Sunday, December 28, 2008

Everyone loves a parade... almost

I just can’t let the holidays conclude without sharing this behind-the-scenes look into the world of holiday parades…. for your amusement:

Everybody loves a parade. But making one happen isn’t as easy as you’d think. Take it from the official “coordinator” of the City of Portsmouth’s 2008 Holiday Parade. I spent weeks working on an event that took a grand total of 37 minutes to pass by. Ho, ho, ho.

Now, you’re probably thinking: “What’s the big deal? A bunch of people line up and then they march down a street. "

If only it were so easy. There are news releases to write, applications to process, money to collect from commercial entries, questions to be answered from the public, bands to be recruited, rules to be followed (“no throwing of candy into the crowd or you will be removed), parking to be banned, streets to be closed, prayers to be offered to the weather gods, and numerous meetings with all the city departments with a role in the event.

Yes, it takes all this and more to make a parade. And some of it can really suck the holiday spirit out of you.

This year, there were 65 vehicles, floats, walking units and bands to orchestrate. Part of my job as coordinator is to carefully choreograph the procession to provide a visual treat to the more than 8,000 people lining the 1.1-mile parade route through downtown.

Designing the perfect lineup beforehand is challenging for anyone as numbers-impaired as I am. It’s also complicated by entries pleading to be allowed in after the deadline and others dropping out. The primary goal is to evenly space out the bands, big vehicles, walking units and this year – the beauty contestants. “But only mine can compete for Miss America,” harrumphed one pageant sponsor.

Fearing a beauty brawl, I had to figure out how to separate Mrs. Senior New Hampshire, Miss Strafford County, the Miss New Hampshire-Massachusetts Teenager Scholarship group, and the “Iron Brides” competing for a bridal package in a regional reality show. I agonized over who to place at the front. In the end, I respected my elders and chose Mrs. Senior New Hampshire. If anyone was disappointed, you couldn’t tell it from their perfect smiles and beauty queen waves.

There also were philosophical issues to consider, such as how close should the peace group be to the Veterans of Foreign Wars color guard? Should all religious walking units and floats be lined up together? And, would anyone appreciate the irony in having the NH Bureau of Liquor Enforcement vehicle following a float with fans of Jimmy Buffet of “Margaritaville” fame?

Imagine the pressure.

Then there’s the music. Not which kind – it’s all holiday stuff – but how much is heard beyond the marching bands. Floats and walking units want to be accompanied by boom boxes or other musical devices. If they’re not properly spaced, the result is one big jumble of holiday tunes.

There’s also the issue of where to stage people. There isn't an area large enough to line up all the entries beforehand. A vacant property along the route becomes "Float World" while everyone else feeds in from narrow side streets to form the procession I design. It takes great precision – and lots of hard-working people with walkie-talkies – to pull it off without incident.

Parade incidents, you ask? Sure. For example, someone marching out of order can cause problems for the parade announcer, who reads from the script I've prepared beforehand. This year, we taped the parade for broadcast later, though our plan nearly was thwarted when the cameraman briefly knocked out the power at the reviewing stand 10 minutes before the start of the parade. Ho, ho, ho.

This was also the year I faced down the illegal vendors – out-of-state guys wearing fake licenses and pushing around grocery carts filled with cheap plastic items or selling food without Health Department permits (and taking business away from the local restaurants). “You have 15 minutes to pack up your stuff and get out of here,” I said with my best holiday spirit -- and a police officer standing behind me. It wasn't nearly as fulfilling, though, as calling in the tow trucks last year to remove cars whose drivers had ignored the humongous “No Parking” signs I'd made. I never anticipated how much towing could back up traffic. But I digress.

This year’s biggest unexpected wrinkle came in the form of parade crashers – people who jumped in the parade in progress. The first was a guy in holiday attire weaving his decorated bicycle in and out of the parade near the somber Police Honor Guard. “You’re not in this parade,” I said when I caught up to him. “Yes, I am,” he replied. “Not anymore,” said I, motioning for a nearby police officer.

A short time later, the announcer and I were flabbergasted to see a 7-foot yellow chicken marching down the street accompanied by five young women wearing shirts advertising a local chicken wings restaurant. It was an illegal entry that hadn’t paid the requisite $30 commercial fee. The quick-thinking announcer shrugged and said, "Here comes a big chicken from .... "

I was paralyzed by indecision. Should I leap off the reviewing stand and tackle him in front of thousands of people, beating him senseless with a cell phone and walkie-talkie? Call in police reinforcements? Grab the microphone and scream, “Get out of my parade you low-life piece of fowl”?

None of those choices seemed very holiday-ish. In the end, I opted for a phone call afterward. “Have the check on my desk Tuesday,” I said firmly. Two days later a guy with “big chicken” on his business card delivered it with a bigger smile. All was forgiven.

So next time you’re enjoying a big parade, I hope you'll consider the amount of work – and heavy-handed enforcement -- it took to bring it to you. Ho, ho, ho.


ALittleGuitar said...

i would never, ever take on that job! not even at gunpoint.

Pat Remick said...

Even if you'd get to wear an "Event Staff" jacket over two other coats to keep you warm PLUS a Santa hat and hold an official and very expensive police radio?

Rosemary Harris said...

What fun! Now I'll always think of you as Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street..organizing the parade and findingthe replacement for the drunken Santa. There's got to be at least a short story in this...

ALittleGuitar said...

Hmm, what color is the jacket? And is there a badge involved?