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A yellow submarine floats through the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Parade (Photo: Courtesy of Karen Davidson)
A yellow submarine floats through the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Parade (Photo: Courtesy of Karen Davidson)

Anatomy of a Winter Carnival Parade

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This weekend marked the close of Saranac Lake's 116th Winter Carnival. One of the big draws every year is the home-made parade.

Dozens of floats and marchers make their way through the heart of the village, in an event that's one part New Orleans Mardi Gras and one part backyard theater.

The trick each year is to match the theme of the Winter Carnival as cleverly as possible, using materials that range from cardboard to old garbage can lids to yarn.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Paraders find creative ways to match the theme.  With "Under the Sea" goes Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" (Photo: Mark Kurtz)
Paraders find creative ways to match the theme. With "Under the Sea" goes Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" (Photo: Mark Kurtz)
Matt Paul and Maria DeAngelo are standing on the balcony of their art studio in downtown Saranac Lake, a front row seat for this year's Winter Carnival Parade.

"It was supposed to be stormy but instead it turned out to be an absolutely beautiful bright, sunny day. And we're looking at a great float going past right now that is the Petrova Elementary School."

"The yellow submarine!" Maria chimes in.

"And they're the yellow submarine, all right!" Matt cheers. "We see a lot of squid hats."

Fifty yards away, Andy Flynn is up on the judge's stand offering his own version of play-by-play as the marchers and floats pass by.

The trick each year is to match the theme of the Winter Carnival as cleverly as possible, using materials that range from cardboard to old garbage can lids to yarn.
"Speaking of happy!" Andy says, "the Blues Brothers Brass Band, they always make me happy!"

So that's what the parade sounds like when it's in full swing. But this year, I decided to sort of sneak back behind the scenes, going back in time a bit to see how all this comes together.

"We start probably in September, lining the groups and getting things put together and then quite a few things have to be done right at the last minute, which makes it quite busy," says Eric Foster, one of dozens of volunteers who make the carnival run.

For the last several years, he's worked as the behind the scenes stage manager of the parade.

He sorts out what order people should go in, he points them in the right direction, then his crew just kind of nudges to keep things moving forward.

"It pretty much runs itself. Once it gets going, and we get everybody started, everything from there on runs pretty smoothly," he says.

About two hours before parade time, people start gathering at the north end of the village to tailgate and make final preparations.

It's cold, only about five degrees Fahrenheit, but it does sort of look like the scene back stage at a theater. People mill about with faces painted silver, carrying tridents.

"We're ready to go, it's a beautiful day!" yells one marcher. "Wahoo! Carnival!"

The parade's floats are homemade, using materials that range from cardboard to plywood to yarn.  (Photo: Mark Kurtz)
The parade's floats are homemade, using materials that range from cardboard to plywood to yarn. (Photo: Mark Kurtz)
Evan Olsen stands a few yards away, trying to keep his trombone slide from freezing up. He's with the Saranac Lake High School Marching Band.

"It's pretty challenging, I mean the slide freezes periodically and you have to blow warm air through."

Olsen is wearing a scuba vest and dive goggles over his bright red band uniform. That's a nod to this year's Carnival theme, which is "Under the Sea."

One of the challenges each year or paraders is trying to find creative floats that match the theme.

I catch up with a group of local knitters led by Deborah Schmidt who've created their float – a giant hanging mobile — out of yarn.

"We've made a whale and some puffer fish around it and on the back we've got lobsters and crabs and we've made seahorses! All out of yarn," she says.

Lined up a short walk away are Pete Allen and Paulette Miller, looking absolutely regal in cape and beads – he's carrying a magnificent trident.

The vikings make an appearance in every Winter Carnival parade, but they were particularly well suited to this year's theme.  (Photo: Karen Davidson)
The vikings make an appearance in every Winter Carnival parade, but they were particularly well suited to this year's theme. (Photo: Karen Davidson)
"I'm like the Adirondack Neptune," Pete says.

"And I'm the Adirondack Ursula, Little Mermaid," Paulette chimes in.

So matching the theme is a big challenge every year. And groups also spend weeks working up ideas that connect the theme to their story.

Amy Catania from Historic Saranac Lake helped design this year's float for Trudeau Institute, re-enacting the moment when Albert Einstein nearly drowned while boating on Lower Saranac Lake.

"History and science in Saranac Lake, it's a great long tradition!" she says.

So that's all the behind the scenes stuff. The planning, the logistics, the hard work of building floatrs and practicing drill teams. Then it all comes together in front of a big crowd packed along Main Street.

Parades must be one of the oldest forms of entertainment.

Basically, it boils down to one group of people marching through town having a great time – and another group of people showing up to watch.

Nobody does it better than Saranac Lake in February.

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