Walk through a whale at First Night

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer

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University of Akron and John S. Knight Convention Center staff stand inside an inflated plastic 105 foot life size blue whale named Mike made by oceanography students at the University of Akron in Dec. 2012 in Akron, Ohio. The whale will be part of First Night activities at the John S. Knight Convention Center. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)
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Partygoers at First Night Akron this year can re-create the adventures of some great figures of biblical and literary history:

Jonah.

Pinocchio.

Capt. Ahab — well, his leg, anyway.

Like them, the First Night revelers will have the opportunity to enter the belly of a whale, albeit an inflatable plastic version.

The walk-through whale will be the centerpiece of the Air Aquarium, a new attraction at First Night Akron, the family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration in downtown Akron. The attraction at the John S. Knight Center will also feature aquatic-theme entertainment, including about 50 remote-control fish and shark balloons called Air Swimmers gliding through the air.

It’s all intended to be fun, of course, but there’s a serious aspect: This big blue whale was created as a teaching tool.

The whale was constructed this year by students in an advanced oceanography class at the University of Akron, using 3,000 square feet of 6-mil plastic, extra-sticky tape and a good deal of creativity. The beast is the size of a real blue whale, the largest creature known to have lived on Earth.

The blow-up whale is owned by the Akron-based National Museum of Education, whose director, Nick Frankovits, taught the course and oversaw the whale’s construction. The museum takes it to schools around the area for educational programs, said Gay Evans, the museum’s assistant director.

The whale was created over three days by 20 students, who tweaked plans created by oceanographer J. Mike Williamson of Wheelock College in Boston. Frankovits said Williamson helped them alter plans he’d created for building a blow-up humpback whale, a project that had been taken on by a previous oceanography class at the University of Akron.

The students named the whale Mike in honor of an ailing classmate, Michael Broyles.

(You can watch a video of the blue whale’s construction on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/bluewhalevideo.)

The whale arrived at the Knight Center this month in a humble roll about 8 feet long and 1½ to 2 feet high. Once it was attached to a fan, though, the roll of plastic quickly ballooned into an imposing figure roughly 10 feet tall and 30 feet around at its widest point and about 110 feet long.

Frankovits said the whale can accommodate about 90 people, who enter through a slit in its side. The whale’s handlers try to take care that no one trips on the opening or pokes a hole in the plastic, although accidents happen.

“Any rips we have in here, we call them shark bites,” he said. The remedy for shark bites? More tape, which will be on hand at First Night, just in case.

The whale will help First Night visitors appreciate the enormity of a blue whale, Frankovits said. Visitors can also hear the sounds the whale makes and learn such facts as what it eats, and a curriculum will be available for teachers, he said.

The Air Aquarium is just one of nearly 100 exhibits, performances, craft opportunities, workshops and other activities that will fill indoor venues throughout downtown Akron during First Night. Metro buses will be available to shuttle partygoers between the sites.

The is the 17th year for First Night Akron, a visual and performing arts festival that brings the community downtown to welcome the new year. The First Night concept was born in Boston in 1976 and has since spread to 67 other cities across the Untied States.

Among the additions to First Night Akron this year is a harp workshop in Greystone Hall led by Holly’s Harps, a program of the Cincinnati arts organization Lyrica Inc. The organization will set up 30 children’s harps and introduce people to playing the instrument, said Sharon Gillberg, communications director of Downtown Akron Partnership, the organization that produces First Night.

Other new events include a dance in the Greystone Hall ballroom featuring music from the 1940s up to Lady Gaga, and performances by comic hypnotist Michael Oddo at the Civic Theatre and the Knight Center.

The First Night weddings will be back, with couples bringing in the new year by tying the knot or renewing their marriage vows. The ceremony will start shortly after 9 p.m. on the grand staircase of the Akron Civic Theatre.

Plenty of entertainment will be offered for the little ones, including a play area at the Shoppes at Akron Centre. Gillberg said toys donated by Step 2 for the event will be donated to Summit County Children Services after First Night.

The traditional Kids Fireworks Show will light up the sky at 9 p.m., preceded by a countdown show starting at 8:15 in front of Lock 3 Park on South Main Street. The grown-ups’ fireworks will begin at midnight, with a countdown show starting 15 minutes earlier.

And for those who want an insider’s view of First Night, it’s not too late to volunteer. Volunteers get free admission to events before or after their shift.

Interested people can fill out the application at www.firstnightakron.org/volunteers, or contact Jane Startzman at 330-535-3179 or jstartzman@akroncivic.com. Deadline for volunteering is Saturday.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.


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