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 fa├žade. 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…”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.