A Look Back at the First First Night

Filmmaker and photographer Mark Dannenhauer reflects on the origins of a beloved Boston tradition.


Photograph by Paul Connell/Boston Globe/Getty Images

December 1976.

“First Night started out as a way to get artists together to create an event for New Year’s Eve. The creative force behind the first First Night, Zeren Earls, pushed for a number of projects, like the procession and the snow and ice sculptures. The brilliance of the event was gathering artists, giving them opportunities, and turning them loose.

This was originally envisioned as a series of photographs, as an Advent–calendar kind of thing. Each photograph would pair a First Night artist with someone from the Boston humanities. I was supposed to be paired with Walter Muir Whitehill, the author of Boston: A Topographical History, but he got snowed in. So musician Ellie Hayes [in the bear costume], photographer Paul Connell, and I had the idea of skiing down the plow pile. I thought it was going to be easy, but about halfway down I thought, Geez, I hope I don’t straddle the doorway on the way down! We were in the space between Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall—you can see the Custom House Tower in the background. Our part in the initial First Night, beyond skiing through doorways, was performing in the Northeast Kingdom Puppet Theater’s show, The Christmas Story. It was a puppet show with masks, hand puppets, and people on stilts.”

—Mark Dannenhauer, Filmmaker and Photographer