Back in the 1970s, downtown Boston wasn't a great place to be, and a tradition that started there still lives on in Missoula.

It's called First Night, said Tom Bensen, executive director of Arts Missoula. Arts Missoula is an organization with a mission to connect art, culture and community through education, advocacy and celebration.

"Missoula likes a celebration," Bensen said. "You can see it when the International Choral Festival comes to town or River City Roots Festival or the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (come to town).

"People come out. They like it. I think there's a very loyal following.

"And one thing about First Night that has been consistent is, it's not an event where we bring in something from the outside. These are your friends and neighbors."

This year, First Night Missoula commemorates its 24th anniversary in a night that Bensen said brings together the concepts of community, celebration, art and New Year's Eve (see box for details). It's also an event that's evolved since its seeds in Boston.

Nearly 50 years ago, Boston was experiencing racial strife, Bensen said. New Year's Eve was considered "amateur night" or "drunk fest," and a lot of people didn't want to go downtown to celebrate.

So Boston launched First Night as a kind of community barn-raising, he said. The stage was anything the community had to offer, like churches or the waterfront, and the events excluded alcohol as a way to bring more people together and make them feel safe, he said.

"This was a way of trying to celebrate a sense of place, where you live and can bring people together," Bensen said. "And it was just an idea that really worked well."

The idea grew quickly on the East Coast, Bensen said, where Boston trademarked the First Night name and a splinter group launched First Night International.

In the mid 1990s, Missoula picked up on the idea, and it formed an independent nonprofit and held its inaugural event in 1994, he said.

"The community seemed to latch onto it and it grew pretty rapidly," Bensen said.

Early venues included churches, the Fact and Fiction bookstore, and some places downtown that don't exist anymore, he said, such as Mammyth Bakery.

In the 1990s, the idea picked up steam in the United States and abroad. The millennium was approaching and people wanted to be part of a big party, he said. In 1999, some 200 cities celebrated, and that was about the peak of the First Night movement.

In Missoula, First Night counted some 8,000 revelers at the Adams Center.

"Since then, around the world and country, it's sort of faded away," Bensen said. "These things all have maybe a lifespan, anyway."

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, affected the parties, as did economic bumps and the recession of 2008, which made fundraising difficult, he said. In Missoula, the event is smaller than it used to be, but First Night still can count on some 6,000 participants.

"Over the years, it seems that Missoula wants this to happen. And that's kind of the difference between a community where First Night still happens and First Night doesn't happen," Bensen said.

These days, venues aren't just downtown, but at the University of Montana and Southgate Mall, he said. This year, program director Matt Anglen has organized the programming thematically, so people can choose events based on their interests, such as bluegrass or jazz or an international flavor, Bensen said.

In the past, he said First Night touted "something for everyone," and that's not quite true anymore, but he also said there's some 70 events at about 25 venues. In 2004 or 2005, First Night merged with Arts Missoula, and the merger has helped place the commemoration on solid financial footing so the success of one nonprofit isn't depending on a single night of the year.

But First Night in Missoula aims to be a good one: "It happens on New Year's Eve, which is this traditional time of renewal and reflection."

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