Oh, the weather outside was frightful, like my disposition at five a.m., as I trudged through six inches of snow on my way to the subway station. It was Thanksgiving morning in 1989, and I’d already been up a half hour. The hurried shower did little to assuage my foggy, sleep-deprived brain, and I needed coffee… bad, but had decided to go cold—emphasis on the cold—turkey this particular morning so as to (a) allow as much sleepy time as possible and (b) stave off the need for urination until after the completion of my role in the Macy’s Parade, some six hours later.
As during the previous two turkey days, I was again slated to participate in the historic event as a character on the Marvel Universe float. This would be the last year the company would be allowed to feature in the hallowed tradition because of Macy’s three-parades-and-you’re-out float policy. Marvel had commissioned it’s mobile, fantastical, urban skyline in 1987 as part of Spider-Man’s 25th Anniversary (see “I Love a Parade,” Part I, II, III, IV, V and Finale)—along with the original Web-Swinging balloon—so this was the third and subsequently final year they could engage in the festivities.
The Marvel Universe float may have only lasted three parades, but the Spider-Man balloon flew for nearly a dozen
There were no such restrictions on my inflatable alter ego, however. Each year’s balloon roster was based on audience popularity and unsurprisingly Spidey’s helium-filled doppelgänger would be a fixture for the next half dozen years, it’s eventual retirement necessitated by the balloon’s age rather than any decrease in the world’s love for the airborne arachnid.
The float stipulations are based on keeping the parade fresh each year with a rotating line-up of recent and new entries, the former being put out to pasture before they became stale. At least this is Macy’s public explanation, and there is a modicum of truth behind it. But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. The department store giant makes some mighty hefty lucre from its client sponsorships, and that charge does not include the money to build the floats—or balloons.
Nor does it include the annual entry fee for inclusion. Basically, businesses are buying a three-year option to be in the parade, which isn’t a guarantee. Each still must have their designs approved by the Nabob’s of the department-store behemoth before entry is granted. Once given the thumbs-up, companies receive three years of unprecedented international exposure, spotlighted during NBC’s broadcast of the event, along with those warm, oogy feelings associated with Thanksgiving. The same idea applies to baking something during an open house. The aroma of home-cooked goodies conjures up happy familial thoughts, making a property more enticing to prospective buyers.
Want another three years? Just pony up the fees for another option, submit the necessary plans, receive approval, and construct a new entry. It’s that simple. Which is why such venerable, perennial participants as the Children’s Television Workshop are there year in and year out with a brand-spanking-new Sesame Street float every triennial.
As for those floats forced into retirement, they’re deconstructed for whatever parts can be reused and the remaining bits scrapped. With its large buildings, there’d be quite a bit of salvageable wood from the Marvel Universe, as well as hardware—slide poles, railing—including a metal staircase from the bell tower to Dr. Doom’s dungeon. I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to the Gulliver-sized comic books, specifically their covers, which adorned the back corners of the vehicle at the base of the skyscraper (see “I Love a Parade, Part IV: I Scream ‘FLOAT!!!’”).
They were my favorite feature: larger-than-life reproductions of vintage Marvel covers, including ones from the runs of Captain America, X-Factor and Amazing Spider-Man. There wasn’t anything particularly significant about the covers that were chosen; they weren’t noteworthy examples, not anniversary issues or milestones to any degree. Nor would they be recognized on any “Best of” lists by virtue of their artwork. They were simply gigantic comic book covers, easily ten feet tall, the perfect addition to a man cave or rec room or youth center.
I’m surprised Marvel didn’t save at least one of them for posterity. It would make a nifty piece of artwork in reception, perhaps with accompanying photo of the float and its story. But the company has always been negligent with archiving, whether important historical objects or the comics themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if Macy’s Hoboken facility offered the covers to Marvel and the penny-pinching suits refused to ante up the shipping costs.
Founded by B-Movie maestro Roger Corman in 1970, Marvel latest owner, New World—purchased from pharmaceutical corporation, Cadence Industries, in 1986—was a low-budget film distributor, the movies of which probably cost less to make than the expenses involved with being in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. So the chances of the company forking over the green for another three years in the holiday showcase were slim to none.
