A Light Parade, Old Pueblo Style

December 3, 2013

Santa at the 2013 Downtown Parade of Lights. Photo: Scott Griessel

Santa at the 2013 Downtown Parade of Lights.
Photo: Scott Griessel

by Jamie Manser

It is crazily popular. Tucsonans love this parade.

It’s an eclectic, Old Pueblo eccentric glorious mishmash of goofy to serious entries – storm troopers meeting dog groups meeting accordion players meeting high school marching bands meeting church groups. There are local dignitaries in convertibles; car clubs, scooter clubs, motorcycle clubs; dance troupes, mariachi and folklorico groups. All of these various Tucsonans coming together Downtown, dancing and laughing and singing and showing off lights and song and joy and the inner and outer glow of the season’s spirit.

Meander along the parade route, sit and stare and soak in the ambiance of community.

As a previous employee of the organization that pulls it together, and as a freelance contributor for the same organization – the Downtown Tucson Partnership (DTP) – I am always amazed by the crowds that consistently come out in droves for the annual Downtown Parade of Lights (POL).

Over the last several years, the parade has featured 70 to 80 groups with over 500 participants. The crowds are even more impressive – easily 30,000 attendees gather along the parade’s footprint.

This wasn’t always the case.

As City of Tucson’s Events Coordinator Chris Leighton remembers – on good authority as he was one of the event’s founders – the first parade in 1995 had 15 entries with perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people showing up to watch. The five-person committee that ignited the annual holiday parade, says Leighton, included “Sheila King from the [now defunct] Downtown Arts & Business Alliance, someone from TPD, myself, and Sarah Clements from the [now defunct] Tucson Arts District Partnership, Inc. And Beth Walkup we dragged in too, she was head of the Children’s Museum then, before Bob became mayor.”

That committee thought it was important to have a local holiday parade as, Leighton says, it seemed like “a tradition that most other cities have that we were missing. We still had some retail Downtown at that point that was struggling, so it was a way to compete against the mall and get crowds down there on Black Friday.” It was a daytime event that year, explains Leighton, “and boy did it piss off the malls; we were getting calls complaining about it!”

The next year, Leighton recalls, the parade was on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and moved to nighttime with the name eventually morphing to Holiday Parade of Lights “because then we made everyone light everything.”

Since 1996, POL has been an evening event. In more recent history, it was generally on the second Saturday of December and coincided with the 4th Avenue Street Fair. This year, however, the event is moving to the third Saturday, on Dec. 21.

Leighton thinks the date shift is a good idea. “I’m excited to see what the late date is going to do; I have a feeling it may get even more people out because by late December, there is less to do other than Christmas coming up and Christmas shopping, so I’m thinking we may get a bigger crowd this year.”

Downtown Parade of Lights Dec. 2013.  Photo: Scott Griessel

Downtown Parade of Lights Dec. 2013.
Photo: Scott Griessel

Brandi Haga, Downtown Parade of Lights Coordinator, further elucidates that the date was chosen based on “so many other events happening every other weekend in December, so we decided on Dec. 21 – we didn’t want to compete with other events and wanted to give the public a more holiday feel,” since that date chronologically brings the parade closer to Christmas.

Haga, who has been coordinating the POL since 2008, takes a hands-on approach when it comes to managing entries and placing parade participants.

“A lot of parades have online registration these days, but we get entries mailed in,” Haga explains as we sit together at her desk. She pulls out a purple folder, stylized with white flowers, and extracts some applications.

“It makes it more personable, and I like that, having that communication.” As she is talking, Haga is handed mail that includes another application – which punctuates the point. “And, seeing the envelopes come in!”

There is certainly something to having tactile experiences in an ever increasingly digital world. She demonstrates the physical process of separating the applicants into four piles – float, vehicle, walking, and musical. Haga pours over the applications, making sure to not put musical groups next to each other, respecting requests of walking groups to not be behind big diesel floats.

Haga says some of the most rewarding aspects of the hard work includes meeting new people and working with different Tucson organizations. The various participants, long term and newbies, are also stoked to be a part of the parade and work with Haga and the DTP.

Coming into their sophomore year, Cher Conklin of Peppermint Jim says via email that they enjoy interacting with the parade’s enthusiastic crowds, meeting Santa in the line-up and “getting the display/float ready, making it better and nicer each year.” Their groovy shtick last year was a mock mint distillery with “steam” and mint coming out on all ends. Conklin says they appreciate that “the organization/management is solid and there seems to be a very loyal following for it in Tucson, which makes it all the more fun.”

Both Carondelet St. Mary’s and the Tucson GLBT Chamber of Commerce are first year participants, and are looking forward to the event. Amy Beiter, M.D., president and CEO of Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital (the parade’s presenting sponsor) says via email: “We enjoy supporting organizations and events that are also uniquely Tucson and that promote good health and a strong sense of community. I’ve heard it described as fun and eclectic and a true representation of Tucson’s character. We love the fact that so many volunteers rally to put on a festive holiday parade in Downtown Tucson.”

Timothy Brown, with the Tucson GLBT Chamber of Commerce, says, “Many people in Tucson do not know that we exist as a chamber so this will be great publicity for us and way to let people know that there are other options for networking and meeting other business people in the Tucson area.”

Debra Jackson, Tucson Parks and Recreation Recreation Supervisor, wrote through email that they’ve been involved since the beginning and always look forward to it.

Downtown Parade of Lights Dec. 2013. Photo: Scott Griessel

Downtown Parade of Lights Dec. 2013.
Photo: Scott Griessel

“The excitement starts months ahead when we sit down and brainstorm the theme for the year. Then the [float] construction, and finally the night of the event when all 200 plus kids from our after-school program come out and see what has been created, and how they fit in to the overall theme. It’s a great time for sharing the joy to those lined along the streets of Downtown.”

For Haga, after months of planning and hours of work before the entries unhitch, her favorite part is a few minutes of quite solitude in the dark. “After the parade takes off, I drive the golf cart into a little dark corner and watch. Even if they are out of order, it doesn’t matter because people are happy and having fun – especially all of the cute kids!”

 The 19th Annual Parade of Lights is Saturday, Dec. 21 and starts at 6:30 p.m. The Mayor’s Tree Lighting Ceremony happens before the parade at Armory Park, 221 S. Sixth Ave. at 5:45 p.m. More information on the festivities, along with a route map, is available at DowntownTucson.org/visit/parade-of-lights/. Entry forms are also available on the website and are accepted through Dec. 9. Email brandi@downtowntucson.org with inquiries.