Tuesday, January 26, 2010


It’s not often that an elderly couple takes out Dr. Doom.

For those of you just joining us, Dr. Doom is a super-villain, one of the most heinous and powerful in the Marvel Universe. Like all good evil-doers, he spends his time and resources devising nefarious schemes to take over the world, only to be thwarted by his arch-nemeses The Fantastic Four or whoever’s title he happens to be wreaking havoc in any given month.

The dastardly Doctor was only one of a handful of bad guys for which Marvel had a costume that could be used for personal appearances. As far as comfort and maneuverability, Doom’s threads were on the favorable side, although the visibility when wearing the suit was low. It was easy to don, functional, and emulated the character beautifully.

The costume also was a treat to perform in. It wasn’t every day you could be revered despite being an arrogant prick. Its only drawback was its portability. The costume was kept in a large canvas duffel bag of the size one would use to transport hockey equipment. Thus, it had to be checked whenever traveling.

I had the good fortune to portray the character on several occasions (see prior post, “See You, in the Funny Papers”). Fortunately, this was not one of them. The hapless victim in this story, Fred, was joining my portrayal of Spider-Man as featured guests of Edmonton, Canada’s annual Canada Day Parade. Sponsoring our inclusion in this most important of our northern neighbor’s holidays were my old friends, the unpredictable, yet oddly loveable Darwin and his saintly better-half Lola (see prior post, “Survival of the Fittest, Parts I and II”). As such, immediately following the parade, Spider-Man and Dr. Doom were scheduled for a signing at one of Darwin’s and Lola’s comic shops.

This was to be Fred’s coming out party; his very first gig as any character for Marvel. The head of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department, Barbara, thought it would be a good idea to pair me with Fred, so I could secretly monitor his performance. This speaks volumes about Barb’s judgment and trust in your’s truly (Whether misguided or not, I’ll let you decide).

I met Fred at the airport. He was slightly taller and broader than I was. He’ll make a great Dr. Doom, I thought (You don’t want your Spidey more imposing than your Doom). His long brunette hair framed a friendly face and a big smile. Fred looked like a rock star, only more effusive. At the time, he was working as either a stunt man or extra or both on the short-lived Burt Reynolds show B.L. Stryker. We immediately hit it off.

Our flight departed the evening before the parade with a scheduled stopover in Minnesota. Delays while approaching Minnesota had us concerned that we would miss our connection. We discovered that our worries were unfounded upon landing. Due to bad weather over Edmonton, nothing was flying into the area. Our connecting flight was canceled. Worse, the weather up north was adversely affecting the phone lines. Try as we might, we couldn’t get through to Darwin and Lola to tell them of our plight. Not that it would have mattered; the number we had was for the comic outlet at which we would be appearing the next day, not their home. And the store was certainly closed by this time.

At wit’s end, we called Barbara. Barbara was always bemoaning how her work—due to its nature—followed her home. She had to be prepared for calls exactly like the one we were making. Still, I felt terrible disturbing her. Our delay had us landing in Minnesota just shy of midnight. It would be an hour later in New York. We woke Barbara, who was clearly perturbed. Her response to our situation: “What do you want me to do?” We suggested she either contact Darwin and Lola at their home or at least give us the number so we could try.

“I don’t have those numbers here,” she snapped, in a tone that suggested we were off our gourds for ever assuming that she might have that information.

Gee, Barbara, what part of your job actually makes it home, I thought.

We dutifully apologized-through gritted teeth-and resumed our endeavors to call someone up north. The only other number we had was the hotel at which we’d be staying. Miraculously, the call connected. We explained the situation to the receptionist and left a message for Darwin and Lola that we’d be getting up at the crack of dawn to be the first in line to get on the standby list for the earliest flight the next morning. Of course, we had no idea there even was an early-morning flight to Edmonton the next day or whether it would arrive in time for us to participate in the parade if there were. But we weren’t going to not try to get there. We crossed our fingers that Darwin and Lola would check with the hotel.

By this time, the food vouchers the airline had given us were no good. All the restaurants in the airport food court had closed, which, given the selection, was probably not a bad thing. Thus, we proceeded to Bloomington, Minnesota’s famous Thunderbird Motel, where we could at least redeem our accommodation coupons and get a few hours sleep before returning to the airport at the crack of dawn.

Marked by a towering, multi-colored, illuminated roadside totem pole–designed sign and a colossal Indian statue at the entrance, the Thunderbird Motel also is unique in that its lobby doubles as a Native American museum. Cases, filled with an amazing array of headdresses, quivers, arrows, papooses, clothing, moccasins and stuffed buffalo, moose heads, snakes, bears and the like, lined the walls. Given our exhausted state, it was surreal, like something directed by David Lynch. We scheduled a wake-up call that would allow about three hours of sleep and headed for our room. I dropped off with Fred heading out of the room for a smoke.