Still, the company did pick up the option for the final year and was thus determined to go out with a bang. Okay, perhaps more of a firecracker pop as opposed to an M80 kaboom, as it hired Melba Moore to star on the float for its farewell cruise. I didn’t know Melba Moore from melba toast, although like the dry, tasteless side dish and appetizer accompaniment, I knew of her.
No surprise, as was the case of the product on which New World was built, Moore was a B-level celebrity whose acting career languished, after a distinguished Tony win in 1970 for her role in Purlie. She turned her attention to music and scored some minor successes until hopping on the Disco train with a string of forgettable hits within that and the R&B genres, all in all garnering four Grammy noms (no wins). She even had a self-titled sitcom, Melba, which ran an embarrassing six episodes in 1986. But by 1989, what little cachet she carried had diminished greatly. She was more than a decade from consideration for The Surreal Life, so her “starring” on the Marvel Universe float was the next best thing.
Unlike the parade in years prior at which I donned the red-and-gold armor of Iron Man, this year I’d be portraying Magneto, Evil Mutant Master of Magnetism and arch-villain of the Uncanny X-Men. I could not have been happier with my change in job title. True, the re-assignation from hero to villain could have been perceived as a demotion, but I’m willing to bet most if not all of those skeptics would be from outside comicbookdom. After all, Mags was more powerful that the Golden Avenger—metal to the evil mutant was like paper to an Origami Master—and could crush Tony within his vaunted armor with nothing more than the barest synaptic firing.
As for notoriety—as judged by the hoi polloi and not the comic geek community where the debate would ever be raging—Iron Man may hold the edge by today’s standards by virtue of a successful eponymous movie and sequel versus Magneto’s comparatively lesser turns as the featured villain in the first and third of the X-Men movies and a supporting character in the second. But in 1989, neither was shining too brightly in the pop culture consciousness; although arguably the mutant malefactor might have had the edge having starred in a much-ballyhooed and acclaimed X-Men cartoon released by New World the year before.
No, the joy in my recasting stemmed from not having to put on the bloody uncomfortable faux iron suit—particularly the “diaper”—that dug into the sides of my inner thighs and threatened future procreation, if not possible sexual curtailment. And I don’t want to think about what dangers awaited my wobbly bits had I stumbled while in the costume. The word “rupture” comes to mind. As it was, I could still detect the faint lavender hues of last season’s contusions bordering my jewels like a parenthetical statement. Thoughts of the testicular iron maiden still haunt my dreams.
Even had the shorts felt as comfy as a pair of silk boxers, I would have relished the chance to play Magneto. The torso piece of the Golden Avenger’s suit, which extended to just below the ribs, was like wearing a water barrel. I felt like the hobos in depression-era cartoons and had about as much maneuverability. The shoulder guards, which were hot-glued to the chest unit via strips of leather only afforded me the luxury of raising my arms just below the perpendicular mark. Any more and the whole thing rode upward, knocking the helmet askew, threatening to lift it from my head. Fully-clad in the armored suit, I could walk and perform some basic climbing, but only just and not without great difficulty and daring a terrible accident (and when did that ever stop me?!)
The Iron Man costume was the Marvel superhero equivalent of Snorky from the Banana Splits Show. Sure, the bipedal pachyderm was cute, but his appendages were useless and he spoke via unintelligible honks. The other three members of the bunch performed side skits—Fleegle checked the mail; Drooper threw out the trash, etc.—but Snorky was limited to caroming into other Bananas and falling when the situation arose, as when a message from rival Sour Grapes Bunch arrived.
By contrast, the Magneto costume was a freeing, one-piece red spandex affair; with royal purple hot pants; matching boots and cape, attached by a hard studded neck ring; and signature helmet, complete with hood ornament. The helmet perched precariously over the head, like an overturned bucket on a fence post and jostled out of place constantly, but it was the only annoying bit to the ensemble.
Granted, it wasn’t nearly as sharp as Shellhead’s duds—although the patrons of the Boots & Saddle bar on Christopher Street in the village might disagree—but I didn’t care. For once, I’d be able to enjoin the float’s musical number and otherwise play on the urban-landscape-jungle-gym-for-adults as it ambled through the thoroughfares of Gotham.
