Rutland scares up pride with 50-year Halloween Parade
By KEVIN O'CONNOR
Staff Writer | October 25,2009
File Photo by Vyto Starinskas
For 50 years, Rutland's annual Halloween Parade has featured floats that are, as the name of this 2005 entry says, “Out of This World.”
In his last interview, Rutland Halloween Parade impresario Tom Fagan sprang his last request.
"I think if I pass over around Halloween time," he told this paper, "I'll be riding in a casket in the parade."
So when the 77-year-old died last year on Oct. 21, local leaders and his family actually considered his wish before deciding a burial couldn't be postponed that long.
Pasadena roots itself in its New Year's Rose Parade. Manhattan takes flight through Macy's Thanksgiving balloons. What makes Rutland scare up its civic pride by taking to the streets on a cold, dark night?
The nation's oldest Halloween parade is set to celebrate its 50th year Saturday. It's not the pretty-picture stuff of a Vermont Life magazine spread. But it has appeared in "Batman" and other superhero comic books and sparked its own Wikipedia entry and an official link on the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce Web site.
"We feel it's important to have it front and center," says chamber head Thomas Donahue. "This will draw a lot of attention to the community."
Celebrating freaks at nightfall might seem strange for a municipality fighting a negative image. The New York Times once tagged Rutland a "squat, unlovely city in otherwise lovely central Vermont." Mystery writer Archer Mayor opens his novel "Gatekeeper" with a drug dealer hanging from a rusting local railroad trestle.
But the Newfane author is just one observer who sees light amid the shadows.
"There's a perverse pride in being seen as a hard-luck town," Mayor says. "I'm not saying Rutland's the bottom of the pit, but it, like some beleaguered towns that basked in the sun a long, long time ago, has taken some shots. You have managed to turn adversity to your advantage. It has gotten ingrained in Rutland's spirit to flip a finger at reality."
Tom Slayton, retired editor of Vermont Life, has a different take. Back in 1988, he put the gritty city on his magazine's cover for a story headlined "Rutland: R is for Real." A quarter-century earlier, he was a starting reporter at the Rutland Herald when Fagan set him to work on parade posters and floats.
"Rutland is a place that clearly goes its own way," Slayton says from his Montpelier home, "but why it adopted Halloween is more related to Tom Fagan than any city characteristic. Tom had a romantic attachment to all things dark and squirmy."
Fagan, a journalist himself, stood on the sidelines of the first parade Oct. 31, 1960, when the city's recreation department and bands from Rutland High School and local rival Mount St. Joseph Academy escorted costumed children ("a stream of sprite-like grotesques," said the next day's paper) through downtown.
After, Fagan approached John Cioffredi, head of the recreation department.
"That was good, John," Fagan later recalled saying, "but it could be better."
Cioffredi appointed Fagan parade chairman. Fagan, in turn, opened the event to everyone.
"You could come as you wanted," Fagan remembered in 2007. "That was supposed to be the night that people could be who they secretly wished."
Fagan donned a Batman suit - "It was one of the few portrayals that had a potbelly," Slayton says - and invited prominent comic book authors and artists to join in. DC and Marvel Comics not only sent costumed superheroes but also pictured the parade in issues of "Batman," "Justice League of America" (featuring Superman and Wonder Woman) and, in 1970, "The Avengers."
"Rutland, Vermont!" the latter comic began. "Surrounded by rich marble quarries, verdant, high-peaked hillsides and far-famed ski resorts - and hardly the place where one would expect to find the Masters of Evil!"
'Proving the point'
Comic-book adventures eventually gave way to local characters such as Michael Durkin. A Halloween fanatic, he persuaded Bonnie Hudson to don regal 16th-century costumes and marry him Oct. 31, 1987, before joining family and friends on a float.
"Nice of you all to come to my wedding party," Durkin yelled to the crowd.
(The two plan on celebrating their 22nd anniversary at this year's parade.)
In 1992, the Rutland High School Art Club poured oil on a papier-mâché globe float, not thinking the political statement would fuel public complaints.
