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.


Brian said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences 'in character'.

I remember how impressive the Marvel float was and how they had so many characters.

Years ago I posted some screen grabs on my blog from the float which I just uploaded to flickr that you might like.

Vroom! said...

Hi Brian!

Your screen grabs are much nicer than the ones I found. Heck, they're better than the quality of the video. Did you tape the original broadcast and grab the images from that? Mind if I use them?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


Brian said...

Yes, they are taken from my own video tape of the parade. You can hotlink the directly from Flickr or copy them since my website is watermarked on them.

I think I have a quicktime movie of it someplace too.

Have you noticed that the Marvel float has better theming in some ways then Marvel Island and Universal Studios? I have not seen it in person, but I would want a park where you can sit on the stoops at Dr. Stranges place or look in the front doors of a shorter version of the Baxter building.

Vroom! said...

Hi Brian!

Never made it to Marvel Island, but the float was a wonderful mash-up of Marvel loci.

Thanks for the screen grabs, they greatly enlivened the post.


John III said...

Great Story Steve! After all that physical agony and we see the back of your head. Oh well, that must have been a great time though. What you should have done is wore a Spidey costume under your Iron Man one and had a coming out party! Of course then you wouldn't have been working for Marvel anymore, but hey!

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Pj Perez said...

"The White Queen is an evil mutant whose power over subzero temperatures is similar to those of Frozone in The Incredibles."

Maybe for the parade, but you know better.

Pj Perez said...

Also: I never noticed the score they used for that performance was the Back to the Future theme! WTH?