4 horsemen of First Night

Annual Tacoma arts fest gallops into the New Year with art cars, gondolas, light-up horses

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comDecember 27, 2013 

Unless you’ve been out of town for six years, you’ve probably heard of First Night: the arts-based, family-friendly, indoor-outdoor celebration that takes over downtown Tacoma on New Year’s Eve every year.

A national event, the Tacoma version has seen success since its rebirth in 2007, and this year promises even more of the same recipe of indie music acts, theater, outdoor pageantry and arts activities, culminating with a fiery midnight finish to the old year.

This year, though, sees more outdoor events, an improved mobile app that provides schedule and venue information, and the appearance (or reappearance) of some artistic personalities who’ll bring some Monty Python-esque flair. As usual, the theme comes from the animal for next year’s Asian New Year: In 2014, it’s the horse.

“A lot of our ideas come from the artists on our board, and we also pay attention to feedback from people who attend,” said First Night board president Sarah Champion. “Last year people said they’d love to have more happening in the streets within the First Night footprint. So we have a lot of street performers.”

Maybe the best way to explain some of those street performances is to describe four of the main figures who’ll be leading you at a gallop into year of the horse – the Four Horsemen of First Night.


Graphic artist Lance Kagey is the creative director of First Night, and he’s also the guy behind (and inside) the 12-foot-high Trojan Horse sculpture you’ll see rolling around the streets. Made last spring by Kagey and two other artists and stored for a while at the former Chopstix on Sixth Avenue, the horse is made of translucent corrugated plastic screwed onto a wooden frame built onto a quadricycle – you know, those things you rent at beach resorts to pedal around with your friends. Only this one is now a horse illuminated with programmed LED lights.

“It was a lot of work,” says Kagey, who’ll be one of the people pedaling the horse at the event.

Will anyone be jumping out of the horse, as happens in the Greek original?

“We were going to have people hidden and jumping out, but functionality won,” Kagey says. “We just decided it would resemble a Trojan Horse. It’s definitely a horse of a different color.”


Joe Stortini is 81, but that’s not stopping him from racing a gravity-powered art car down St. Helens Avenue at First Night. And he has the odds with him. In 1948, a 15-year-old Stortini (now the man behind Joeseppi’s restaurant on Pearl Street) raced a News Tribune-sponsored car on a similar route and made it to the national finals in Ohio.

So when artist and board member Lynn Di Nino came up with the idea of an art-car race for First Night, she thought of Joe.

“It was a thrill for me,” says Stortini of his 1948 win. “It was the first time I’d ever left Tacoma. Of course, when we did it then, we started at the old News Tribune building farther up, and had a crash-pad of mattresses at the intersection.”

No crash-pad this time: Di Nino is specifying to the eight local artists designing the cars – Galen Turner, Paul and Ann Meersman, Carlos Taylor-Swanson, Paul Rabena, Otto Youngers, Indian Owen, Randy Jones and members of Fablab – that they come with working brakes and other safety specifications. Some are upholstered, some come with flashing lights or sounds. They’ll do a practice run Sunday afternoon.

“I just hope at my age it’s a four-wheeler,” says Stortini, who’s one of the four-member team called “Old Farts” racing against the younger “Nose Ringers” at 9 p.m.

Is anyone worried that an octogenarian is racing go-cars on the streets of Tacoma?

“My wife is worried,” Stortini says. “She knows how I drive! And I hope they’ll have lights; my night vision isn’t that good anymore.”

But Stortini knows how to do the brakes (smoothly, so you don’t slide) and he’s confident there won’t be any mishaps.

“It’ll be fun,” he says. “It brings back memories.”

For Di Nino, who commandeered the giant concrete heads that failed to roll downhill at First Night in 2004, there might also be memories.

“We’re not trying to control (the race),” says Di Nino. “After all, it didn’t work last time and nobody seemed to notice. In the end, the most important thing is that everyone has a good time. That’s the goal.”


