Monday, February 22, 2010

Before the Parade Passes by . . .

Up until I was twenty six years old, I would watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with my mother on Thanksgiving morning. I remember even as a little girl, waiting in breathless anticipation of the Rockettes. My mother would be preparing all the food for the Thanksgiving feast and she would always tear up. Every year she would say through sobs, "I'm sorry. I just always used to watch this with my mother, and it makes me miss her." My mother grew up in Flushing, Queens, New York so it was even closer to her heart, literally, then most. I would watch the Broadway performers, dancers, celebrities, etc, go by on their floats (usually freezing their lily white asses off,) and I would think, "I want to perform in the parade one day!"

The first Macy's parade that I was not with my mother, I was living in New York City waiting tables at a restaurant in Columbus Circle, right where the parade starts. I had the breakfast shift, by some twist of fate, and could see the entire parade go by, since we were located on the 3rd floor and there were no walls, just huge glass windows separating us from Central Park. I would drop off a carafe of orange juice at a table, see a huge balloon of Garfield drift by or hear the crowd cheer for whichever pop artist was popular at the time and rush to the server hutch to blot my eyes. I understood so deeply that year the tears my mom shed missing her mother, because I was desperately wishing I was in my pajamas in front of the television, eating her amazing french toast and hearing her chop vegetables.

Although I have yet to get into that Broadway show or award-winning high school marching band that would lead to my eventual Macy's Parade position, I did get to perform in my first parade this last week! And folks, it was not quite what I had expected!

The Chingay Parade in Singapore has been held during the Chinese New Year for over 35 years. It is the equivalent of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Southeast Asia. Chingay (the phonetic Chinese word for "float") was created after a ban on fireworks in 1972 dampened the Singaporean Chinese New Year Spirit. It was supposed to bring back the joy and celebration of the Chinese New Year and it features traditional Chinese dragon dances, floats, music, elaborate costumes, and more recently, fireworks!

Universal Studios Singapore had their own float and some performers were brought in to ride on the float and dance around it. I would be playing my role (Betty Boop) and dancing next to the float at each of the parade stopping points. The rest of the time I'd be strolling next to the float, smiling and waving at all of my adoring fans . . . or so I thought.
After two weeks and a half weeks of rehearsal, things seemed relatively normal. We would go to the parade grounds and see all of the gorgeous floats in their hangers and think, "I can't wait to perform in the parade!" We were the only ones there and we would rehearse in our sweats and sneakers and everything was just dandy.

Now add thousands of people, immense heat and humidity, fur covered costumes, stilts and complete and utter chaos and you have the Chingay parade experience!

Our first dress rehearsal ended with the poor performer in the Woody the Woodpecker costume completely passing out IN COSTUME, in the character escorts arms. He was out cold on the floor of our break tent with the paramedics for over 15 minutes while they covered him in cold wet towels and ice packs. That night our float also nearly caught on fire because the weight of the float was too much for the engine, so our Scorpion King who was placed on a lift of the top of the float was inhaling enough exhaust fumes to give himself black lung.

The other performers in the parade (we are talking HUNDREDS to each float and THOUSANDS all together) don't really have any regard for our stilt walkers and power skippers. A running throng of children will rush right into, around, between these performers who have 3 foot metals stilts strapped to their legs without a care in the world! At most points, I was being ambushed by women in huge, glittery, metallic lame hoop skirts with pom poms or enthusiastic, preteens playing drums in butterfly costumes.

The first day of the parade performance, the float started up again when it shouldn't have and two of our alien stilt walker females got knocked over by the float itself! One of them had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance that night. And it wasn't just our group of performers! As we would walk along the way I would see many performers from other groups laying on the side of the route with paramedics, either holding their twisted ankle, or trying not to faint from heat exhaustion!

Now for a worrier like me, this was just a recipe for disaster. I was a wreck the whole time, wondering if we were going to survive this parade and seeking an explanation for why every person I encountered in Singapore wanted to be a part of it! Chingay was a chaotic disaster!

The "positive thinker" side of me was working overtime with this parade because I needed to take my mind off of the scary things that were happening. As we walked along the route towards the end of the last day of the parade, there was a little girl in her moms arms against the fence. She had a big mopey frown on, eyes filled with tears. I looked right at her, had a big smile on my face and said, "Hello there, sweetheart! Aren't you pretty?!" And her face instantly turned into a big shy grin as she threw her arms around her mom's neck.

It may be silly but that one tiny moment made me feel like the 3 weeks of rehearsal, sweat and tears made it worth it. The little girl looked like she was having a miserable time, and then because Betty Boop talked to her, personally, she was on cloud nine. Maybe she was just laughing at my big, bobblehead, who knows, but ultimately that's why I'm a performer. I want to make people happy.

I'd like to imagine that every Chingay Parade she will be with her mom and every few years or so, maybe they will remember how Betty Boop came right up to her and talked to her.


  1. It's kind of staggering when you realize the profound impact you can have on just one little girl's experience, and that it can stay with her FOREVER! I had a guy in a Mickey Mouse costume give me some extra attention when I was a kid, vacationing at Walt Disney World, and my family STILL talks about it all these years later! I've always wished I knew who he was in there so I could hunt him down and thank him!

    How awesome that you were able to rise about that (INCREDIBLY!) unpleasant experience and make someone's day! You ROCK, Erin!!

  2. Very cool! Thanks for the behind-the-scenes look!

  3. sweet :) you summed up the Chingay Experience perfectly... anticipation, frustration and yet at the end of the day satisfaction. I love your memory of the Macy's Day Parade with your Mom... started tearing up myself...

  4. Sounds like a crazy experience! At least in the end you have a fond memory of the day. That's great!

  5. Betty Boop will forever be that little girl's favorite character! She'll look for "you" every year, and will tell her kids about it!!! All because you chose to rise above your circumstances and reach out to a little girl. What a great story.