These East Dallasites get behind the scenes at the annual Christmas parade
Giant balloons, marching bands, festive floats, celebrities in fancy cars — now that’s a parade to celebrate the season. There’s no need to travel up north. We heart you, New York, but Dallas has its own spectacular parade downtown, enjoyed by more than 400,000 spectators who line its route. But a few neighbors have a unique perspective, walking, driving and waving their way down Main Street as a piece of the parade.
Mel McDonald is Lakewood’s resident expert. He and his antique autos have been in every holiday parade since it began in 1988, as well as other area parades. As soon as he acquired his 1909 Maxwell Roadster in 1983, he offered the use of the car to the State Fair of Texas opening day parade, plus the parade thorugh the fair each evening.
That gig led to the Cotton Bowl/New Year’s Day parade, during which he has carried the likes of Cowboys Rayfield Wright and Emmitt Smith. When the holiday parade was first planned, McDonald and his vehicles came with glowing recommendations. McDonald eventually would add to his collection a 1911 Cadillac Touring Car, a 1914 Buick Roadster and a 1915 Packard Touring Car.
“It really is fun. People are in a good mood, glad to be there. They are all joyous affairs,” he says. “The only drawback is that we don’t get to watch them, except on video.”
Decked out in his top hat, long overcoat and colorful tie, he suits his vehicles. Wife Jane is always alongside, and children Lyle and Elise have waved to the crowds since infancy. The kids are grown now, living on the East Coast, but they still make travel plans around the parade. New grandbaby Lillian will soon make her parade debut.
More often than not, McDonald and crew also carry costumed characters in the parade. Over the years, those have included Dennis the Menace, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Hello Kitty and Raggedy Ann and Andy.
“Carrying Mickey Mouse and Mrs. Claus was always a special experience,” recalls McDonald. “The kids along the route just went wild, and our kids, at young ages, were thrilled about it, too. Made for a pretty momentous show-and-tell at school on Mondays.”
McDonald also remembers a costumed character with a bit of a twist: McGruff the Crime-Fighting Dog. Most of the characters/celebrities in the parade have “handlers,” and McGruff was accompanied by a police officer. “I did notice that he was very particular about knowing all the arrangements during the parade and after we finished,” McDonald says. “He stayed close by and walked along with the car during the parade.”
McDonald was later informed that the person in the costume was an inmate from Dallas County Jail. “Not what we expected,” he grins.
Another East Dallas neighbor, Ryan Booth, is a relative newcomer to the parade but loves it just as much. A resident of University Meadows, Booth has been in several parades as part of the Ebby Halliday Realtors team. Those giant balloons that elicit oohs and ahhs from the crowd? Booth can tell you all about handling them.
The balloon handlers dress to match the balloon. “One year our balloon was Garfield, so we wore orange sweatshirts and had tails. Another year, we were Mr. Potato Head and we wore black hats with fake mustaches.”
He helps to inflate the balloons with a “huge helium tank machine.” Booth says, “It takes a team effort. Those suckers are really big. Some are three or four stories tall. While the balloon is being blown up and after it’s filled, the volunteers have to hold it with ropes — otherwise, it would take off into the sky.”
And the weather can complicate matters even more. “If it’s windy, we need at least 25 people per balloon to hold it down and keep it from hitting buildings or trees.”
But picture-perfect weather doesn’t mean the job is easy. “Even if the weather is calm, we have to steer around buildings, light poles, and trees. It’s a work out.”
The crowd sometimes works them even harder with shouts to “spin,” which prompts the handlers to run in a wide circle to twirl the character.
One other job Booth has performed in the parade is holding the banner which introduces the balloon and sponsor. “I personally like holding the banner more or just standing to the side and waving because you can see more people and really get in the energy,” says Booth.
Booth, like many families for whom this event is a tradition, looks forward to the parade, regardless of his role in it. “As long as I’m involved in putting smiles on the kids’ faces, I’ll be perfectly happy.”
The Dec. 2 event runs down Commerce Street from Houston to Harwood this year, and steps off at 10 a.m. For more details at dallasholidayparade.com.
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