Saturday, November 27, 2010

Going for the Gold

1988 U.S. Olympic swimmer Janet Evans displays one of her three gold medals

With the advent of the 1988 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade came another request for my services. Once again I was asked to don the red-and-gold and play the titular metallic superhero, Iron Man, among many of the characters with which I shared the stage—or in this case float—at the spectacular 1987 affair. That event; as you may recall from my critically-acclaimed, multi-part epic, “I Love a Parade;” featured a trio of considerable debuts, all as part of the historic 25th anniversary of everyone’s favorite Wall-Crawler. The beloved Spider-Man balloon, the Marvel Universe float and a gaggle of newly-commissioned personal-appearance characters all were seen for the first time—the ultimate comic-book geek orgasm.

Props to marvel for ponying up the Benjamins for the event. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade sponsorships, a.k.a. entry fees, were in the tens of thousands. And that was if you were accepted, which, quite frankly, was about as difficult as being turned down for a spot in the Surreal Life. Basically, if you had the dough, you could go.

Spider-Man loomed over the Marvel Universe float during the 1988 parade. That tiny white/silver figure above and behind the bell tower is Silver Surfer

Factor in additional fees for submitting both a balloon and a float; the not-insubstantial costs of designing and building both aforementioned elements; and creating about a dozen new costumes and hiring actors who’d be wearing them and one is easily looking at a price tag close to, if not above, a hundred grand. And this move was made before multi-billionaire, Revlon owner, Ron Perelman purchased the company.

Spider-Man actually got an invite to the 1988 event. The figure in white over my left shoulder is Janet Evans

Any participant could up their sponsorship each year, although any particular float was allowed only three appearances before a new entry had to be created. This keeps the parade from becoming stale with oft-repeated floats, yet gives Sponsors a chance to get a triennial bang for their entry buck.

Balloons were under no such stipulation. As long as the company paid for its inclusion, the inflatable was still in flying shape—the ginormous signature helium-filled wonders lasted only a handful of years before they degenerated into unusability—and there was public demand, the balloons were featured, which explains the inaugural Spider-Man’s many years of service before forced retirement.

Thus, Marvel re-upped both their sponsorships.

But how to supersede the year prior. What could Marvel do to top the pomp and circumstance of the trifecta firsts and make people forget the monster melee betwixt hero and villain that took place on the float? It would take an Olympian effort to accomplish such a feat. Fortunately, the company had a quartet of Olympians on hand.

Less than two months before, the 1988 summer Games of the XXIV Olympiad were held in Seoul, South Korea. Highlights included U.S. diver Greg Louganis’s inspiring capture of back-to-back golds on both diving events after hitting his head on the board in a preliminary round, which resulted in a concussion and stitches; Canadian runner Ben Johnson setting a world record in the 100m, only to be disqualified for testing positive to performance enhancing drugs; U.S. athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s dual victories in heptathlon and long jump; three gold medals for U.S. swimmer Janet Evans and two for return participant Carl Lewis; and U.S. runner Florence Griffith-Joyner’s winning three golds and one silver medal, breaking two world-records (100m and 200m) in the process, records which still stand.

Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo), her sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis and Janet Evans were all featured on the Marvel float. It was a masterful stroke teaming up real-life heroes with comic-book ones—the company Nabobs wisely excluded supervillains—especially Olympic champions whose accomplishment’s were international in nature and still fresh in the country’s mind, achieved a mere seven weeks before Thanksgiving. Spidey and his superhero pals would become synonymous with U.S. athletic excellence, patriotism, hot dogs, Mom and apple pie. Plus, the presence of such national treasures all but ensured maximum television coverage of Marvel’s float.

Plus, it certainly didn’t hurt that three of the four Olympic stars were African-American and two of those were women, two segments of the population woefully under-represented the 1987 parade—Luke Cage, aka Powerman, was the “token” black hero and the only two female characters were both supervillains! With the evil-doer ban in place, that would mean a complete lack of women, so estrogen domination was paramount.

But wait, there’s more!

The Marvel parade-planning committee pushed the minority meter into the red with the inclusion of the Harlem Boys Choir, a world-renowned singing group, founded in 1968, which drew its membership from the predominantly African and Hispanic New York City neighborhood of Harlem. At its peak, the group had five hundred choristers, although there were approximately fifty boys represented on the float.