Surprisingly, Iron Man was cut altogether from the guest list. Unsure why—the suit was still usable, albeit painfully so—but it was cumbersome, needing a large, unwieldy case to transport, because pieces like the helmet and chest could be crushed if not packed in a sturdy container. Although the Hulk costume was similarly bulky, it could be mushed into a canvas army surplus bag since its component parts were primarily constructed of fabric and stuffing and thus more forgiving when roughly handled.
Due to the venerable yearly extravaganza’s renown and popularity, New York’s Finest, who never saw a crowd-control measure they didn’t like, placed saw horses, metal dividers and other such barriers along the parade route the day before to prepare for the tremendous crowds that would gather that night in anticipation of the event, crowds that shame those for the opening of the Phantom Menace. These measures effectively split the island in two from north to south. The cross-streets remained open in the wee hours of the morning, but were quickly shut down by 7 a.m. If you needed to transport anything from one side of Manhattan to the other, say a van full of heroes and villains from Marvel Headquarters to the parade’s genesis, you and your super-powered posse had best get your asses out of your Bat Caves and Sanctum Sanctorums, don your capes and gauntlets, load up the vehicle and head on your way before the deadline or you’d be walking.
On Thanksgiving eve in 1988, Marvel rented a room at the Statler Hotel, where the entire retinue of suits was stored. Situated on the Manhattan’s west side, the Statler provided a more convenient dressing facility than the Marvel offices. The actors would still have to meet at the crack of dawn, but it was better than gathering a quarter to the crack of dawn. Plus, were there any hiccups—performers delayed by commuting woes, costume to be repaired—the clock would be more forgiving. I volunteered to baby-sit the costumes that year (see “Going for the Gold”), which afforded me an additional hour’s sleep the next morning before my fellow thespians arrived.
No such luxury in 1989. The plans reverted to meeting and dressing at Marvel HQ, and the single-evening hotel accommodations wasn’t the only thing slashed from the budget. Perhaps, when the room was cut, Personal Appearance maven Barbara nixed the bulky red-and-gold hero’s ensemble to ensure only needing a single van to transport all the actors and costumes for the event. This would also explain the slightly reduced cast of characters—along with Iron Man, The Enchantress was axed. True, the ensemble of the Norse goddess of love and Thor nemesis was très facile to transport—all tights and body-hugging pieces; not even a cape—but she was another body altogether and real estate in even the most luxurious van was scarce when you’re carrying ten festooned characters, their caretaker and a driver, not to mention a Hulk costume.
Veteran Spider-Man Jeremy was allowed to meet the group on site, since he could easily carry the Web-Slinger’s suit with him in a modest duffel bag, transforming into everyone’s Favorite Neighborhood Wall-Crawler in the float’s collapsible bell tower when the time arrived. Hulk Mark did the same, but not because the Jade Giant’s costume was conveniently small. Due to its mass, the Hulk ensemble could not be worn in the van en route. Also the conditions within the costume necessitated its being worn in approximately twenty-minute increments before the wearer risked fainting from overheating, so there was no sense in Mark convening with the others at Marvel HQ. He’d also dress in the steeple—where he’d take breaks during the parade—just before kick-off as he’d done in past years.
About a week prior to Thanksgiving, the troupe convened at Macy’s parade facility in Hoboken, New Jersey, for Press Day, the annual ritual when members of the media were invited to photograph some of the year’s entries amid a sea of local school children. The morning, however, before the arrival of the area’s Jimmie Olsens and wee ones, would be dedicated to learning the choreography. Upon our arrival we met our distinguished guest star, Melba Moore. I was immediately struck by her friendly demeanor, and thankful she wasn’t a diva. She also seemed genuinely excited to be performing with us superheroes, the way the used-to-bes on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here seemed overjoyed to be cooped up in a jungle with the likes of Stephen Baldwin and Janice Dickinson.
The Marvel Universe float stood reconstructed, looming over all. It would be taken apart and transported through the Lincoln Tunnel to the parade route with all the other entries Thanksgiving Day eve. Us actors took to the creation like children to a playground for the first time after the snows of winter have melted. We happily climbed and scurried, reacquainting ourselves with the various fun features of its construction. Some, like myself, whose roles had changed, experienced its delights in a different light, while newcomer White Queen—a replacement for last year’s model—experimented for the first time.
