New Yorkers are a strange breed; we get passionately involved in everything. A building excavation will draw hundreds of people looking, discussing and speculating on what is going up. So it’s not surprising that we participate actively in some of our greatest parades. Anyone can play, and visitors are free to join the city residents and appear in the Village Halloween Parade, the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade and other New York institutions.
Shades of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland: anyone can be a part of the Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival running along Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 47th Street to 57th Street. This is not a formal parade; from 10 AM to 4 PM people turn out in their most elegant or eccentric outfits with very original hats; even the dogs have special outfits for the day. A great see-and-be-seen event, it started with the turnout of the fashionable in the 1870s and has become more whimsical in later years. Those who are in town earlier than Easter Sunday can shop the garment district for hat forms and trims and wear their own creations – believe me, it can’t get too elaborate or absurd. Then just stroll the area and be a part of one of New Yorkers’ celebrations of springtime.
Coney Island Mermaid Parade
Much rowdier fun is to be had at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade and Ball, held June 20th this year. Started in 1983, it claims the title of the nation’s largest art parade and harkens back to Coney Island’s Mardi Gras celebrations from 1903 to 1954. To march in the Mermaid Parade you must be costumed as a sea creature (it’s mostly, but not all, variations on Neptunes and mermaids). A celebrity King Neptune and Queen Mermaid – David Byrne, Queen Latifah and David Johansen have been among them - cut ribbons representing the seasons and throw fruit into the Atlantic to appease the Sea Gods; however, some of the mermaids usually get thrown in as well. At the following Mermaid Parade Ball participants and spectators meet to listen to live music and watch burlesque and sideshow acts.
Village Halloween Parade
Listed among the 100 Things to do Before you Die, the annual Village Halloween Parade started in 1973 when a Greenwich Village mask maker and puppeteer put together a house-to-house walk in costume for his children and their friends. It grew to win an Obie Award and a major NEA Grant for Lifetime Achievement, and after 9/11 it was launched as a healing event for New York, a huge puppet of the Phoenix rising from the ashes at its heart.
Last year there were more than 45,000 participants and two million spectators in this joyful gathering, and all you have to do to march is to create a costume and show up. Some people spend months preparing costumes for individuals or groups that have ranged from a full set of chessmen to the parts of a Mondrian painting. Family groups come in homemade or bought costumes and anyone can sign up to help carry a balloon or puppet.
Line up in costume on Sixth Avenue between Spring and Broome Streets on Halloween at 6 pm and enjoy the fun staging area, then march up Sixth to 23rd Street and hit the area restaurants and bars where the festival continues afterwards.
Thanksgiving Day Parade
Becoming a balloon handler for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade requires a real commitment of time and connections, but it can be done. To be one of approximately 3,000 volunteer handlers, you need to have a sponsor who works at the store. You have to commit to a number of weekend practice sessions, weigh in at more than 125 lbs. and provide a medical history. Then a DVD gives you an introduction to balloon wrangling and you are measured for your costume and placed with very experienced people to control the huge and heavy balloons along the parade route from 77th and Central Park West to 34th Street.
Backstage with the Balloons
For those who want a less taxing form of participation, the inflation of the balloons, which used to be a quiet event for the upper West Side residents, has now become a huge magnet for residents and visitors, carefully orchestrated. It starts the afternoon before Thanksgiving, and if you can get there before dinnertime it is much less crowded; it closes down at 8 or thereabouts. The balloons, which are set up in the vicinity of the American Museum of Natural History Between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, run as much as six stories high, 60 feet long and 30 feet wide.