SARANAC LAKE - The village's sixth annual First Night New Year's Eve celebration drew positive reviews from spectators, performers and organizers Saturday night.
An estimated 1,200 to 1,300 people bought $12 First Night buttons and fanned out across the community from 6 p.m. and midnight to see roughly 20 acts at a dozen different venues, from church basements to school auditoriums.
"It seemed like all the venues were filled and the performers were pleased that the audiences were so responsive," said First Night co-founder and board member Connie Landon.
Saranac Lake bluesman Steve Langdon lets out a shout that normally might get him shushed at the Saranac Lake Free Library, but not during his shows there at First Night.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
"I would say we're probably about the same numbers (of attendees) as last year," said co-founder and board member Sue Patterson. "It hasn't gotten any bigger or smaller, and that's OK. We're good with that. I think things went great."
The lineup of performers included some First Night favorites like comedian and circus entertainer Brent McCoy, who played two well attended shows at the Petrova School, and five-piece acoustic band Frankenpine, which drew large audiences for two performances at the Pendragon Theatre.
The River Rat Rhythm Project, a Watertown-based steel drum band, got people moving early in the evening at the Harrietstown Town Hall. This is the fifth time in six years that the group, made up of nearly 50 kids and adults, has performed at First Night Saranac Lake.
"We love what First Night is all about," said band director Dan Hammond. "We want to be supportive of an event like this that's all about families. Plus, the folks who sponsor this event, they seem to feel we're a good match and keep asking us back."
There were also plenty of new-to-First Night acts to sample this year like comedian Jay Montepare and fiddler-singer Sara Milonovich.
People spilled into the hallway outside the First Presbyterian Church's Great Room to see Woody Pines and his country ragtime band from Asheville, N.C., who afterward earned rave reviews and sold many CDs. They were a long way from home, but that's nothing new for them - they were introduced as having spent about two-thirds of 2011 on tour.
Another first-time First Night act, Vermont-based Crabgrass Puppet Theatre, delivered two performances of its take on Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" at the First United Methodist Church.
"It's really fun," said Crabgrass performer and co-founder Jamie Keithline. "It's a really nice crowd. I love that it's all ages. Everybody was enjoying the show, and we were enjoying everybody out there."
One noticeable difference to this year's lineup was the lack of a true headliner. In prior years, organizers booked a bigger-name act to play the later shows at the town hall, like the Gibson Brothers, and Chuck Berry and Beatles tribute bands.
"We thought about getting a headliner," Landon said. "We decided to go with (Burlington, Vt.-based zydeco band) Mango Jam. I thought they were pretty popular last time (in 2010), but we had them in an earlier slot so I don't think they had the crowds. So we decided to try them one more time, later on, when people really want to get up and dance. I think they were very popular."
Mango Jam drew sizable audiences to its three performances at the town hall. For many, sitting and watching the band didn't do, and scores of people, from youngsters to adults, filled the dance floor at the base of the stage.
Organizers said the relatively mild late December temperatures, which stayed above freezing throughout the night, helped bring people out for First Night.
Several spectators told the Enterprise they enjoyed the event, not just for the talent on stage but also for the social atmosphere.
"We're having a great time," said Sally Gross of Tupper Lake after she and her husband Dave watched blues guitarist Steve Langdon perform at the Saranac Lake Free Library. "It's a nice, community atmosphere. We can get out, see people we know and see some very talented people perform. It's really fun."
"We just enjoy being out and having a nice evening with people in town," said seasonal Saranac Lake residents Dave and Wendy Tuthill, who attended First Night with their children and grandchildren. "Our grandkids loved the programs at the school. The performances there were great."
One event that didn't draw much of an audience, Patterson said, was the dance for high school students at the Saranac Lake Elks Lodge, which was in its second year. While no decision has been made, she said she wasn't sure if that dance would be back next year.
At midnight, the annual snowflake drop took place in Riverside Park to welcome the new year. This year, the snowflake was dropped from the top of the ladder on the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department's new aerial platform truck.
Fireworks ended the festivities, but while the booms resounded throughout the village, the colorful bursts were largely obscured from view by fog, brought on by the warmth. The grand finale started brightly, below the foggy layer, but as it built higher it was completely masked, not only by the fog but by its own pillar of black smoke, until it looked more like a thunderhead than a fireworks display.
"It was hard to see them at the end and there wasn't a lot of color to them, but I don't think anybody was really complaining," Landon said.
"They were a little diffused, but what are you going to do?" added Patterson. "We can't change the weather."
While organizing First Night is a lot of work, both Landon and Patterson said they've settled into a routine with six years under their belt.
"We have a really good grip on it," Landon said.
"We have a great group of volunteers on our board, and we have a division of labor," Patterson said. "Our performers are great; they love to come here. Our crowds are awesome; they appreciate every act. Now we just need the governor to come. I think we'll ask him next year."
First Night is entirely alcohol-free, but after it was over, the bars downtown - many of which had also booked bands - filled up with revelers who wanted to begin 2012 with some drinks and dancing before going home.
Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley and Senior Sports Writer Lou Reuter contributed to this report.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@