1987 inaugural choreographer Bill Guskey was again called to duty. Whereas his task that time was made all the more onerous by having to showcase the exciting features of the float—in order to justify its price tag with the Marvel Poo-Bahs—and ensure each character getting his/her moment, this go-round the focus would be on Melba and integrating her with the heroes, while utilizing as much of the float’s attributes and various environs as possible.
Understandably, Spider-Man was spotlighted during much of the routine. Melba would go through various stages of being molested—heh, heh—by the villains and rescued by the heroes, as she traipsed from one urban microcosm to another. Bill’s staging opened with Magneto and Green Goblin grappling with Melba atop the roof of the center structure, the highest point accessible by foot. The skyscraper book-ending the back of the structure, on which the Silver Surfer’s board perched, rose more than thirty feet, but was only attainable via a pair of shimmy poles along its backside, and once accessed afforded nought but the cosmic hero’s scant board as a place to perch.
Spider-Man arrives to save the stalwart star, who leaps upon the Web-Slinger’s back just before he slides down the fire pole. Then Ms. Moore would wend her way around the base of the bell tower, at which point the Hulk in a fit of rage, rips the steeple from its base, threatening to crush the fleeing B-lister who hurries down the front stairway while the structure topples toward her.
But our erstwhile songstress now must face the wicked White Queen who, upset over missing a Hellfire Club meeting to watch Ms. Moore’s dreadful, short-lived sitcom, attacks with festive streamers?!! Laughable as it may sound, the paper projectiles prove most treacherous, threatening to entangle Melba by sheer volume if not tensile strength.
Helped into the sewers by Wolverine and Dr. Strange—a questionable heroic maneuver to say the least—Melba is then plucked through the manhole cover above by Spidey and DD. The overweening duo pose to the cameras rather than actually protect the chanteuse, who is once again menaced by Gobby and Yours Truly. She is now back whence she started, both location- and predicament-wise. Apparently, the inanity of her circuitous journey hasn’t been lost on the vainglorious pair who put her there. Deciding she was one diva too many, they throw her off the side into the clutches of Strange and Wolvie, where she makes her final stand amid of heroes, including Caspar, the Friend— I mean, Silver Surfer.
Yes, it’s silly. But there is only so much that can be done in two and a half minutes during a live television spot on a parade float with neither fly system nor pyrotechnics. It was hardly Alvin Ailey—Hell, it wasn’t even up to a Medieval dinner theater’s standards—but it served its purpose: placating the star, yet simultaneously showcasing the characters.
Steve’s Soapbox: I’ve read vituperative statements about the Marvel Universe staging for both the 1987 and 1989 Thanksgiving Day spectacles from questionable comic fans commenting on YouTube videos. These ignorant, spoiled castigators have no idea of the complexities of the situation, nor have they grown in a world where their beloved genre was regarded as the leprosy of pop culture, ridiculed and relegated to badly produced, unfaithful interpretations, in the rare instances where movies and TV shows were created. The Marvel Universe float and Spider-Man balloon cast superheroes on an international stage, giving such obscure (at the time) characters as Daredevil, Power Man and The White Queen their first glimpse of the spotlight. Arguably, it set the stage for Tim Burton’s Batman and helped legitimize the genre to what it is today.
Now where was I...?
To say Jeremy was freaking out over the pole-slide carrying Melba Moore on his back would be an understatement, and I can’t say that I blame him. Goodness knows, I’d performed some pretty daring—and stupid—stunts in my time as the Webbed Wonder (see “Yippee-Kay-Eh” for one example). So, too, Jeremy, but endangering one’s own life is a far cry from dragging another’s along for the ride, certainly not with but a scant couple of hours of rehearsal time, which when broken down to this single instance within the whole routine, amounted to less than an hour’s worth of practicing the stunt.
The pole itself was another issue. As it was only secured at its base, which was merely a sheet of pressboard, it was far from steady and jiggled liberally when used. Double the weight of the usee and who knows how, or if, it would hold. Add to these factors the pressure of having to undertake the move on national TV and it’s a credit to Jeremy that he didn’t run out of the warehouse screaming.