While the art cars are racing two by two (with a grand final), they’ll be accompanied by a tenor and eight sopranos belting out “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s opera “Die Walkure.” Seattle Opera singer Karl Reyes and his eight “daughters” will sing, to a taped accompaniment, the famous “Hi-jo, to-ho!” tune from a raised stage just opposite Tully’s Coffee at South Ninth Street and St. Helens Avenue.

“Each of us will take one losing racer to ‘Valhalla’ at the end of each race,” explains soprano Erin Guinup, one of the eight First Night Valkyries, who in the real opera have winged helmets and carry fallen heroes to paradise.

At First Night, the Valkyries will instead be wearing red wigs, black corsets and capes. Reyes is supposed to be their father, the chief god Wotan, although technically that role is for a bass-baritone.

“I’m not sure how it works,” says Guinup, who’ll also be singing Italian arias from the mobile gondola in the parade. “But I know it’s going to be fun. I love the idea of using sopranos to kick out the old (year) and celebrate the new, celebrate strength.”


And of course you need a loud sound to start a race – which is where Steve LaBerge comes in. A mild-mannered insurance agent, LaBerge is one of those people who can build anything. His talents have been used for years by the Puget Sound Revels (he built this year’s show’s 1930s-style recording device).

For the start of the car race, he helped build a contraption rather like a miniature rollercoaster. A bowling ball runs over metal tracks, hitting other objects in a Rube Goldberg-esque way and eventually breaking 10 bottles into a bin for a smashing sound.

“We’ll see it if works,” says LaBerge, dryly.

LaBerge’s other role at First Night is to steer a lifesize gondola-on-wheels, which he made this summer to take to the Nevada arts festival Burning Man. Built over a ride-on mower, it’s powered with a gondolier’s pole with which LaBerge will pilot two City Council members through the parade. Afterward, the gondola (and another Burning Man vehicle, a stagecoach) will be on display in the Rehearsal Studio on Broadway.

“I’ve been incredibly stressed about getting the thing working, because it’s been in pieces in my garage,” says LaBerge.

“Last night, I was able to put it together, and it seems to work, so I’m excited. This week I’ll work on the lights.”

First Night Tacoma

When: Museum activities from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday; theater district activities from 6:15 p.m. (parade) until midnight Tuesday.

Where: Museum and theater districts in downtown Tacoma, various locations.

Cost: A button that gets you into any location all day costs $10 in advance, $14 on Tuesday, with those 10 and older getting in without a button. Buttons are available online and at downtown businesses, museums and theaters.

Also: Look for the new, improved mobile app, which includes the schedule, venues and how to get from place to place.

Information/App: firstnighttacoma.org. FIRST NIGHT HIGHLIGHTS

1-4 p.m.: Studio 6 ballroom dancing at the Museum of Glass.

4-5 p.m.: The Young Ambassadors kids’ circus troupe doing unicycles, juggling, jump-roping and tumbling at the Museum of Glass

6:15 p.m.: The annual World’s Shortest Parade, which goes from the graffiti garages on Broadway one block down to the Pantages and includes all the illuminated puppet animals from previous First Nights and the gondola, stagecoach and Trojan Horse (see main story), the Dockyard Derby Dames and many kids with stick horses and bikes. Join in if you like.

7 p.m. and beyond: Outdoor fire performers, indoor theatrics, art-making activities, vendors and a music lineup headed by popular bands including Owl Parliament, The Fame Riot, Barleywine Revue, the Tallboys, Ben Union, Pearl Django and Uncle Bonsai.

Ongoing: An outdoor Tacoma-opoly game that takes up an entire intersection (South 11th Street and Broadway), and a participatory art installation The Wailing Wall. Also back this year: the Ice Walk, the Monkeyshines glass ball hunt, and a scavenger hunt (around the footprint).

9 p.m.: “Nose Ringers vs. Old Farts” art car race down St. Helens Avenue to South Ninth Street, with opera, bottle smashing and more.

11:30 p.m.: In a re-enactment straight out of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” all First Nighters get the opportunity to help set the Guinness World Record for Most People Making Galloping Noises With Coconut Shells. Fire dancing and burning the 2013 Dragon effigy follows until midnight (Theater Square).

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service