Tasked with producing a parade, even an experienced planner may not have a clue where to begin. The best course: Think about the crowd of smiling faces on the parade route and tackle the challenge from an executive perspective. The ultimate goal is to entertain, and as the producer, you need to identify the individual elements of your parade and piece them together into a procession that dazzles.
"There are three primary reasons to hold a parade," says Ray Pulver, owner of San Jose-based Upbeat Parade Productions and president of California/Nevada Festivals and Events Association (CalFest). "They bring people together, they're a good marketing tool to showcase a community and they provide economic impact. Plus they're free to the public and a lot of fun."
Behind every parade is a mastermind group orchestrating the myriad preparations leading up to parade day. As with any organization, a parade team has multiple levels that funnel up to the top decision-maker. The complexity of a parade dictates the need for management assignments, but regardless of scope, representatives from the host city's police, fire and public-works departments will need to be involved in obtaining permits, arranging for street closures and addressing medical and security concerns. Other integral areas of responsibility include volunteers, sponsorships, publicity, entries and registration.
The volunteer element is especially important, says Tim Estes, owner of Fiesta Parade Floats, an Irwindale company that has designed and built more than 350 floats for Pasadena’s nationally televised Tournament of Roses Parade. Estes advises recruiting volun- teers up to six months in advance and organizing crews three months prior to parade day with a clear plan on how duties will be divided. “The worst thing is to have too many volunteers and nothing for them to do,” Estes says. “They have arranged their schedules to work your parade, and if you don’t have a job for them, it can leave a bad taste in their mouths.
Planners need to understand their parade needs, identify jobs and fill the positions.”
Merchants, parking, construction, delivery trucks, local residents and weather also impact a parade. Contingency plans are essential. Marcia Durst, CMP, of Durst Event Strategies in El Dorado Hills, knows just how important Plan B can be. For eight years, she served as event manager for the Folsom Rodeo, a multiday event over Fourth of July weekend that kicks off with a cattle drive and parade witnessed by some 1,500 spectators. In 2013, the parade had to be abruptly cancelled when temperatures were forecast to top 105 degrees, a situation that could cause harm to cattle and horses. Overnight, the media and public had to be notified, participants advised to stay home and volunteers enlisted to assist spectators who turned up anyway.
“We were all on the same page very quickly as to how to cancel the event,” Durst says of the parade team. “The experience was a very good argument for establishing a strong working relationship with all the stakeholders. Clear lines of communication are essential not just in planning a parade, but in the event something goes wrong.”
While extreme temperatures can’t be foreseen during parade planning stages, other weather-related disruptions can be. “Always plan a rain-or-shine parade,” advises Bill Lomas of Los Angeles-based Pageantry Productions, a company specializing in festival and parade staging. “It eliminates the anxiety.”
Most parades follow a standard script, with units lined up strategically to provide maximum entertainment value. Typically, processions lead off with a color guard (veterans’ group, Boy Scouts), followed by dignitaries (remember to use dignitary line-up protocol). Marching bands, dance troupes and specialty or novelty units such as clowns, floats and drill teams are interspersed at intervals; organizers make sure the music accompanying one unit doesn’t interfere with the next. Increasingly bold entries provide a lead-up to the most important unit in the parade. “The last thing spectators see has to be the best, because that’s what they’ll remember,” says Lomas.
Humorous entries, such as the costumed snow-shovel brigade in the annual Snowfest parade in North Lake Tahoe, or the lawnmower drill team that prompts roars of laughter at Pasadena’s annual Doo-Dah Parade, are key to making parades memorable.
“The whole philosophy is to entertain your audience,” emphasizes Pulver, whose parade-production roster includes Carnaval San Francisco, a moving danceathon involving more than 1,000 participants from throughout Latin America. “Make it fun, comical and interactive.”
Theatrical elements such as helium balloons, equestrian units, vintage vehicles, f loats, costumed characters and high-profile guests add entertainment value in parades, but require extra time, expense and attention, Pulver notes. Balloons tethered to street- level handlers, for example, require unobstructed air space, while extra street space must be secured when truck-pulled floats are included in the lineup. Large and level parking lots are essential for equestrian units, and extra security must be arranged for VIPs. Reams of legal paperwork can be required for trademarked characters, even those depicting agricultural products such as artichokes or raisins. For parades with large numbers of out-of-town participants, such as Carnaval or the Tournament of Roses, prepara- tions for travel and hosting start years in advance.