The population explosion on the float meant a curtailment of superhero activities—there wouldn’t be another character battle in front of Macy’s—but it did not negate a moment before the historic retail edifice. That would now be provided by the Harlem Boys Choir, which would be featured singing carols when the ponderous mobile metropolis hit Herald Square.

No choreography equaled no rehearsals for the character actors. We merely had to show up at the appointed hour and place to suit up before getting transported to the float. In 1987, the Marvel offices on Park Avenue South served as the launching pad. But Babs, the Personal Appearance Department’s head, chose a different tactic for the 1988 festivities. I seem to remember her worrying over a new city edict that restricted vehicles crossing Broadway after 6 A.M. the morning of the parade, which meant she and the actors would have to be at the office no later than 5 A.M., in order to dress—quickly!—crowd into a van and make it cross town before West-Side access was constricted.

The original Statler Hotel, which begat the Penta, which is now the Hotel Pennsylvania

She sagely concluded that nobody wanted to stumble out of bed as 4 A.M.—or earlier—so she booked a room at the Penta (née Statler) Hotel on Seventh Avenue at 31st Street across from Madison Square Garden where she had the costumes delivered from Marvel HQ the day before. Opening in 1919, the Statler—today known as the Hotel Pennsylvania—is one of the city’s most historic (read: oldest) hotels. It and the Waldorf-Astoria were the name inspirations for the crotchety, elderly hecklers in the audience of The Muppet Show. I actually stayed there when it was still known as the Statler during a high school field trip in 1982.

Muppets Waldorf and Statler

Even then the accommodations were in terrible condition. I don’t believe the hotel had been renovated in the six plus decades of its existence. The fading wallpaper was a light mustard hue, long-stained over the years prior to when smoking was banned in the public thoroughfares of hotels. The rug was worn to sandpaper grade filaments with nasty-looking mauve and charcoal splotches—some the size of wading pools—every few feet. The dim lighting cast a jaundice glow, which only accentuated the depressing condition of the walls and floor.

This décor continued into the rooms, which were entered by heavy, self-shutting doors that would induce anyone unfortunate to get caught by its prodigious weight, to painfully mumble “Put the Candle Back!” The bed cover was a dull cranberry of the sort found in tapestries from the 1300s with the tactility of flock. Gray sheets could not hide the lumpy mattress, which resembled a piece of Razzles gum. And it didn’t feel any better. It was like sleeping on a back of sneakers.

Babs asked if I would be interested in staying there again in order to baby-sit the costumes. Seeing as I would otherwise be commuting into the city from Forest Hills, Queens, a trip that would add an hour to what was sure to be an already sleep-prohibitive wake-up time, I leapt at the chance.

I checked in with my modest gym back carrying fresh undies and toiletries at around 8 P.M. The rooms seemed somewhat better, but still would not have passed muster with the house staging experts on the Home & Garden Channel. What little room there was, was monopolized by the costumes. The great green duffel bag that housed the Hulk fought for space with a metal rolling clothing rack packed with body suits and tights and the giant black pizza box in which was stored Captain America’s shield. Miscellaneous helmets, masks and headpieces covered every table, bureau and chair. Despite the mess, the costumes were a vast improvement to the décor, providing splashes of color where there hadn’t been in decades.

I placed a wake-up call with the front desk for 5:00 A.M. Early, yes, but had I been coming from home I’d be setting the alarm for 4:00 A.M., and sneaking out of my apartment as quietly as possible so as not to wake up the roosters in the neighborhood. An additional advantage to accepting the baby-sitting job was breakfast. Boss Babs dangled the incentive before me when offering me the assignment, little realizing I would have done it regardless. So I had reception transfer me to room service, which whom I scheduled and ordered my early morning repast for the next morning, including an additional pot of coffee, cups, spoons and condiments for my impending guests.

The phone rang a few minutes past the appointed time. This was not unheard of back when wake-up calls were made by human beings as opposed to computers. Hell, there are places today that simply ring your room until the receiver gets picked up without so much as a female H.A.L. on the other end to say “Good morning.” Nothing more than total silence, which is a bit unnerving and quite inhospitable. When an actual person was making the calls, it is understandable that guests toward the end of the request list for each particular time slot would receive their calls slightly past that particular time.

Stephen . . . Time to wake up . . .

