston. That year there were 30 musical and theatrical performances, a poetry slam, and afternoon events for children. Headliners included Grammy Award-winning harmonicist Howard Levy, folk and blues singer Corky Siegel, jazz guitarist Bobby Broom and bluegrass singer James King. The Nairobi Girls Choir was a last minute and very welcome addition when one of the artists fell ill. Festivities for children began at 1 p.m. with crafts, storytelling, music, and a flea circus with Professor Marvel Michael Kett.
"We knew we had support from local businesses, the hosting institutions, contributors and volunteers, but we didn't realize how big our audience would be. The community response was overwhelmingly positive," said President Anny Heydemann, the original founder.
First Night Evanston continues to bring together first-class talent, both national and local. The group’s goal is to provide a distinctive cultural event that offers entertainment for all ages. First Night wants to ensure families in Evanston and surrounding communities that they can fully enjoy themselves on New Year's Eve, taking part in all of the sights and sounds and at a reasonable price. Music ranges from bluegrass to Caribbean to jazz to opera. Magicians, poetry slams, and comedy, along with ballroom, folk, square and line dancing, also draw large audiences. Kids have their own events and activities to enjoy.
Since then, First Night Evanston has continued to bring together first-class talent, both national and local. The 2020 event was creatively engineered as a virtual event because of the pandemic and the lockdown. First Night hosted an intimate concert featuring Corky Siegel and friends. Admission was free and enough donations were made to fully compensate the performers. This year plans include a 2-hour variety show hosted by Corky Siegel with as many as 18 performers and groups.
Now we are encouraging folks to contribute to help fund the 12/31/21 event so that we can offer it for free. Our box office will open after December 1 so you can make a reservation with a suggested contribution of $35 (but with no minimum) . That way people can pay what they feel they can afford.
WHAT WE DO
First Methodist Church at 516 Church Street is hosting the event this year.
Parking is easily available at the City parking garage across the street at Church and Chicago. Vouchers to make the parking FREE will be available for the first 300 people to join us at the Church.
Please protect yourself and others by wearing a mask during the performances. Plan to provide proof of vaccination at the door.
First Night Evanston is a 501c3 non-profit Illinois corporation that relies on the generosity of local businesses, civic associations and individuals to keep this annual tradition alive.
Their contributions and yours enable us to keep the ticket price reasonable and provide free tickets to clients of several social service agencies in Evanston.
First Night Evanston strives to make the event affordable, accessible and welcoming.
Thanks for many years of support from Romano Wealth, Byline Bank, Northwestern University, Kiwanis Club, Hecky’s, and members of the congregations at First Methodist Church for their continued support.
Loyal audience members may also consider support. Check the website.
Doors open at 6 p.m. Ask for a voucher to make parking FREE at the City garage across the street. 300 are available.
TIME ZONE JAZZ BAND kicks off the evenings at 7 pm. ETHS students star.
Chris Carter, the Mentalist, electrifies with stunning and hilarious demonstrations of thought reading and mental influence at 8 and 10.
Headliner Corky Siegel rounds out the evening at 9 and 11. Leading up to midnight, Corky will present his personal version of Auld Lang Syne.
Questions? Contact us.
1003 Dobson, Evanston 60202
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