Citizen Dick


By Richard Lawlor
By Richard Lawlor

What Aren’t You Doing New Year’s Eve?

I know I am not alone when I confess that every year around this time, I get a whopping case of the blues.

This depression is partially brought on by the usual suspects; the lack of sunlight reinforcing the reality that I don’t live in Key West; the onslaught of measurable snow bolstering the notion that I am getting too old to shovel it; the fact that when it snows, my soap operas are cut in half by onscreen notices that Curves of Brunswick is canceling its evening classes. 

And need I even mention how the approach of the holiday season brings enough single-gay-man baggage to set off alarms at an airport security checkpoint. (“Don’t shoot – he just forgot to take his eggnog!”)

I’ve come to deal with these blues in my own way – decorating my home and office like a Portland florist on ecstasy decking the halls of Victoria Mansion. 

Last year, I made a great discovery at the Goodwill on St. John Street: an artificial white spruce Christmas tree, circa 1970 – back when we could call it a Christmas Tree instead of a Holiday Bush. It was pre-decorated with blue twinkley lights, antique balls and homemade items found at the thrift shop. As of this writing, my abode already looks like a float in the West Hollywood Christmas parade, and the rum balls haven’t even arrived yet; the stockings aren’t hung.

While unpacking a box of ornaments earlier this week, I was reminded of an even deeper reason for my blues: I discovered a collection of New Year’s Portland buttons.

For several past seasons in this town, rather than dreaming of a White Christmas, I was asking everyone the musical question: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

This was back when I was a consultant to Maine Arts, the now defunct non-profit organization behind the Maine Festival and New Year’s Portland. I worked on five NYP events, doing programming, marketing and public relations. As is typical in the non-profit world, the stress was high, the hours long and the pay short — but at the end of it all, the rewards were sweet.

The memories are a little blurry now, but I do remember:

•The year we had a blizzard the night before, and how the city snow crews came together to make the event happen, how we turned the storm into a giant public relations opportunity.

•A night that was so cold the half dozen KISS radio brides and grooms just married in Congress Square had to forgo the horse-drawn carriage and wave along the parade route from a heated tour bus rented for the occasion.

• The eve of Y2K destruction, when Maine Arts Executive Director Nick Bloom and I walked into Channel 8 News for a interview and learned that bomb threats had shut down similar celebrations in other areas. I was watching on a monitor as Nick reacted to the story by assuring the public we were working closely with Chief Chitwood. Thank goodness Nick and I had discussed all manner of possible nightmare scenarios on the walk down Congress Street to the studio.

•The months after 9/11, when the odds seemed against a New Year’s celebration and the beat went on — one of the most successful NYP events ever.

I started working with Maine Arts in 1998, on what was billed as New Year’s Portland ’99. First Night celebrations across the nation include the upcoming year in the title, so this should be New Year’s Portland 2006. But according to the official Web site (, the city is gearing up for New Year’s Portland 2005. 

We seem to have lost a year since NYP transitioned from Maine Arts to a city-run committee. And that’s not all we’ve lost. 

The event this year will be similar to the past few city-run affairs. The activities, almost all of them free, are geared to foster “family” fun. They end by 9 p.m. If you want fireworks, you can buy Portland Pirates tickets so the kids can see the indoor display after the game. If you want any edge, you can watch Ryan Seacrest in Times Square and find out if the ball drops on Dick Clark for good.

The current NYP planning committee began as a volunteer panel of business and arts leaders working with representatives of City Hall. The first year, they tried to emulate past New Year’s events, but ran into a few problems. They hired a director who convinced them the biggest problem was the lack of a “headliner” at Merrill Auditorium. All was on hold until they could find a star to fill the void. 

Let’s face reality: the committee is working under budget constraints. Furthermore, as a performer, even if you wear a furry, insulated Elmo suit, the thought of playing frigid Portland, Maine, on Dec. 31st of any year is pretty frightening. I stayed amused as I continued to hear reports that Aretha Franklin, Bob Newhart and the Queen of England were all in the running that year.

In the end, the promoter booked a group called Asleep at the Wheel – a country outfit of some renown. They cancelled on the day of the show due to a “snowstorm” in Colorado Springs.

The city’s marketing director, Liz Darling, recently confirmed that, in fact, there was no snowstorm that holiday eve in Colorado Springs. “We now know there was something fishy about it,” Darling said. “We lost a lot of money that year.”

The following year, the city committee hired yet another promoter, and this one also convinced them that NYP needed a big headliner at Merrill. 
After almost a year of Johnny Cash promises and Patti LaBelle dreams, the committee must have realized they were screwed again. That October, faced with reality, the pragmatic concept of making New Year’s Portland a smaller, shorter “Family Festival” was born.

In the next installment of this two-part column, we’ll explore how New Year’s Portland — once the second-largest, longest-running New Year’s Eve celebration in the East — morphed into its current form, and find out just how “thrilled” everybody is about this change. 

A semi-retired arts promoter, Richard Lawlor is co-founder of GFPM Enterprises (producers of and The Companion newspaper). His column, Citizen Dick, runs biweekly. 

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