Youth is served in Stateline crowd |

Youth is served in Stateline crowd

No one seemed to know why they come.

Perhaps 50,000 people came to South Lake Tahoe to celebrate the New Year, as one woman suggested, simply, “because they can.”

Maybe they came merely to mill about in the street drinking and yelling at one another.

Or perhaps it was to watch a man climb on to a street light just after midnight, and take off his clothes before thousands of cheering people. He then swung, almost naked, above the crowd for 45 minutes before diving into the hundreds of hands out-stretched to catch him, and escaping in the press of pushing and swaying bodies.

The man’s antics forced the traffic signal from its pole, nearly hitting two police officers on the street 25 feet below. Police had pushed the crowd from beneath the dangling signal just moments before.

“I’m sure glad we got the people out of the way in time,” Police and Fire Chief Brad Bennett said. “It would have been a disaster if someone was beneath it.”

Some of the celebrants tried move past police to take pieces from the signal, and people were pushing uncontrollably against the ring of officers clearing the street below the man, who for a moment seemed certain to fall. Many in the crowd wanted to move beneath the man in order to catch him, but police would not allow it, striking dozens of people with nightsticks and calling on mounted police to help control the crowd.

The efforts to catch the man became unnecessary when he was able to secure himself safely atop the pole after hanging perilously for several minutes. The anger at police grew as the man, who had a tattoo around his upper arm and whose short hair was dyed blond, exhorted the people below to even louder cheers.

Police and horses became the target of bottles and of fireworks, and soon withdrew allowing the crowd to flood into the area below the pole.

The man cavorting above the street was also a target, and was nearly hit by a bottle that shattered inches away from him.

Errant bottles and a few shoes also struck several members of the crowd. Bennett was eager to see the man arrested but was glad no one was seriously injured.

“I was more worried about him falling and killing himself,” Bennett said.

Prior to midnight the evening had been uneventful, and soon after the show was over the crowd quickly left the street.

“I was surprised when I stood up on the roof at Harrah’s … it appeared that it was going to be a non-event,” Douglas County Commissioner Steve Weissinger said. “From up there they seemed pretty well behaved.”

Weissinger left while the man was still atop the street light, but said that kind of behavior “was no different than what I saw 15 years ago when I was on the street in Stateline.”

The Crowd

Everyone, even the people on the street, agreed the crowd at Stateline has gotten younger and more rowdy over the years.

“I even feel old out here,” said 22-year-old Shannon Havin, of Aliso Viejo, Calif.

Havin, who has celebrated the new year in Las Vegas for the last three years said, “I thought Tahoe would be a more mellow and a more beautiful place to spend New Year’s, and it’s perfect. It’s exactly what I wanted.”

Others had different reasons for coming to Stateline.

“We’re here to get (drunk),” Chris Weaver, 20, of Arcata, Calif., said. “We came to kiss as many girls as we can and just get crazy.”

Weaver said he didn’t know why so many people came to South Lake Tahoe but that it has become a tradition with his friends.

“It’s wild. It just seems like it gets bigger every year,” he said.

One girl in the crowd said the appeal of coming to Stateline is, “You can get wild and crazy and no one even cares.”

“It’s just a party atmosphere,” Russ Mclennon of Harrah’s Lake Tahoe said.

Mclennon has spent 40 years in South Lake Tahoe and said the crowd has changed “dramatically.”

“It’s gotten huge and much younger,” he said. “It’s scary, I don’t think many of them know what they are getting into.”

Weissinger agreed and said 15 years ago the crowd at the casinos was made up of fewer that 5,000 people.

“It was a much older crowd, and a much more mature crowd,” he said.

The first Stateline parties took place in the late 1970s with crowds numbering between 2,000 to 3,000 people.

In the street Friday, men and women – many of them underage- moved in groups that swirled among one another meeting often to kiss, exchange New Year’s greetings or most frequently yell unintelligibly.

The debris and the constant press of bodies made it difficult to walk, and the smell of sweat and vomit mingled with that of marijuana. Undeterred by the smells or by police, the celebration continued. Two 20-year-old Sacramento men drew attention to themselves by dressing as cows.

“It’s the biggest party of the year so we thought, ‘why not be cows’?” said Mark Scorria. “And besides, people might want to suck on our udders

Sprinkled among the mob were girls dressed as butterflies, and a group of men wearing afro wigs and brightly colored leisure suits.

The predominantly male crowd showed some signs of growing rowdier when a few fights broke out late in the evening. They also entertained themselves by urging girls to take off their shirts. Some girls perched on men’s shoulders were frightened but others teased the cheering crowd.

“This is fun,” Kim Sand of Huntington Beach, Calif. said. “I came here so I could be with all these people and have a good time.”

Happy New Year

“It’s not much different than last year,” said Harrah’s Lake Tahoe communication director John Packer.

The party was less rowdy but slightly larger than last year, according to Bennett, and this year only 98 people were arrested.

The crowd was still relatively wild compared to those at celebrations across the country. In New York’s Time Square, only 14 people were arrested in a crowd of more than 1 million.

“Nighty-nine percent of the people are there to have a good time,” officer Steve Gwaltney, of the California Highway Patrol, said. “It’s just a few people who decide to get rowdy … that’s why the police are there.”

Gwaltney said that steps will be taken next year to prevent people from climbing onto street lights. “We don’t know what we will do but it will be effective, because we have a year to come up with it.”

By 1 a.m., most of the crowd had left and the Nevada Department of Transportation had begun to clear the streets. Three snowplows and at least two street sweepers were needed to open the street to traffic.

“They try to get the street open by 2 a.m. and when I saw them, they had made one pass … and it looked like they were going to be able to do it,” Weissinger said.

Weissinger said it seemed like the streets were cleaner than the year before, and that the people in the street left happy.

“We wanted to stay in the background,” Gwaltney said. “And we wanted people to have a good time.”

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