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She won’t drop the ball

For director of First Night, the final push is grueling, fun

Geri Guardino checked on First Night preparations at Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain Thursday. Geri Guardino checked on First Night preparations at Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain Thursday. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / December 31, 2011
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Tick. Tick. Tick. It is 10:58 a.m. Thursday, and First Night Boston begins in just over 48 hours. Organizers are scrambling to beat the clock as it counts down to the 1 p.m. start.

Sculptors are hurriedly transforming massive blocks of ice into works of art. Stilt walkers are fine-tuning routines. Musicians are perfecting their timing. And the behind-the-scenes crew is trouble-shooting the logistical details that go unnoticed by revelers.

How do you get 25,000 programs into the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center when the freight elevator can’t manage the load? Break up the pallet so it only holds 10,000 copies. Why isn’t the BosTix booth in Copley Square plastered with posters? An apparent miscommunication, and now a new round must be dropped off at once. Are the $18 buttons, which function as tickets, selling at downtown Tedeschi stores? No one knows, so follow-up visits are needed ASAP.

“You’re pretty much up for three days,’’ says executive director Geri Guardino as she quickly visits an ice sculpture in progress on Boston Common. Then, it is off to First Night Senior Celebration at the Seaport World Trade Center - where the city’s elderly celebrate New Year’s Eve a bit early, to dance, deliver buttons, give the welcome and start their countdown.

Next is a stop at a Jamaica Plain cultural center to see parade performers, followed by a trip to the bank, talks with the accountant, then touching base with a distributor and a whole heap of items that unexpectedly creep on to her to-do list.

Guardino woke in a panic Thursday morning at 5:30. more than an hour early. “I was thinking of all the stuff I had to do,’’ she says.

Boston’s First Night is an all-day, all-ages affair emphasizing local performers and low-cost entertainment. One million partygoers are expected to take part.

This will be the 36th First Night, an event that began here as a way to mark the end of the 1976 bicentennial and grew into a global phenomenon. Several years ago, though, the festival almost fell victim to weather and finances. But First Night has rebounded, with half the staff doing double the work.

“Everybody who works in nonprofits is trying to do things better with less money,’’ says Guardino, who has been in charge of First Night for 15 years. “We all wear a lot of hats.’’

On Thursday, José Ayerve, a musician from Portland, Maine, and part-time First Night worker, is serving as Guardino’s assistant and is driving her around.

The drive through the city triggers reminders of forgotten and accomplished tasks. “I meant to get us on this marquee,’’ Guardino says nonchalantly as the car passes the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center while the GPS shouts directions. Ayerve asks if any last-minute follow-up is needed with major button distributors. “Only downtown,’’ Guardino assures him. “I’m really concerned with Tedeschi, just to see if they’re selling any.’’

Outside the senior luncheon, Guardino is not the executive director of one of the city’s premier events being chauffeured to an appearance, but simply someone blocking the drop-off area. A bossy parking attendant is insistent that the vehicle move. As a somewhat flustered Guardino tries to get out of the car and grab a shopping bag of buttons from the trunk, the attendant barks: “I got vans coming up. I got vans coming up.’’

Inside the annual luncheon, Guardino hands out hugs to volunteers and city staff she has come to consider friends.

“I remember the first First Night. It was snowing,’’ says longtime volunteer Kathy DeRosa after they go over the schedule of events.

Guardino looks at the floor full of shimmying seniors and jokes. “Pretty soon I’ll be here instead of on stage; I’m 64,’’ she says.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino arrives, reminds Guardino to put on her button (it’s affixed to her coat, which she has removed), and then she takes the stage. After the round of acknowledgments, accolades, a countdown, and a group rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,’’ Guardino heads toward the door.

Next stop: Jamaica Plain.

“I need to go out to one of our neighborhood sites because I haven’t yet,’’ she says, stepping into the waiting blue Chevrolet.

Guardino is a slight woman with shoulder-length hair. She is a native of New York, but has called Greater Boston home since the 1960s. Still, she cannot help Ayerve when they get lost.

“I’m directionally challenged,’’ admits the avid T rider and walker. “On First Night, I’m not kidding, I think I walk about 15 miles. It’s just back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. The first years, I used to get shin splints, but I’m in better shape now.’’

The visit to Spontaneous Celebrations’ Danforth Street cultural arts center lasts about 30 minutes, and Guardino and Ayerve ooh and ah at the elementary school stilt walkers and high school and college choreographers.

Group coordinator Rosalba Solis sees the visit as an opportunity to petition for help. The dancers, stilt walkers, and musicians have used the same costumes in the First Night parade for 12 years. “At one point they were yellow. At one point they were pink. And at one point they were leopard,’’ Solis says of the brightly colored smocks, remnants of bygone themes evident on each.

“So you’re saying it’s the last time they can be painted?’’ Guardino asks. “Call me.’’

With that, she is back in the car and near downtown, ready to tackle the second half of her day and a growing to-do list.

Having fun takes work, and Guardino is laboring toward the festivities’ start time. But the work is far from over; 2012 starts with at least a month of postproduction paperwork.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

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