I had just enough time to shower before Room Service arrived. A food dolly was wheeled in, adding to the clutter that threatened to overcome the room. I was gobbling down the last crust of English muffin, when the first hero arrived. It is sometimes odd what one remembers and in this instance I remember clearly that Marvel character actor David was the first arrival. The year prior Dave played Robocop—yes, that Robocop—the explanation for which was given in “I Love a Parade.” If you’re waiting for the book, don’t hold your breath, just click the link and enjoy! But for those under a time crunch, his inclusion in the 1987 Marvel Universe float concerned corporate licensing, a new Robocop cartoon and the marketing department. You do the math. The fact that Paul Verhoeven’s distopian law-enforcement agent was left off the 1988 float invitation list may tell you something about how well that experiment went.

Anyway, Dave was playing Daredevil, the Man without Fear, the inspiration for the eponymous and lamentable 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and Colin Farrell. It was by no means the worst comic book film adaptation, and had some nice touches, like Matt Murdock’s heightened senses forcing his having to sleep in a sensory deprivation tank. But the story was uneven and overly dark, and the casting was ill-advised; having fair-skinned, all-American–looking Garner play Elektra—the daughter of a swarthy Greek ambassador—for example.

Over the next half hour, actors arrived, packing in to join me and the others in various stages of undress, java drinking and chatting about the state of our individual careers. Clothes were strewn about; costume bags were thrown over the furniture; half-drunk and empty coffee cups were perched atop every flat surface; and backpacks, saddlebags and whatever tote holding each thespian’s personal belonging—everyone in New York has a bag of some sort—were thrust in each nook and cranny, adding to the disarray begun by my unmade bed and dirty breakfast dishes. It resembled the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera.

Babs arrived a few minutes before our departure time. Her appearance did nothing to curtail the actor’s state of undress. She sat on the only available corner of the bed and kibitzed with her boys, like the madam of a male brothel preparing her johns before a big weekend. Still, she made sure to get us out of the room and into the awaiting van, so that we made it to the Upper West Side where our float was positioned to take its place in the parade line-up before 7:00 A.M. Otherwise, we’d be forced to park several blocks away and haul our colorfully festooned asses to the demarcated area, as streets and avenues were summarily closed to traffic the closer it got to kick-off time.

Cap shimmies up the thirty-foot rear tower, which was book-ended at its base by giant comic books

So for two hours, us heroes had to wait around in the cold, late-November air. And the winds that whip down Central Park West can be unforgiving. Even wearing thermals did little to assuage the bitter cold. Some of the actors huddled in the bell tower with Mark who wisely donned the Hulk uniform early to keep warm. Other, more adventurous types, “played” on the float, shimmying up the tower at the rear of the construct and leaping from building to building to entertain the crowd. While still others, greeted our enthusiastic young fans who crowded the sidewalks awaiting the parade to begin. Their embracing love and 98.6º degree body temperatures took the chill off where thermals could not.

The Harlem Boys Choir showed up within a half hour of kick-off. They may have walked the additional blocks, but more likely, their status as special guests allowed them vehicular access at a later hour whereas us heroes and the hundreds of clowns, jugglers and miscellaneous characters that fill in the gaps among marching bands, floats and balloons along the parade route were considered mere window-dressing, just cogs in the machinery of the Macy’s Parade.

The boys were all wide-eyed and smiles, not only from being in the world-renowned annual Thanksgiving Day extravaganza, but also because they were sharing the experience with Spider-Man and the rest of their comic book heroes. The arrival of the Olympians minutes before start-up did little to avert the attention and wonder they bestowed on us (Hah!). We, in turn, genuflected before Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo, Janet Evans and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I mean, Flo-Jo alone was an athletic god, the fastest woman in the world, two records that still stands more than twenty years later (and yes, I realize I mentioned it earlier in the post, but it bears repeating.)!

Were that Flo-Jo’s demeanor echoed the greatness of her accomplishments. Her unassailable aloofness in the face of the awe and supreme admiration she was shown by her fans stood in stark contrast to the magnanimity of the other three Olympians, whose grateful smiles and humility accentuated their brilliance. Contrarily, Flo-Jo was unapproachable. She took her position atop the faux building overlooking the bell tower and remained unmoving throughout the parade, her statuesque form enveloped in a fur coat like something that Diana Ross wore in Mahogany. Carl Lewis—a quietly sweet, humble and friendly man—joined her, with Evans and Joyner-Kersee taking spots on opposite sides of the bottom level.

