Monday, November 15, 2010

Christmas City of the North parade memories: God save the queens...

By Jim Heffernan
Photo from Northland News Center's Christmas parade site
This is the week of the big Christmas City of the North parade, ushering in the holiday season for Duluth and the Northland.

The parade is a tradition that has lasted longer than most. Somehow, my own involvement, in one way or another, is also a tradition lasting longer than most.

I was a fledgling newspaper reporter in Duluth on Nov. 22, 1963, (I had worked at the Duluth Herald and News Tribune for about a month), the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

One of my duties that afternoon in the newsroom was to determine if the Christmas City of the North parade, scheduled for that night, would go on as planned in light of the assassination. I called the powers that were at WDSM-TV, the then sponsors, at about 3:30 p.m., a mere two hours after the assassination, and was told the parade would not be canceled. But about an hour later, after word had spread that the entire nation was shutting down, WDSM did cancel the parade.

The annual tradition was already so strong it took a presidential assassination to knock it out.

Much happier parade involvement for me followed. Just a year or two later, now a much more seasoned reporter, I was assigned to cover the parade for the newspaper. Parade coverage is pretty much up to the person writing it up – in other words you have a lot of latitude, and some longitude too. Good thing.

In those days, parade-sponsor WDSM was located across Superior Street from then Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza senior residences), and for the parade the television station would rent a corner hospitality suite off the ballroom overlooking the holiday promenade. The station stocked the room with things to drink – Tom and Jerrys prominent among them – and tasty treats to eat.

This was for visiting dignitaries who, after being driven through the parade in open cars, would be whisked back to Hotel Duluth on side streets and escorted to the then-WDSM hospitality room to “warm up.” It is quite easy to warm up in a room with an open bar, congenial TV station personnel and, oh yes, visiting queens after their arduous trip driven through the parade route in a white Cadillac convertible, top down.

Queens like Miss Minnesota, Miss Minneapolis Aquatennial (known as Queen of the Lakes), Miss St. Paul Winter Carnival, Miss Duluth, the Duchess of Duluth and a host of other misses and near-misses from throughout the northern parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It was from this cozy, warm, well-stocked room that I would cover the always-chilly if not downright cold parade. If memory serves, I did it for two or three years running. Nice work if you can get it.

That first time stands out though. I had never met a Miss Minnesota or Miss Minneapolis Aquatennial or miss anything before. This, it must be recalled, was the era when these queens and the contests that selected them – all the way up to Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Universe – were taken seriously.

Still single, I welcomed the opportunity to be in the midst of such a dazzling array of young queens, tiaras gleaming, satin gowns draped over, one suspects, long underwear. Who could say what might result? I employed my usual technique for impressing women of my generation: Stand against a wall and depend on my innate animal magnetism to draw them to me – you could call it the Elvis Effect.

And as might be expected, the result was that I met very few of them, and those I did meet showed zero interest in getting to know me better, even though my teenage acne had disappeared and my hairline was still strong. These queens seemed to be more interested in older – to me, old – men like mayors of various area cities, in town for the parade and WDSM’s hospitality, not to mention leering TV personalities.

Oh, but I go on. Only a few years later, after some time off (my parade reporting having given way to more serious stuff like professional wrestling), I found myself again attending the Christmas parade, this time as a spectator, now married and with children. That became an annual holiday ritual until the kids grew out of it, and so did we.

But hold it. What seems like only a few years of taking the parade off, there we were again a few years ago, shepherding grandchildren through the throngs lining Superior Street on parade night.

We’ll be there again this Friday night, watching the bright eyes of the grandkids and the marching by of still another generation of area young people worried about being cold (at least their parents are), the brass players in high school bands concerned that their lips are going to stick to their instruments, but not those of their boyfriends and girlfriends. It never changes.

God save the queens – from freezing to death.

For more information about the Christmas City of the North Parade, check out Northland News Center's Christmas City of the North site HERE or the VisitDuluth site HERE.

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