Arts & Culture

Monkeys and circuses: First Night Tacoma gets silly for Year of the Monkey

The World's Shortest Parade at last year’s First Night festival in downtown Tacoma.
The World's Shortest Parade at last year’s First Night festival in downtown Tacoma. Courtesy

First Night is never serious. The arts-based New Year’s Eve party in downtown Tacoma has seen opera singers in gondolas, a soap box derby and people clip-clopping coconut shells en masse. But this year’s festivities usher in the Asian Year of the Monkey — and so organizers and performers are grabbing the chance to be silly, with three circus shows, a 10-foot monkey puppet and a join-in Monkey King chant headlining the entertainment.

“I’m really excited about this year,” says board director Lance Kagey. “It’s shaping up to be the best year ever.”

50 performers at First Night 105, including three circus shows and a Monkey King

For the last few years, First Night has been getting better organized, with bigger spectacles outside and bigger names inside, and with increasing attendance.

Held every New Year’s Eve for more than two decades, with a couple of years’ hiatus, First Night pulls from a community tradition around the country. Washington’s First Nights include Spokane, the Tri-Cities and Port Townsend. The event is always family-friendly and alcohol-free, is arts-based and involves the local communit, and has free outdoor components as well as indoor events. Admission in Tacoma is with a $10 prepurchased button.

But since 2014, Tacoma’s First Night (a nonprofit managed by a community board) has outsourced the administration and outdoor entertainment management — and the results are getting better and better. Last year, around 400 people showed up to try to break the world record for “brides blowing bubbles,” and the crowd watching the opera-singing-soap-box-derby down St. Helen’s Avenue was six-deep. Total attendance for 2014 hit 25,000, the highest in years.

“Since EnJoy took over the spectacle part, we’ve gotten more involvement from the wider community,” Kagey says.

This year, the lineup promises plenty of monkey-themed fun. The night begins, as always, with the World’s Shortest Parade, lasting just one block along Broadway to the Pantages Theater and involving anyone who wants to turn up.

“If people want to bring a giant rolling sofa, fun costumes, a unicycle troupe — we’re wide open to people participating,” says Martha Enson of Vashon-based EnJoy Productions.

The only guidelines are to contact Enson beforehand (see the box) and try to get in the line by 5 p.m.

Leading the parade will be a giant monkey puppet made by Seattle artist Annett Mateo, who has made the animal puppets for the last six years. This year’s monkey will be a backpack puppet, standing about 10 feet high with feet attached to the wearer’s feet and hands controlled by rods. Made of foam and brown fabric, it won’t be illuminated (as previous year’s puppets have been), but might wear a glow-stick around its neck. Mateo modeled the puppet, who looks rather like Curious George, on cartoon monkeys.

I’m going for silly and whimsical. Because it’s a monkey, after all!” -

Annett Mateo, puppet maker

“I’m going for silly and whimsical,” she says. “Because it’s a monkey, after all!”

After the parade ends in the middle of Broadway, the rest of the entertainment begins, including no less than three circus shows. Lelavision, the Vashon duo who perform around the world on the enormous musical sculptures they build, will be in Theater Square park from 7-10 p.m. In the Rialto Theater, two Seattle circus companies will perform: Cirrus Circus, a youth troupe from the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts, will play at 9:10 p.m., while IMPulse, SANCA’s artist-in-residence company, will perform at 10:05 p.m. Acts in each group include an aerial circus, a Cyr wheel, group juggling and acrobatics.

At 9 p.m., everyone gets to be a monkey. The big outdoor spectacle this year is a Northwest version of the Balinese Monkey King dance, led by performance artist Paradox Pollack, choreographer for films such as “Thor” and “Star Trek.” Made up in traditional Peking Opera face paint, Pollack will lead a group chant, aided by whoever can make it to the chant workshop earlier in the day (1-4 p.m. in the Pantages basement level). After learning the chant and claps, anyone else can join in. (Wear black, white and red to fit into the theme.)

“In Bali, it’s used to bring up community issues in between the chants, like a cleansing community forum,” explains Enson, who has presented the Monkey King spectacle at other festivals such as Bumbershoot. “We’re going to use that format in Tacoma to bring up issues for people in the audience, either complaints or celebrations. It’s super-inclusive.”

There will also be another attempt to break a Guinness World Record — this time for people doing a monkey dance.

Bands will also play through the night on the main outdoor stage on Broadway, including Orkestar Zirkonium, Sweet Kiss Momma, Oberhofer, then singer Vicci Martinez at 11 p.m.

Inside, the entertainment continues on stages in the Rialto, Pantages, Theatre on the Square, the Pythian Temple, Sanford and Sons library and the outdoor Mountain House Stage on upper Broadway. Bands include Wow Laura, Cloud Person, Pearl Django, Caspar Babypants, The Cloves, The Rusty Cleavers, Pig Snout, the Seattle Rock Orchestra and Ohana Ukelele. The C.L.A.W. cartooning team will host a three-hour group draw session at Brooks Dental Studio, and Muh Grog Zoo will do improv theater next door to the Pythian Temple at 9 and 10 p.m. (The online schedule lets you bookmark favorites and sync them to your smartphone.)

Storytellers will gather around the fire pits up and down Broadway from 6-8 p.m., with free s’mores kits provided.

With no giant Tacomopoly board, no ice walk and a smaller footprint (Broadway from Sixth to 11th Streets), there aren’t as many join-in activities this year. But the First Night button will get you free admission, noon-5 p.m., at the Museum of Glass, where there’ll be Cone-head-making plus fire performers on the plaza at 4 p.m.; free admission, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., to the Tacoma Art Museum and the Children’s Museum; and free skate rental, 10 a.m.-midnight, at the Polar Plaza ice rink at Tollefson Plaza.

Organizers plan to have multiple food trucks, local restaurants will be open and the Link light rail will run to and from the Tacoma Dome station until 1 a.m.

Finally, the end of 2015 will be fiery, as usual. From 11:35 p.m. in Theater Square park you can watch fire performers such as Pyra Sutra and Cathy Marcotte, and see the 2016 numbers go up in flames as the clock ticks over to the new year. Kagey says things are being tweaked to allow more visibility and excitement while still keeping things safe.

“First Night has come together (over recent years),” says Kagey. “We’re working really hard as a board to be financially sustainable, and to create a culture that doesn’t burn out the people involved.”

“First Night is really great,” says Annett Mateo. “It’s such a lot of fun.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

First Night

When: 6 p.m.-midnight Dec. 31.

Where: Broadway from Sixth to 11th streets, outdoor and inside theaters and businesses.

Cost: Outdoor events are free. Indoor events require a button purchased for $10 in advance or $14 the day of the event. Buttons are free for ages 10 and younger.

Buttons: Online and at downtown museums, theaters, Columbia banks and businesses (complete list on the website).

Getting there: Consider parking near the Tacoma Dome station; the Link will run through 1 a.m.

Information: Schedule/buttons at To register for the parade, contact Martha Enson at