To their credit, both he and Melba kept a stiff upper lip and accepted their fate. As Ms. Moore departed, the heroes remained to meet-and-greet the impending tide of children and reporters. Jeremy wouldn’t be able to further rehearse the maneuver until Thanksgiving morning a week later. I’m sure he slept well in the interim.
I’d be lying if my fellow thespian’s and Ms. Moore’s impending risky maneuver didn’t cross my mind as I trudged through the snow, incessantly mumbling “There’s no way they can have the parade today,” like Rain Man. Big, fluffy flakes continued to fall as I exited the subway stop in Manhattan near the Marvel offices. I envied Hulk Mark; he’d be the only one of us not to freeze his ass off. But I wasn’t about to rue not encasing myself in the Iron Man suit. Surprisingly, it wasn’t any warmer than Magneto’s duds and may actually have been less so. Contrary to protecting oneself from the elements, the torso acted like a wind tunnel, allowing gusts of Arctic air through the arm apertures. Positioning my body just so, I whistled like a tea kettle.
We had less than an hour to suit-up and vie for the title of last-one-to-pee-before-departure. Upon our egress from the building, the snow persisted. It seemed to actually get colder and my ornery disposition was exacerbated by a growing headache due to java deprivation. Ten of us, sat uncomfortably in various stages of undress, as elements of certain costumes could not be worn or were uncomfortable while crammed in a car seat, such as capes and headpieces.
The sight that greeted us at our designated kick-off spot stopped us cold (no pun intended). Our beloved float sat in snow-covered pieces on the tarmac. And Marvel was not the only sponsor to suffer this setback. Deconstructed floats lay along Central Park West as far as the eye could see, where they would normally stand fully-erected by this time in past years. Needless to say, the construction crew was way behind schedule due to the inclement weather. Parade officials assured Barbara and Bill the Marvel Universe would be ready in time for the start, but the delay meant that there would be no additional rehearsal time to practice the blocking, including Spidey’s and Melba’s pole slide of doom! Although, given the poor visibility caused by the swirling snowfall, no one was going to notice if they botched the maneuver.
It was still “colder than a witches teat,” and hours until show time. At least going through the routine would’ve helped keep us warm. In the short time since we’d arrived, teeth were already chattering. A few moments more and heroes’d be shaking like Don Knott’s in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Fortunately, parade officials recognized the need for shelter and directed us to the basement door of the nearby Museum of Natural History, where us characters were allowed to warm ourselves while awaiting the parade’s start.
Dr. Doom and I, two of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful villains, strode across Central Park West down a ramp and through a set of dark gray double-doors toward sanctuary. What greeted us in the bowels of the museum was the avian exhibit. Encased, taxidermied fowl of all shapes and sizes, living and extinct, filled the room. The only light came from ceiling spots over the individual displays. It was like sneaking into the bat cave. All that was needed was the case holding the (until recently) late Jason Todd’s Robin suit.
The pall of death—lifeless avian eyes staring from every part of the room—and eerie lighting made the silence all the more pronounced. I half-expected Norman Bates to suddenly appear to offer me a room for the night. Then I heard a faint mewling, which grew to a distinct sobbing as I approached a corner of the hall. Huddled on the floor, spotlighted and girded at right angles by glass displays, appeared to be a high school band.
I turned to my nefarious partner, but he was no longer by my side, instead fascinated by a towering Moa on another part of the floor. To his side stood a Dodo and I was suddenly struck by how incredibly odd the whole scene must have appeared. It was like an unpublished issue of Marvel Super-Villain Team-Up. Would-be World-conquering ruler of Latveria, Dr. Doom, and Megalomaniacal Master of Magnetism, Magneto, holding hostage an entire high school marching band in the stuffed bird exhibit of the Museum of Natural History whilst just outside Marveldom assembled prepares to rescue the terrified teens.
Turns out the students were from Hawaii. Initially thrilled to have been invited to the big show, their elation quickly turned to shock at the inhospitable and foreign weather conditions in which they were expected to perform. These kids had never seen snow before. Live. In person. They were six thousand miles from home in a city that intimidates the most seasoned urbanite and the poor homesick waifs were wishing they’d joined the debate team instead. I’m sure the abrupt appearance of two nefarious evil-doers didn’t help matters.
