Get it together — First Night Saranac Lake

It's no small feat throwing the biggest party of the year.

Sue Patterson would know. She’s the chair of the First Night committee, a group responsible for organizing and implementing Saranac Lake’s alcohol-free, kid-friendly New Year’s Eve blowout, First Night. 

Crowfeather performing during last year's First Night Saranac Lake. Photo by Gabe Dickens.

Party time

If you’ve attended a First Night Saranac Lake anytime in the last decade, you know what a spectacle it is. Up to 1,500 people turn out, clutching programs as they hurriedly shuffle from venue to venue. The restaurants and bars are packed, people are bundled up in layers of stylish winter apparel, and there are long lines of revelers streaming down every block.

But these things — the musicians and the magic shows and the buttons — don’t just happen. Sue laughs to herself when she thinks about the never ending First-Night planning process, which begins anew shortly after Jan.1 has passed.

“There's a lot of fundraising, because it all costs,” Sue said. "It costs, and it costs, and it costs."

farewell, 2016

This year’s First Night spans 10 venues and includes 11 music acts and a host of other entertainers, some local and some commuting from as far away as New Jersey. The First Night board currently has a dozen volunteers, and they are separated into different committees. It’s their job to make sure everything is ready to go on Dec. 31. 

The 10 venues are scattered throughout the village. First, organizers have to hire entertainment to fill out the night’s schedule. Sue said the goal is to have something for everyone.

“We try to have enough variety so it gets everybody interested,” Sue said. "We always have a couple of kids things at the beginning, and then we try to have different things, like this year we have a gospel choir from Plattsburgh, we have a flamenco guitarist, which is really exciting, and we're having a contra dance, which everyone can join in on. We also have more bands that people can dance to; that was something we wanted to include."

Once bands are selected, the volunteers need to decide who’s playing where and at what time. Some venues are better for a quiet, sit-down performance, others are better for kid-friendly fare, and some have the space — and the acoustics — for a full band and dancing. 

"We have an oddity here," Sue said. "We have very large venues, like the town hall and Saint Bernard's, and pretty much everything else is medium to smallish. People are always disappointed when they can't get in, but we have to follow fire codes and whatever the capacity is, so we have to count people."

Finding the right combination is key to providing a good experience for everyone involved, but that’s not the end of it. Every performer has certain requirements. More instruments means more setup and tear down, and it also means it’ll be harder to get a good mix. Sue said she has two or three sound people helping out this year, which she appreciates, but she’d ideally have twice that. There are 10 venues, after all.

“One of our sound guys, Max, is up to his eyeballs in it this year,” Sue said. "Different bands want different things, and we have to rent equipment and pay sound guys. It's a lot of moving pieces."

Those logistics are just a part of it, though. Sue has a squadron of volunteers beyond the ones on the committee that need to be organized. On the big night, they’ll help set up chairs and decorations, make sure everything is going seamlessly at each venue, and then tear it all down after everyone else goes home. 


This year marks the 11th for First Night Saranac Lake, and there have been plenty of changes along the way. There used to be a parade (it didn't catch on), some years were ill attended (negative temperatures will do that), and the two restaurants in the village closed early during the first couple of celebrations, so food options were limited for those seeking a night on the town. Now there are a lot more bars and restaurants, and most of them stay open — and full — as the New Year nears. The parade is gone but it's been replaced by a series of events that cater to families, grown-ups, and young revelers alike. And the sub-zero temps? Well, this is Saranac Lake so there's no dancing around that possiblilty.

"There are always ideas for what to add, but then you need someone to carry it out," Sue said. "People come for the music, the magic, and the event itself. That's stayed pretty consistent, so we're sticking with that."

The festivities will begin at 4:30 p.m. with a craft making session for kids at the Adirondack Carousel. Carousel rides are $1. There's a bit of a lull in the action — this is a great opportunity to take advantage of all those open restaurants — then everything is in full swing from 6 p.m. to midnight. Check out this blog for tips on making the most of the evening, but the real takeaway is to grab a program and plan ahead. And be flexible, as some venues fill up quickly, leaving a line of revelers out in the cold.

"One thing people should keep in mind is there's always room at the town hall, so head there if you're turned away at another place," Sue said.

First Night ends with a bang.

Get a head start on Saranac Lake's nightlife by checking out our dining options here. And if you've had a little too much fun, try one of our lodging options. Click here for more information on First Night Saranac Lake, and to purchase a button, which helps fund the event and gets you into all of the venues.

Categories:Events, winter
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Shaun Kittle's picture
A Saranac Lake resident.

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