Whether seen in person, watched on television or shared in photos, parades tug at people’s heartstrings and create lasting memories. If the idea of planning one seems overwhelming, Ruth Schnabel, executive director for CalFest, recommends contacting her organization for direction and advice. CalFest’s 260 members represent 5,000 events in California and Nevada, she says, with parade production a specialty for many.
Pageantry Productions’ Lomas has one final bit of advice for planners. “Roll with the punches,” he says. “If you can’t have fun planning a parade, you can’t have fun.”
TIPS FROM PARADE PROS
BILL LOMAS, owner, Pageantry Productions: With 50-plus years of experience producing fairs, festivals and more than 2,500 parades, Lomas, based in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount, orchestrates special events layered with color, sound and whole- some entertainment.
>> “Don’t set expectations too high. It’s more gratifying when you get more than you expect. Plan for two bands and be excited to have three.”
>> “Judging breeds excellence. Units take it seriously and fine-tune their performance.” “Give trophies—kids’ eyes get as big as saucers.”
TIM ESTES, owner, Fiesta Parade Floats Fiesta, the company respon- sible for designing and building more than 350 floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade, operates out of an 80,000-square-foot “float barn” in Irwindale, a Pasadena suburb.
>> “Budget is important because floats are designed around a budget. There’s never a bad budget.” “Lead time for sponsors is nine to 15 months.”
>> “Overtly commercial floats don’t get the attention of the public. There is a line between a blatant billboard and being clever.”
JAMES OFFEN, owner, Valley Decorating Co.: Since 1946, this Fresno- based company has owned the market when it comes to supplies and instruc- tions for do-it-yourself float building.
>> “For first-timers, building a float can be a rewarding experience.”
>> “Information on basic float-building techniques is available on the Internet.”
>> “Materials are low-tech and easy to use; basic kits start at $400.”
RAY PULVER, owner, Upbeat Parade Productions: With 35 years’ experi- ence and a current roster of 18 annual parades, Upbeat Parade Productions, based in San Jose, is the largest com- pany of its kind in Northern California.
>> “Tap resources (members of your committee or your sponsor) for con- struction and design assistance.” “Monetary awards to participants, even in small amounts, are appreci- ated; they help offset the cost of float construction.”
>> “Multiple or similar floats (like a train) surrounded by out-walkers make the unit feel larger.”
The parade industry has its own lingo. Here are some basics.
UNIT: An individual entry. The unit may consist of one participant, like a politician or movie star, or a group of people, like a marching band, equestrian club or scout troop. The basic units in a parade are walkers, bands, animals, vehi- cles, balloons and floats.
REVIEWING STAND: Judges’ and/or announc- ers’ stage.
FORWARD MOTION: Units do not stop to perform in front of reviewing stand.
OUT-WALKER: Costumed person associated with the float but not riding on it, who walks around the float, extending the theme beyond the float itself.
ENTRY CLASS: Type of entry, i.e., float, walk- ing group, band, equestrian, drill team, vehicle, cheerleaders, etc.
CATEGORIES/DIVISIONS: For every class there are related categories or divisions such as age, professional, amateur, organization, corporate and novelty.
LINEUP: Official order of march.
PARADE MARSHAL/MONITOR: Person who manages a section of entries in the staging area. In some parades, they walk with their assigned groups along the parade route. They are typi- cally in communication with the parade coor- dinator and are identified by apparel such as a colored vest or hat.
STAGING AREA: Location where units gather and are put in order by parade marshals/monitors.
AMBUSH: An unauthorized entry trying to sneak into the parade.
GRAND MARSHAL: Honorary title given to the ceremonial head of the parade.
STACK: To position the units close together in the staging area.
FEED: To move units from their staging position into the parade line.
STEP-OFF: Physical location of the start of the parade.
PACE: The speed at which the units follow one another.