Even the appearance of Spider-Man and several other heroes couldn’t assuage the teeny wahines and kanes. But the tableau took on an even odder tone as hero and villain alike mingled like aristocrats at an art show: Power Man, pondering a Puffin; Daredevil eyeing an Auk; Dr. Strange bewitched by a Booby; Spidey espying an Osprey. It was only fitting that the Hawaiian high-schoolers should cluster under a Nene.
By the time Captain America arrived to gather us back outside, the wonder had worn thin. I emerged from the museum’s basement like Judy Garland crossing the crashed farmhouse threshold into the Land of Oz after the tornado. The snowing had stopped—nary a flake to prove its ever having fallen in the first place—and where once sat mounds of float flotsam and jetsam along the parade route, now stood a kaleidoscopic panoply of entries, complete and prepped for take-off… including the Marvel Universe.
The parade was literally minutes from starting. But even with the ten or so extra we had as we awaited our turn in the queue to join the show, we wouldn’t have nearly enough time to effectively practice the routine. And that were if conditions were right. One step onto the float was all that was needed to realize that things weren’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
A thin coating of ice enveloped the entire structure, and it was all us heroes could do just standing erect. Jeremy’s and Melba’s pole dance took on added gravitas. Mask or not, the concern on Spidey’s mien was palpable; he was webbing in his pants! But he wasn’t the only one. The prospect of traipsing, climbing and performing the other staged combat sequences of the choreography on the icy surface we now found ourselves on was unappetizing to everyone. The gusting wind only exacerbated the working conditions, and the dreary, dark gray skies portended more snow.
Bless Bill Guskey. He wasn’t about to endanger the safety of his charges. He completely scrapped the opening sequence on the plateau abutting the steeple, off which Spidey and a piggybacking Melba were originally set to slide via pole, escaping the clutches of the maleficent Magneto and the detestable Green Goblin. The routine would now begin at the base of the bell tower. But without the time to choreograph anything specific, he simply told us to “wing it;” improvise the battle over Ms. Moore until the song caught up with the staging when the star hit that particular spot and then continue as planned from there.
This meant that those performers initially spread out at different points on the float at the songs start, were now crowded together in the small area at the steeple’s base, pantomiming an epic struggle among heroes and villains. Adding to the surrealism, Bill instructed us to engage in slow motion, so as to take as little focus as possible away from Ms. Moore while she lip-synced the lyrics. There was no time for a run-through. Bill barely had time to step off the float before it lurched forward to join the parade.
As if on the cue, the snow began to fall anew and the wind picked up as well. The momentary respite from the inclement weather served only to warm the ground enough so that fog developed, swirling about, as if painted by Van Gogh. Despite the conditions, I anchored myself atop the highest spot after The Surfer’s tower, that being the rooftop where the choreography was originally set to begin. It was bone-numbingly cold and slippery, but I was euphoric. After two years relegated to standing among the float’s dregs or painfully walking like Herman Munster beside her, I was having the time of my life. I foolhardily stood on the icy rail, striking melodramatic poses, like a Kabuki performer. My royal purple cape whipped about in the breeze, adding to the affect. I was King Lear raging at the storm.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”
The only one crazier than I was Silver Surfer. He stood upon his board precariously perched thirty-plus feet about the street, looming over me. The board was a mere foot wide, and although he tethered himself to the structure with a tightly-held leather thong, one couldn’t but stare in awe at the former Herald of Galactus as the tower lurched to and fro like a metronome while the vehicle ambled through the causeways of Gotham.
The snow ceased shortly before entering Herald Square. At least we had that going for us. The music started as did our “winging” it. The ad-libbed beginning immediately went pear-shaped. There just wasn’t enough room and too many characters to effectively perform any sort of stage combat. It looked as if the heroes were dry-humping the villains, as we bounced off one another like one of those sped up chase sequences in a Monkees episode only in slow motion. It was all grandstanding with cartoonish posing and inane exits and entrances. Not one of our proudest moments.
But at least I had a chance to enjoy my Thanksgiving without gingerly ambling about like the guy who took last place in the mechanical-bull–riding contest!