He seemed to return just as the wake-up call startled me out of bed. Had he been wandering the hallways of the motel all night? Perhaps he’s an aficionado of Native American memorabilia? I didn’t have time to dwell on my internal queries; airport check-in awaited, and we couldn’t afford to be late. Besides, Fred seemed mightily concerned about the whole megillah. Not surprising as it was his first gig. He obviously wanted it to go well and probably shouldered a lot of guilt, though faultless. I, conversely, was familiar with the occasional hiccup in appearances, and though certainly concerned and focused to do whatever it took to ameliorate the situation, I remained nonplussed.

With nary a moment to spare in the Bow and Arrow Coffee Shop, we rushed to the airport and succeeded in being the first in line at the counter. With luck, there would be two openings. Just in case, it was decided that my name go first. If only one of us made it, Spider-Man was the obvious choice. We tried phoning Darwin and Lola again to no avail. If worse came to worse, if they did not greet us upon deplaning, we would dress in a cab on the way to the parade’s origin and join the festivities, which were set to begin soon after the scheduled landing of our flight.

When they announced the standby names, our initial joy at hearing my name, turned to confusion, when it was followed by two other names, neither of which was Fred’s. I may not be a math whiz but even I understood that if there were three available stand-by spots on the flight and Fred and I were the first two names on the list, then he and I were shoe-ins for two of those three spots. Apparently not. Confused and upset, we approached the counter at the gate. Yes, Fred and I were atop the stand-by list. And yes, there were three spots open. But the third and fourth spots were held by an elderly couple who were on a second honeymoon to celebrate their 50th anniversary and the airline didn’t have the heart to break the octogenarian love birds up.

Fred and I, on the other hand, had no such qualms.

“You don’t understand,” Fred pleaded, “small children are expecting both of us to be there. You’ll be breaking their little hearts.”

I have to admit it was amusing to see the dreaded Dr. Doom beg not to be bumped from a flight. When he started telling the counter attendant that the children the airline would be disappointing with his absence were “special,” it began to sound more in character. When that wasn’t eliciting the desired response, Fred tried “handicapped.” What was next? I thought, Orphans? How low and vile to fabricate mentally-challenged and physically-disabled children as an excuse to gain a plane seat. Add to that the elderly couple Fred was attempting to bump and the occasion for which they were traveling, and Fred was beginning to make Dr. Doom seem like Mother Theresa in comparison.

“They’ve been together for 50 years, what difference is another hour or two going to make?!” I imagined him desperately spouting at any moment. Fortunately, he relented before crossing that line or venturing to using terms like “cancer-stricken” or “Make-A-Wish Foundation.”

Instead Doom stepped away duly defeated; no bodies, no smoldering carnage, not even a “Curse you, Reed Richards! Next time, it will be I, Victor von Doom who stands triumphant!,” while shaking a gauntleted fist. I felt terrible. The next available flight wouldn’t get Fred into Edmonton until well after the parade was over. If he were lucky, he’d make part of the scheduled store signing. His disappointment was palpable.

Meanwhile, the prune-faced paramours giddily scurried past his slumped figure onto the plane. I got on and the plane took off... on time, ironically. Accompanying me, was Dr. Doom, only without his body. The suit was checked and in the baggage hold. It and Fred would reunite later in Edmonton… unless, of course, he was bumped by someone traveling to deliver an organ to a dying child or something equally inarguable.

Wondrously, I arrived as planned and Lola was there to greet me. She had gotten our hotel message, after all. “Where’s Doom,” she asked.

“He didn’t make it. I’ll explain on the way to the parade,” I offered.

There wasn’t a vestige of the havoc the previous day’s storm wrought. It was beautiful, cool and sunny. As we sped to the kick-off point, I dressed in the backseat while explaining the last 24 hours. I barely had time to adjust my eyes in the rearview mirror when the car screeched to a halt. A small flatbed trailer, hitched to a truck, greeted my arrival. A sign attached to the truck’s grill read, SPIDER-MAN AND DR. DOOM BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE COMIC CASTLE followed by the shop’s address and phone number. Of course, Dr. Doom was M.I.A., but it was too late to make any amendments as the parade was getting under way.

As the truck pulled away with me in tow, I expressed my concerns about being confined to the trailer, wanting rather to bound about, ham it up with the onlookers and shake hands along the parade route. Lola was more than happy to oblige. She figured as much from me, given my past performances at her and Darwin’s conventions. But having never seen the Dr. Doom costume nor being aware of its limitations, she was unsure if he’d need something to pull him or not. She provided the trailer just in case. It would turn out to be a fortuitous decision.

I hadn’t traversed a block before the crowds pelted me from both sides with “Yo, Spidey, where’s Dr. Doom?”

“Oh, I dealt with him earlier,” I countered. “How was I supposed to know he was here for the parade? I thought he was trying to conquer Canada.”

The parade route couldn’t have been more than a mile. Yet, halfway along, amid the leaps, posing and hand-shaking, I noticed the bottom of my feet starting to hurt. It wasn’t a muscular pain, but rather the sort one experiences from a scraped knee. I couldn’t fathom what was the problem. I’d participated in far longer parades on many previous occasions. Hell, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was measurably greater and I had a couple of those already under my belt. The physical fallout from such events was never greater than the type of intense muscle pain one gets the morning after a good leg workout the day before.

