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DOWNTOWN FUN HELPS RING IN THE NEW YEAR

The largest inflatable game in North America, the 110-foot-long Obstacle Challenge, had a 140-foot waiting line upstairs in the Buffalo Convention Center on New Year's Eve.

It was First Night, and thousands of Western New Yorkers defied the 10-degree cold to cap the year on a wholesome note.

Early in the evening they were inside having fun, but as midnight approached, crowds thronged Roosevelt Square to watch the ball drop from the top of the Niagara Mohawk building -- starting at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday -- and signal the arrival of 1998.

Then the fireworks went off, in Buffalo and in both Niagara Falls, Ont., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., where the celebration was called Niagara Eve '97.

Long lines were everywhere at Buffalo's First Night, but as City Comptroller Joel Giambra put it, "That's a sign of success, and a lot of suburbanites have come downtown -- the regional recreation-entertainment district."

That Obstacle Challenge was by far the most popular game.

"A parent went on it with her son who is blind," said volunteer Betsy Strother. "He was eight. She said she knew it was one game that he could feel his way through."

The Sumo Wrestling ring attracted the attention of 9-year-old twin brothers Danny and David Stall of Williamsville. They put on the inflated suits and went into combat -- but only after their parents had it out on the mat.

"I won!" David said.

"He won," Danny retorted, "because of his blubbery body!"

Minutes earlier their parents, Robert and Robin Stall, had wrestled to a draw.

"She was running me around the court," said Stall, a geriatric physician.

"We had a fan club cheering us on, and it was great," said Mrs. Stall.

The first thing you hear on approaching the Velcro Wall is the raspy sound of Velcro being pulled apart, as children leaping from a
springy pad find themselves stuck against the mountain.

Jerry Barczykowski, a Ford worker from Hamburg, was snapping pictures of his mountain-climbing daughter, Nicole, 11, and her friend, Katie Calabrese, 12.

"I was scared the first time I did it," Nicole said later. "But then it was fun."

"We stood in line an hour and 45 minutes for that game," said her mother, Jill. "It would be nice if you had a couple of them."

In a large area set aside for crafts, Willie Heller, 7, of Springville was doing a self-portrait on a large sheet of grocery paper on the floor. He faithfully crayoned a boy with blond hair, red shirt, jeans and boots, right down to the "First Night" button on his chest.

"They're all very enthusiastic so far," said Annette Heller, mother of Willie, Scott, 5, and Kali, 3. It was their first time at Buffalo's annual First Night.

At the Market Arcade, Mike Jurkowski had a five-gallon Starbucks Coffee urn strapped to his back and was pouring free coffee for First Nighters up and down Main Street.

At the Burt Flickinger Center, Buffalo's own John and Mary from the Jamestown-based 10,000 Maniacs had 140 youths sitting cross-legged on their winter coats on the gym floor to hear "Clare's Scarf" and "Red Wooden Beads." An equal number were on the bleachers.

To their young listeners, it wasn't so cold.

It was cool.

"I think it's really cool they came here for this," said Leah Mastrorilli of Elma. "But they should have had more people here."

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