"On Halloween, people don't mind vampires or people eating people," art teacher Steve Halford said in a resulting newspaper story, "but this is a modern evil that people find hard to swallow."
Undeterred, the Art Club kept serving up satire. In 1999, students passed out "blunder bucks" from "The Great State of Waste" while pushing a 7-foot-tall dung beetle representing the city's budget-busting transit center and failed trash incinerator. Soon after, stung city aldermen talked of barring such entries, only to learn a ban was unconstitutional.
Controlling Mother Nature has proved equally problematic. Canceling the 1962 march due to rain, parade organizers have responded to subsequent storms by postponing to the next night. But that didn't help Nov. 1, 1993, when marchers who sat out Halloween rain found themselves pelted by wind-blown snow in the most unusual event yet.
Although more than half the registered participants didn't reach the starting line, Santa Claus slid through in a candy-cane red convertible while barely clad harem girls on the Rutland Regional Medical Center's "Aladdin" float clung to gust-bent palm trees.
"Rutland loves a parade," then-Mayor Jeffrey Wennberg said from behind a defrosting windshield. "This is proving the point."
'The real measure'
Two traditions are nearly as old as the parade: Its high school Pumpkin Princesses and Jack O'Lantern mystery citizen who is unmasked after children receive clues to guess his or her identity.
"You can quote me as Mr. Jack O'Lantern 2001," Donahue says at the chamber.
But those, too, often lead to more questions - particularly in 1999, when fast-food clown Ronald McDonald gave some locals indigestion as the event's first (and so far only) non-homegrown Jack O'Lantern.
The parade, annually boasting almost 100 entrants and more than 10,000 spectators, isn't the nation's largest. New York's Greenwich Village Halloween Parade has 50 bands alone and 2 million onlookers. But Rutland's is the longest-running.
"It's like Mardi Gras in October," The Boston Globe recently wrote, "with candy being tossed instead of beads."
Mayor throws the city a few complimentary words of his own. Rutland may not consider itself a mirror image of Vermont, the curmudgeonly novelist says, but such individuality is a true reflection of the independent state.
"This environment alone threatens to kill us six months of the year," Mayor adds. "If that doesn't build character, you're dead."
Others share warmer sentiments. Mary McGarry Morris, author of the million-selling Oprah's Book Club pick "Songs in Ordinary Time," graduated from Mount St. Joseph Academy just months before the first parade. Although her novels are dark - "Songs," set in Rutland in the summer of 1960, features a con artist, philandering priest, pilfering insurance agent and obscene phone caller - she doesn't have a discouraging word about her former home.
"We liked to boast, then, that Rutland was the second-largest city in the state," says Morris, now of Massachusetts, "but, really, it was a large town, rock-solid in its values, primarily in the way it watched out for its children. And that's the real measure of a community, what makes it truly great and fondly remembered."
'Ahead of the curve'
Joseph Citro, a self-described "expert on New England oddities" and author of the new "Vermont Monster Guide," practically apologizes for not unearthing some Rutland peculiarity that spurs it to parade on Halloween.
"No offense, I don't know if it's anything about the city specifically," the Burlington writer says. "I think Tom Fagan just had endless energy for things strange and, after a while, it became a tradition."
One that's set to take downtown by storm (only figuratively, organizers hope) Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Neither Citro, Mayor nor Morris has marched in the parade, as the scary season is also big for book tours.
Slayton, for his part, recalls watching the spectacle in a hoodlum cap and mask inspired by the Beagle Boy burglars that shadow Scrooge McDuck. Wading into the parade itself, the retired editor says, "was beyond the edges of my comfort level."
For most others, Halloween has grown into one of the nation's biggest holidays, with nearly $5 billion in annual sales.
"Rutland might have been on the cutting edge," Slayton says.
"And Tom Fagan was ahead of the curve," Citro adds.
Fagan, who spent his last years in a bat-bedecked room at Rutland's Loretto Home, never missed a march in his lifetime. And while his final request didn't pan out, his spirit keeps parading the streets.
"I've always seen 'em one way or another," Fagan said in his last interview. "I certainly hope it will continue for a long, long time."