Initially, I shrugged it off, alleviating my stinging soles with short bouts of walking on my hands. That wouldn’t get me too far, though, so I made dramatic pauses, crept slowly, did whatever I could to milk the route for as long as possible. But the pain became too severe and I found myself leaping onto the trailer to finish the remainder of the parade. I was mortified and more than a little worried. And the crowds weren’t exactly sympathetic.

“Hey, Spider-Man, why aren’t you swinging?” and “What? Are your webs tired (guffaw, guffaw)?” were a couple of the less pointed razzings I received.

“That storm blew me so off course, I was up all night swinging from Vancouver… I’m knackered!” I bantered back.

Blessedly, I was incapacitated for only the last few blocks, but it seemed like an eternity to complete. Lola met me at the finish and whisked me away to the signing at her store. I remember gingerly making my way to her car, trying to cover my painful steps with spider-like moves. Surely, I fooled all. Spider-Man often looks like he’s tiptoeing on broken glass.

There was already a line out the door when we arrived, but I told Lola I needed time to check my feet. In the office, I removed my suit to discover that I’d taken a layer of skin off my soles. They were raw and bloody. I could only guess that the streets of Edmonton weren’t as smoothly paved as those in The States. Their roughness was the only difference I could detect. Strangely, although my soles were shredded, the thin strip of red leather that served as the only protection on the costume’s feet weren’t damaged in the least. Neither a hole nor tear was evident.

The normally subdued Lola freaked when she saw them. Or at least her eyes grew slightly wider than usual, which for her was akin to the eye-popping, jaw-dropping of a Tex Avery cartoon character. Then again, Lola’s reaction may have been from me sitting in my bikini underwear. I didn’t think to cover up. My attention was on my injured tootsies. Besides, I dressed in front of strangers before when doing productions. Heck, didn’t I dress in the backseat of her car on the way to the parade? And it wasn’t like I was naked.

She hurried back with alcohol and bandages. And boy, did that alcohol feel good (That distant scream you heard in the late 90s? That was me.). Soon I was making my way to the signing table. Fortunately, it was near enough to the office that I didn’t have to do too much scampering to hide my pain.

The signing went well. Sure, the inquiries as to Dr. Doom’s whereabouts continued, but with my feet tended to and already feeling much improved, I was enjoying quipping with these “Doom-sayers.”

“Big surprise, Doom not showing… He is a bad guy, after all. If he can’t seize control of the planet, he takes solace in making people unhappy!” I’d playfully jab.

Fred didn’t arrive until after the signing. In fact, I accompanied Lola back to the airport to greet him. The Dr. Doom suit sat by the baggage carousel, waiting there for Fred to retrieve him since my plane arrived that morning. His mien and body language was even more downtrodden than before. Had Eeyore been present, he would have pulled me aside to express his concern. Fred wanted so much to play Dr. Doom that it wasn’t hard to convince him to don the costume for some publicity shots with Spidey at the store.

In the costume, Fred was a transformed man. He strode out of the front door of the comic store and deliberately into the street, stopping traffic and creating quite a scene. With the pain of my soles a distant memory, I followed his lead and confronted him. A struggle ensued, much to the delight of the drivers and passersby. Fred and I had experience in stage combat and made the most of it, tumbling over car hoods, flipping on top of one another. Had this been New York, we would have been run over, flipped the bird at the very least. For Fred, our mock clash of titans was cathartic. His spirits lifted and he had returned to the amiable teddy bear I had met at La Guardia Airport the morning prior.

The next morning, we had breakfast with both Lola and Darwin (having apparently returned from the Galapagos Islands, no doubt). It was an equally beautiful day to the one previous and I couldn’t help but think that the travails of the last 48 hours were far behind us. The sun was shining, as we made our way to the car when suddenly, the sky went black.

“Ow! What the—?” Something had hit me. Something big.

Golf balls were pelting us from the heavens, bouncing off the tarmac and car as we hurried inside. I felt like Captain Kangaroo falling victim to Mr. Moose and his signature torrent of Ping-Pong balls. Except those never hurt the good Captain. If I never knew the experience of “being agape” before that moment, I certainly did then. It can’t be hailing, I thought incredulously. It’s July 2! I was trapped in some strange Canadian mash-up of After Hours and Trains, Planes and Automobiles. I just wanted to get home! Fortunately, the hailing stopped as suddenly as it started and we departed on time.

The return flight was not stopping through Minnesota, but rather Chicago, so Fred and I were hopeful that we would encounter no further problems. But fate still had one blow left to deliver: we missed our connection. There was only one thing to do. We proceeded to the airport bar and got hammered while awaiting the next flight home.

We arrived in New York in the wee hours of the morning. I tried to explain to Fred that appearances normally proceeded swimmingly without problem; that the nightmare that this particular gig became was nothing more than an anomaly. I liked Fred and wanted to work with him again in the future. More importantly, I believed he had the mix of spirit, dedication, playfulness and professionalism that the best character actors possessed. He would have been a tremendous addition to the team. But I caught the look on his face as we parted and I knew we’d never meet in costume again.