For safety’s sake, most of choristers were arrayed about the lower level and stairs leading up to the belfry. The older and bigger members took places on the upper areas. All were forewarned about the lurching the float was prone to while in motion and duly told to hold on.

That’s Carl Lewis in the ecru coat, upper left

With most of the real estate on the entry occupied, scant room was left for the heroes to play. As a result, the action entailed little more than waving to the onlookers and periodically walking alongside the float, making brief stops among the crowds to shake hands. The iron “diaper” that covered my nether regions, still dug into my inner thighs, but I wasn’t going to let that interfere with my putting on a good show for the fans who waited in the cold as long as, if not longer than, we did.

Unlike the 1987 affair, at which it made its debut, the Spider-Man balloon was placed directly behind the float in 1988, looming over the cityscape mash-up and its heroes. It was awesome. Whenever I felt myself waning, I gazed upward and the ginormous inflated Web-Spinner made me all giddy and excited. Also contrary to the parade of the year before, Spider-Man was actually featured on the float. The year prior’s inanity of the Marvel Nabobs’ fearing the public might not be able to grasp the concept of having two Wall-Crawlers in the event—though one was a giant helium filled representation and each were well distanced from one another—ceased. Not only was Spidey present, but his stellar inflatable was nearly on top of him!

The placement of the float in 1988 was further toward the back of the line-up, which was undesirable. The closer to the rear, the longer one had to wait to get started, even though the call time was the same. By the time we entered Herald Square, where the float stopped and the Harlem Boys Choir sang, it was close to noon, five hours from the actors’ last chance to empty their bladders in the hotel room. No one was ignorant of the fact that coffee is a diuretic, i.e. it makes you pee, but not having at least one cup that early in the morning was suicide. Of course, by the time the wee choristers were singing us heroes wanted to die, the pressure in our bladders was that acute. And the frigid cold exacerbated the pain. Don’t even ask me what they sang. Visions of sugar plums was the last thing dancing in my head.

The official finish of the parade came at Macy’s main entrance on 34th Street after it turned off Broadway, where now—since Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to turn Times Square into a pedestrian mall, which forced the alteration of the route—the performances now take place there and the parade disassembles further along. Our float had scarcely taken the right onto 34th when the heroes started bolting for the hotel. Any question of why Babs chose the Penta crystallized in brilliant clarity at that moment. The hotel was only a block away. One block to urinary bliss. You’d think Galactus had returned to swallow the Earth, and us heroes were rushing to save the day.

Sorry, folks. I'd love to stay and chat, but I gotta GO!

Jeremy—Spider-Man—had the hotel room key and breaking land speed records dodging the dispersing crowds and leaping over wee fans with outstretched arms to shake hands. I hobbled along as best I could, trying my best not to look like I had diaper rash. The delay prolonged my anguish but worked in my favor once I got to the room. By that time I arrived, the faster heroes had been able to do their business and the bowl was clear. Had I been forced to stand around waiting, I don’t think I would have made it. The seemingly arctic temps had forced my pork ’n’ beans to retract so far into my pubic area, they were tickling my uvula. Even the my fingers, which felt like frozen mozzarella sticks, could not stem the flow once I was able to coax the boys out of hiding.

Catastrophe averted! I shudder to think how close I came to bringing new meaning to Iron Man’s sobriquet Golden Avenger!


John III said...

I sure am glad you made it! Can't they have a built in resevoir like the real suit of armor sure had? LOL. Glad to see you writing again. My first semester of Physical therapy classes is almost over and I'm doing very well! Can't wait until Christmas...suppose I better get shopping then huh?

Vroom! said...

Hi John!

Yeah, it might be a good idea to start shopping. I cannot understand how people wait until Christmas Eve and then do all their purchasing. That's insane! How much thought could possibly go into the gifts at that point? I'm sure as the clock ticks away, items that would normally seem completely stupid become great ideas. That nose hair trimmer? Yeah, that's the ticket!


John III said...

Hey....I need a nose hair trimmer.
No really I do! I have German in me! Anyway, yeah, I am usually a lot better at the gift thing. I've been pretty distracted this fall studying and all of a sudden it's December!

Erique Fat Owl said...

LOL It's Ron Perelman, not Ron Perlman, Mr. Vrattos. Ron Perlman = Hellboy.

Vroom! said...


Would you believe I did that on purpose to see which of my Faithful Bloglodytes is paying attention?

Duly noted and corrected...

Thanks, Erique!