What the Fantastic Four and Marveldom assembled could not do, over more than two decades and countless battles, a frail octogenarian couple of fifty years achieved without even trying: the utter defeat of Dr. Doom!

Monday, January 11, 2010

I Love a Parade, Finale: What The—?

Previously, the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had commenced with Vroom!, ignoring the pain ’twixt his legs, marching valiantly—albeit like Rush Limbaugh walking home in wet trunks after a day at the beach—toward the televised clash-of-titans finale.

Captain America steps out from between several BJ’s economy-size comic books

The entire Marvel Universe float routine was centered around Captain America. As the most famous of the Marvel heroes after Spider-Man, who was absent, and the Hulk, whose maneuverability was the worst of all the characters, he was the obvious choice.

While the hoi polloi are wondering what danger Dr. Strange is alerting Cap to, the comics cognoscenti are wondering about the absence of any of the Red-White-and-Blue Avenger’s own books

The choreography was accompanied by a highly energized soundtrack that, if not directly stolen from Back to the Future, drew its inspiration from the hit Michael J. Fox film, over which the voices of Captain America and Dr. Strange—recorded by professional voice actors, not the actual people in the costumes—were dubbed. In fact, other than Cap, Dr. Strange is the only character who “speaks,” discounting the occasional grunt or cry of anguish and the chorus of amusing dubbed reactions that accompanied the choreography. Yes, we had an underlying fake audience track.

Dr. Strange opens the show by mysteriously producing a floating yellow orb from the folds of his cape before shouting, “Quick, Captain America! Wolverine needs your help!” The secret of the levitating orb is an inflated ball attached to fishing line and a pole held by another hero on the roof above. You can actually see the ball fall to one side as the action shifts and the actor who was manning the rod joins the fray during the televised sequence. (Above left: T.J. Glenn, the quintessential Sorcerer Supreme)

With Dr. Strange’s bit of sorcery in play, Captain America steps from the pages of the giant comics, which bookend the tower at the float’s rear, in a nice dramatic touch that reminds people that comic books are where all the exciting heroes and action to follow derive (I won’t mention that none of the recreated comics at the back of the float were actually Captain America books—Oops!). Strange delivers his line, “Captain America… Wolverine needs your help!” while sweeping an arm toward the front of the float, before Cap straps his shield to his back and moves to help the embattled X-Man. Why the Master of the Mystic Arts, Sorcerer Supreme didn’t deign to aid his colleague is another question. True, Strange was never one for fisticuffs, but employing the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak or the Winds of Watoomb would have easily sufficed.


Now, now... no fighting. There's enough mutant for everyone

Atop what we called the dungeon area, due to its deep gray faux Gothic façade and location underneath the shinier, more modern buildings surrounding it, Enchantress and Evil Mutant Master of Magnetism, Magneto, are playing tug-o-war with Wolverine. I won’t get into how unusual a scenario this is to any Marvelite. Suffice it to say that a mutant, even one of Wolvie’s caliber, would not normally be battling Amora, the Norse goddess of love and Thor villainess . . . certainly not mano a mano. Amora wouldn’t sully herself by touching a lowly mortal. She’d simply cast a spell or cleverly deliver a love potion. Nor would Magneto engage in close combat, rather allowing his powers do the talking. And neither is known for possessing enhanced strength, a prerequisite for anyone dumb enough to spar with Wolverine without super powers, mutant, magical or otherwise.

After the good Captain accesses the site of the struggle—climbing the side wall of the dungeon, a mere seven feet and four metal rungs—Magneto and Amora retreat. Cap chases Enchantress to the abutting bell tower (Apparently, super-soldier serum trumps mutant X gene when combating gods.). Rather than help his comrade who just saved him, Wolverine inexplicably scurries down a manhole into the dungeon… go figure.

Using a conveniently-located pole attached above the entrance into the bell tower, The Enchantress swings and kicks Cap backward in a maneuver that would make a seasoned pole dancer proud. Like something out of the climactic scenes of every episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, the love goddess runs, Cap follows, and after a quick weave in and out of the bell tower, Amora kicks again with both legs using a carefully concealed bar within the belfry. I guess when the Red-White-and-Blue Avenger didn’t slip her a dollar, she felt the need to up the ante on her routine.

When Cap recovers, he is faced with Magneto who, in a cunning moment of bait-and-switch has stepped in to help his fellow evil-doer. Ordinarily the Mutant Master of Magnetism would handily render Cap immobile or worse. He’d merely wave his hand and Cap’s shield would wrap around his head and suffocate him. But Cap easily pushes Magneto aside.

Yo, Doomsy... Pull my finger!

The fixated Cap takes up after Amora once again (Apparently, she owes him money), following Enchantress through the bell tower down the stairs on the far side of the dungeon, at the bottom of which he is greeted by Dr. Doom who, unlike Magneto, seems to have been minding his own business when he was so rudely interrupted.

Before Doom has the chance to utter, “Hey, you kids get out of my yard!” from atop the stairs Captain America points to the Malevolent Monarch of Latveria and avers (or dramatically mouths, as the case may be), “You’re through Doctor Doom!” A quick moment of “Which way did he go? Which way did he go?”—during which Doom ducks one way, Cap the other, Doom quickly doubles back and Cap appears behind him—and the dastardly doc is greeted with a right to the jaw, which is followed by an uppercut that throws him against his diabolical machinery. Cap throws a switch and electrocutes the armored baddie, a sequence accompanied by a spinning whatchamacallit, flashing lights that can barely be seen and Doom’s anguished scream . . . “Aaaaaargh!”

There must be fifty ways to love your lever

Up to this point the series of odd match-ups between various heroes and villains would go unnoticed to the hoi polloi and the average comic book fan would be too busy drooling in glee over the spotlight being thrown onto their beloved hobby to care. But the televised tableau was about to enter the Twilight Zone with the brief, but not brief enough, appearance of RoboCop. Literally behind the back of Captain America—who has turned away from Dr. Doom to free a shackled Power Man—the cyborg policeman clumsily enters from the dungeon just long enough to switch off the machine electrocuting Dr. Doom; then pauses in bewilderment—like the audience—before gracelessly ducking back into the darkness.

With all the grace of a wounded caribou, an uncharacteristically mustachioed Powerman lumbers onto the scene and asks, "RoboCop?!! What the Hell are you doing here?!!

Why a law-enforcement official helped a would-be world conqueror like Doom just heightens the weirdness of the moment, along with the utter lack of acknowledgment to RoboCop’s arrival by either Cap or Power Man. Of course, juxtaposed to Power Man’s awkwardness—which made Boris Karloff’s The Mummy look like an aerobics instructor—the audience probably thought they were seeing double.

“Take over Power Man! I’ll be back!” orders Cap before continuing to the rear of the float whence he first appeared.

If you blink while the camera pans across the base of the float, you’ll miss the cameo the back of my head makes as Iron Man, following the Silver Surfer on the street, parallel to Cap’s route alongside the float. Wolverine and Dr. Strange appear as well and all five confront the White Queen at the spot where Dr. Strange conducted his slight-of-hand earlier. The White Queen is an evil mutant whose power over subzero temperatures is similar to those of Frozone in The Incredibles. With a flourish she delivers a flurry of sub-zero bursts of energy which in reality are a bunch of streamers (but they look cool!).

For the love of humanity, not the streamers!!!

Choosing to ignore the White Queen—they’re just streamers, after all, and the combined might of the quartet of heroes should surely suffice to halt the frigid feline’s attack—Captain America climbs the girdered exoskeleton of the building beside which she stands. Look closely and you’ll see Daredevil following. Meanwhile, Green Goblin cameos atop Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum—as it is affectionately known in the comics—before getting out of Dodge before Cap arrives. Cap gains the rooftop, and the camera angle cuts back to the base of the bell tower shooting upward. Where once Enchantress and Magneto battled Cap now stands the Hulk.

The framed metal box in which Magneto stands is an elevator that moves all of three feet at the speed of a Dancing with the Stars results show

“Up to your old tricks again . . . Hulk!” he shouts once again utilizing the finger-pointing gesture that seemed so effective when used against Dr. Doom.

Instead of running, though, the Hulk throws a tantrum, slamming one side of the tower, then the other, before he topples the structure, which is hinged in sections to give the illusion of tumbling over without the danger of actually doing so. If you watch the broadcast closely, you’ll notice Mark Hulk adjusting his head mid-tantrum, so it doesn’t go all “Linda Blair” on him. Cap is there in a flash, sliding down a fireman’s pole, placed there for no other reason.

Hulk goes off the deep end when he discovers that hes late for the Macy’s One-Day-Only Sale

A bit of clumsy maneuvering puts the Hulk atop the dungeon where Cap and the Green Behemoth share a dance, since emulated by Kenny Mayne and his partner Andrea Hale in the 2nd season of Dancing with the Stars, before Cap hurls (read: delicately maneuvers) Hulk off the dungeon into the awaiting arms of Dr. Doom, Green Goblin and Power Man, a move which may help in explaining why a body builder was chosen over an actor for the role of Luke Cage. The routine ends with a close-up of the defeated Hulk between Dr. Doom and the Green Goblin.

I’ve since read blogs wherein the choreography is excoriated for its silliness, inanity, comic-book unfaithfulness, low-budget… you name it. Technically, these gripes may have merit, but they are unfair in their assessment, because they do not take into consideration the strict parameters under which Bill Guskey had to choreograph. The equivalent would be to pan a street-magic performer because his tricks don’t have the glitz and special effects of a David Copperfield extravaganza.

First, there were thirteen characters which needed screen time. The fact that some characters like Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Green Goblin and me, as Iron Man, got short-changed was in part due to the camera being too close at times. Had the view panned back occasionally, as when Cap spans the length of the float with a half dozen heroes in tow to confront the White Queen, the audience would have gotten a more dramatic and exciting moment, and the aforementioned neglected heroes would have gotten more bang.

Blink and you'll miss my national television debut, along with Caspar.. er, I mean, Silver Surfer

Green Goblin’s limited usage may have been planned. After all, Gobby is synonymous with Spider-Man, the Web-Swinger’s arch-rival responsible for the death of his first love Gwen Stacy. To give the pumpkin-bomb-wielding psycho any face time would only accentuate Spidey’s absence from the proceedings. Guskey even gives RoboCop his corporately-decided due.

Marvel's Green Party

Second, the float—all it’s trap doors, flashing lights and slide poles; various architecture and notable comic-book structures; collapsible tower and giant comics—needed to be featured. The Marvel Nabobs approved of the many thousands of dollars that went into its construction—not to mention the design of nearly a dozen new character costumes—so showing off the pageantry and breadth of the whole megilla was paramount. With only one means of access and egress, and the hazard of access, the Surfer’s perch was understandably omitted from the proceedings. Plus, the cameras were unable to circumnavigate the construct. Hence, the action taking place along only one side of the float.

Another superhero cameo: That’s Daredevil following Cap

Guskey had to accomplish all this in less than three minutes. This was live television, so special effects were limited and rudimentary. You couldn’t adequately show the characters’ various powers without their looking hokey. You also had to consider the hundreds of people surrounding the float. Pyrotechnic displays would have been hazardous and not allowed. Even had stunt people been hired to portray the heroes and villains, the resultant cost of insurance or a more acrobatic routine would have been astronomical. And Marvel certainly wouldn’t want to risk the embarrassment of one of their characters stumbling or, Heaven forbid, injuring themselves on national television.

Yours truly and Cap Extraordinaire Mark Nutting

Guskey accomplished all while keeping the action fast-paced and exciting. His choreography never gives the audience time to process. Characters enter and exit in a cacophony of movement leaving the audience wanting to linger on each sequence before abruptly being pulled away to the next. It is only in retrospect with the advent of YouTube—the pause, replay and dissection of such television moments—that exposes the wonkiness of the event.

Back in the day, Willard Scott covered the parade by his lonesome; no co-host, no disingenuous witty banter

As Willard Scott led the television audience into commercial break, the float continued around the uptown-west corner of Macy’s onto 34th Street (You know, where that miracle took place?), thus ending the parade. We heroes and villains scrambled to the awaiting van with one thing on our minds: getting out of costume and into a restroom!

Vroom! cannot thank enough Faithful Bloglodyte Brian Kolm who provided the awesome screen grabs from his videotape of the original 1987 broadcast of the parade.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I Love a Parade, Part V: And Away We Go...

When last we left our would-be Avenger, he learned the battle choreography for the Marvel Universe float and hobbled through Media Day, defying the pain caused by his iron diapers…

In the wee small hours of the morning the Spidey balloon awaits lift off

Despite the obvious discomfort from my nether regions (I put the “oy” in groin), an ideal solution was not found, nor was there time to construct a suitable replacement. To his credit, the costumer further trimmed the hard celastic betwixt my aching thighs, but he could only shave back so much before risking exposure of the golden leotard underneath. Unfortunately, the area of my upper legs abutting my “Iron Giant” (ahem), were raked with deep bruises that would make the Marquis de Sade wince. So whatever easement the operation on my costume afforded was lost to me. But, agony or not, the show must go on! With any luck, my thighs will have sufficiently healed enough in the day remaining that the pain would not affect the way I walked while in costume.

Witnessing the inflation of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons on Central Park’s Upper West Side the evening prior has become a popular event for tourists and New Yorkers alike. Less acknowledged is what occurs in Herald Square at the same time.

Watching the blowing up of the balloons the eve prior to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a favorite pastime of tourist and New Yorker alike

Anyone who has seen the parade on TV knows that all the guest bands and that year’s debut floats get a few minutes to shine when they reach Macy’s. The bands offer something from their repertoire—complete with blocking—and the floats most often showcase a celebrity performing a song. For the Marvel entry a full-fledged good vs. evil clash was on the menu. Thus, a technical rehearsal for each spotlighted float and performing band is run in front of Macy’s for the purpose of blocking the television cameras for next morning’s telecast. After all, as the parade is a live event, there is no way the director could possibly know how to manage the camera people beforehand to get the best shots and capture all the action during the telecast other than staging each sequence the night before for their benefit. It all sounds fascinating—and is in an odd behind-the-scenes kind of way…

The tech rehearsals for those bands and floats performing on TV during the parade telecast continues throughout the night

First, there are no floats. Where would they put them? Plus, some of the oomph and excitement of debuting them during the parade would be lost. Nor are any of the characters in full costume, more from a lack of changing facilities than an attempt to keep secrets about the content of particular floats. Don’t expect any of the singing celebs, either. The crew employs any Tom, Dick or Harry intern to stand in, approximating the spot where each particular float’s star will be upon arriving at the store’s famous façade. In the case of us heroes, only masks or headgear were donned—Dr. Strange wore his cape—purely as a means for the television crew to identify the players. There was also the intended music and dubbed soundtrack of the characters’ dialogue, blasted from speakers in front of Macy’s, to aid in the cuing of the action on the float.

With no set, limited costuming, basic blocking filling in for actual choreography, and constant stops and starts, who would want to pay witness to such a display? The actors certainly didn’t want to be there. Even a tech rehearsal for a stage production—universally acknowledged by actors everywhere as the worst night leading up to an opening—is run with complete dress, makeup, sound, props and sets, so an outside observer would at least derive some entertainment from the spectacle alone.

This group of jump-ropers were among the many performers participating in the tech rehearsal

So there we were in naught but basic signature elements of our costumes awkwardly moving about the cordoned-off street in front of the historic shopping mecca, as we tried to envision and emulate our respective routes and movements as they pertained to the three-dimensional playset on which we would be performing the next morning. Seeing as the Marvel entry incorporated a baker’s dozen worth of superheroes bounding, climbing, jumping, scurrying, swinging and battling on a multitude of tiers, from street-level to three-stories above, our attempt at simulating the action appeared like a post-modern interpretive dance. All that was missing was the Steven Reich music. Even following Guskey’s sequence with schematics and pictures of the float, which I only assume were available, the director would have a hellacious time preparing his camera people for the shots. And we were but one float of dozens, albeit with more action. Watching the actual telecast with all this in mind, one cannot help but be impressed.

The call for the next morning—Thanksgiving—was 6 A.M. at the Marvel offices. In order to make that time, I had to leave my apartment no later than 5 A.M., which in turn required my awakening at the ungodly hour of 4:30 A.M. (I believe, at the time, I had a moment of looking about for cows to milk)!

From clown to balloon handler, every parade participant had to arrive hours before starting time

There weren’t any dressing facilities at the parade start, so every clown, balloon handler, character actor had to arrive in costume. Hence, our meeting at Marvel, where my fellow heroes and I dressed before being transported via a couple of hired vans to our designated spot somewhere in the vicinity of 77th Street along Central Park West, which was the parade’s ground zero. We only had a half hour to dress before the vans’ scheduled departure at 6:30 A.M. After 7 A.M., the city begins blocking roadways along the parade route. If we didn’t want to walk the more than sixty blocks in costume, we couldn’t afford to delay.

Also, without access to an appropriate dressing area, us superheroes had to squeeze every drop of urine out of our bladders before donning our respective tights or, as in my case, iron diapers, before leaving Marvel, two and a half hours before the event’s 9 A.M. start. Depending on where the Marvel float was situated in the parade line-up, I and my super-powered colleagues could reach the end as late as noon. Add an hour—conservatively—after we cross the finish line for locating and loading into the van, driving to the opposite side of Manhattan, crossing the parade route and millions of spectators, finally to return to the Marvel offices, and we’re talking more than an estimated six-and-a-half hours until we’d have the chance to hit the loo again. Try that with the additional onus of a pair of chaffing hard-celastic boy shorts.

Even had we access to a restroom, whether in a coffee shop or portable toilet near the float, the procedure one of us would have to go through in order to relieve ourselves would make it impossible to do so without the aid of a colleague to assist in whatever unzipping or unstrapping needed doing for the user to free his or herself in order to go potty. A portable toilet does not offer the kind of space needed. And having, say, Silver Surfer follow Captain America into the restroom of a coffee shop would guarantee an unflattering blurb on Page 6 of the New York Post at the very least. Partially de-costuming before making one’s way to the loo was not an option. One of the sacred rules of doing character appearances was that the character must never be seen in any stage of undress by the public.

We filled the van in various stages of dress, donning those pieces of our respective costumes that we couldn’t assume on site, like muscle and bodysuits, tights, and in my case, Iron Man’s chest plate, which necessitated my sitting uncomfortably upright—swinging to and fro like an Evergreen car air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror—during the trip. Mark had it the easiest. As the Hulk, whose costume was of the giant stuffed animal variety seen at theme parks and impossible to wear for more than twenty minutes at a time without the portrayer fainting from heat prostration, he wouldn’t be required to put on his attire until just before the parade started. The bell tower atop the float had deep enough corners where he could not only dress, but also take required breaks during the event without being noticed. So he sat pleasantly in his civvies among us as we clutched our helmets and head gear, praying for a swift and expeditious conclusion to this ride from Hell.

The Marvel Universe float was fully constructed upon our arrival, having been deconstructed and moved piecemeal overnight through the Midtown Tunnel and recreated in the wee hours of the morning along with every other entry. Unfortunately, our float was scheduled toward the end of the parade, which meant a longer waiting time to get the ball rolling.

Anyone versed with attending events in New York City is familiar with the “hurry-up-and-wait” mentality. It’s an unfortunate by-product of a place that entertains ten million people on a daily basis. In order to be assured of entry, a good observation spot, an ideal seat, or not being locked out, one must move their asses out the door and get to the desired location as early as possible… then wait. Of course, familiarity does not lessen its unpleasantness. Luckily, the superheroes were not constrained to a line or any sort of holding area. We were free to test (read: play on) the float, rehearse and entertain the spectators who bounded the sides of Central Park West at the head of the parade.

Being among the latter participants also meant having a front-row-seat to the machinations of the event. I had always assumed, as did many others, I’m sure, that the various marching bands, balloons, floats, clowns, etc. lined up in turn from Parade Director, then Jean McFadden, who led the way, to the finale, i.e. Santa Claus. Upon reflection that would entail the parade extending up through the Bronx and possibly beyond. The reality of the parade’s fabrication is quite brilliant, albeit logistically nightmarish.

Each component queues in order separately from other like elements. The floats run from 77th Street uptown along Central Park West. Balloons and their corresponding handlers were situated at the cross streets—77th and above. Marching bands abutted the wall which bordered the park, with clowns and other interstitial components opposing them on the other side of the avenue. As the parade begins and progresses, a “trafficker” coordinates the integration of each element according to their place in the line up. The varying pieces have to be alert and incorporate seamlessly into place to become a part of the parade.

It was like weaving a giant tapestry. A band—next in line—scurries into formation from against the park wall and marches onward, then a float might lurch forward, after which perhaps a merry band of clowns would traipse from in front of the Museum of Natural History, followed by a balloon, pulled and turned around the corner at 77th Street to the cheers of onlookers. As each element entered the fray, the subsequent components moved up in their particular on-deck circles, as it were. Throughout, boosters heightened morale and kept up the excitement level. The staging process was a marvel (no pun intended) to behold and gets my blood pumping with each recollection.

The Spider-Man balloon takes flight... just nowhere near the Marvel Universe float!

I cannot recall whether the Spider-Man balloon—the appearance of which led the Marvel Nabobs to decide that his character shouldn’t be present on the float with the other Marvel heroes for fear of confusing the kiddies with a double-dose of the Wall-Crawler—entered the affair before or after the float. I do remember the Tex Avery-esque reaction I made when I realized the Web-Spinner’s inflatable double was entering the queue nowhere remotely near us. A definite WTF moment.

Wasn’t Spidey supposed to be ushering in or looming over this incredible action-packed, condensed representation of the Marvel Universe in celebration of the super-arachnid’s 25th Anniversary? And with the balloon being distant enough for the Six Million Dollar Man unable to see from the pertaining float, why the heck not have Spider-Man represented on the mobile comic book as well. Wouldn’t those children the corporate Poo-Bahs were so worried about being confused figure out that Spidey simple swung from one spot to another?

Upping the bizarre factor? If you watch the television coverage, it appears that the balloon that directly proceeds the Marvel float is Betty Boop (This assumption comes from a glimpse of an inflated shoe hanging before the camera before it closes in on the action.). Huh?!! The only explanation I can offer is that with the two Marvel-inspired components so removed from one another, the company was assured of getting two major plugs during the parade, instead of receiving only one mash-up covering both the balloon and float.

Go figure... Betty Boop preceded the Marvel float

When the float finally heaved into position, the heroes positioned themselves intermittently at various levels. Certain characters had definitive positions from which they did not stray while the behemoth was in motion. Silver Surfer, for example, stood on his surfboard—which was a foot wide and overhung the eave like a gangplank—34 feet above street level atop the tower that end-capped the entire scene, precariously perched and fully exposed to the elements. The architects did install a rope with which Jim could hold himself in place while the skyscraper swayed and tottered en route. Mark couldn’t move from the belfry area even if he wanted to while in the unwieldy Hulk costume.

Once the float started moving we were urged to climb, bound, and make full use of the float. I was able to do some limited climbing with my iron diapers on which kept an ever-present pained grimace on my face under the helmet.

I did discover a route which enabled me to climb to Hulk’s belfry with minimal pain to my groin. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to observe the experience from a higher vantage point, even if it meant risking a fall navigating the intricacies of the various ledges and bars bolted in place for the more maneuverable heroes to scurry about. On either side, a sea of screaming, cheering, applauding, and oohing and aahing spectators blanketed the streets and sidewalks. Li’l ’uns sat atop shoulders or cross-legged beneath the police sawhorse barricades that lined the parade route. Older kids draped over mailboxes and covered low walls. I was most surprised to see faces leveled at me from second- and third-story windows—those workers fortunate to have ideally-located offices and bosses nice enough to allow them to use them to watch the event.

At one point I looked in on Hulk Mark who was taking a break. He sat in the corner of the bell tower with his head off. Sweat poured down his face while billows of thick white steam rose from the fissure at the base of his neck from the heat escaping from his sweating frame. No surprise, Hulk actors are only allowed a maximum of twenty minutes at a time in costume. In the seasonably cold temps, Mark was suitably refreshed and once again ready to “get angry.”

Our erstwhile Golden Avenger in action

Occasionally, I stepped off the float completely and walked alongside, shaking hands with the hordes of spectators from time to time. The most persistent question they asked was “Who are you?,” followed immediately by “Is that Caspar?” as the fans pointed up toward the Silver Surfer. More than a few of the comic-book savvy onlookers burst out with a hearty, “Hey, Iron Man!” As much as I enjoyed the meet-and-greets, I had to continually keep moving for fear of lagging too far behind the float, and as painful as walking was, running was excruciating and made me question my ability to have children in the future!

NEXT: “On with the show, this is it…”