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Rutland’s famed Halloween Parade celebrates 60 years

By Matt A. Sheen
This Saturday the streets of Rutland, Vermont are going to be overrun with ghosts, ghouls, blood-sucking fiends, and all other manner of supernatural oddities and locals couldn’t be happier about it. Rutland City will be celebrating its 60th annual Halloween Parade.
The visual spectacle won’t be limited to the macabre. Some of the many themes that will be represented in this year’s parade include the Broadway musical Hairspray, Stranger Things, The Flintstones, Ghostbusters, aliens, rainbows and unicorns, and super-heroes.
Batman, specifically, recalls beloved longtime organizer of the parade, Tom Fagan, who dressed as Batman for the event and never a missed parade until he passed away just 10 days before the parade in 2008.
Noting with apparent relief that it’s not an election year, Rutland Parks and Recreation Program Director April Cioffi said that spectators can, therefore, expect less overt political statements, although many politicians have marched in past years, including Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. They’ve all been welcomed as long as they honored the tradition of the parade.
“They have to sign off on this parade not being just for them to promote something,” says Cioffi, acknowledging that Senator Patrick Leahy was true to the spirit of the event when he led a platoon of super-heroes and unveiled the Gryphon Building’s Batman mural for the 2015 parade.
Generally there are few guidelines imposed on parade entries, but since an entry generally judged by the community to be in especially poor taste was allowed in the parade a few years ago, organizers have required that all applicants submit a sketch along with their application. Cioffi says that the often inclement weather discourages risqué attire: “Go for it, but you’ll be sorry in a week.”
While Cioffi concedes that new entries are exciting to see, the parade is clearly fueled by tradition. Following a banner that reads “The Rutland Parks and Recreation Halloween Parade,” the elected officials and honored guests, a group of drumming skeletons known as the Skellies have been getting the parade started with a bang for over 20 years.
Gary Meitrott, operator of the Drum Journeys of Earth ethnic hand percussion school, acts as artistic director of the mammoth troop that incorporates puppetry, gymnastics, dance and costuming. Inspired by the cultures whose music he teaches, Meitrott said he joined the parade to honor the tradition of Samhain, the pre-Christian celebration honoring the dead: “I chose the theme, ‘Dance with the Dead,’ and to be skeletons to honor those family members and friends who had passed away.”
Self-taught puppeteer Jim Goss oversees maintenance of the giant puppet from which the group takes its name: “Skelly’s old head was falling apart and mostly looked like a big popcorn ball anyway, so we sculpted a new, more realistic head and stuffed it with lights so Skelly looks out over the whole crowd with red searching eyes. Skelly and our other props are regularly repaired and looked after but this was his first major overall and probably the last one for some time to come as it was a major undertaking.”
“After the third year I decided that I did not want to use a truck any more, and have all of our floats human propelled,” said Meitrott, who has urged the city to follow his example, making the parade more ecologically friendly, noting that they employ this method of locomotion during Carnival in Rio. This approach has also afforded Meitrott’s group the opportunity “to get down off the vehicles and perform right up close to the crowds. What was important to me was that direct connection with the audience, eye to eye!”
“It’s always had a huge attendance,” said Rutland Historical Society Curator Jim Davidson, who has lived in Rutland since 1960 and began attending the parade a few years after that. “One year it had 20,000. If the weather is good, huge crowds line the streets six or seven deep.”
The weather, however, has not always been good. The 2018 parade was rained out and moved to Sunday. “We flipped it to the next day but still had a pretty big crowd,” remembered Cioffi. In 2011, the first year the parade was to be held the Saturday before Halloween rather than on the night itself, a snowstorm resulted in it happening on the 31st after all.
The 50th anniversary parade suffered torrential rains. “Our theme was Day of the Dead, with new costumes and headdresses with long feathers,” recalled Meitrott. “Everyone got up next to the building to stay somewhat dry. When I was given the signal to start, I blew my whistle and everyone came out got into position and we started our show. I was so proud of all of them for their dedication.”
The dedication Meitrott speaks of has been evident throughout the years. The parade has only been cancelled twice in its entire history. According to Cioffi, even the decision to move the parade to the weekend was more about devotion to the event than simple pragmatism: “It’s really challenging to get kids to school, get in some after school trick-or-treating and then get them to the parade in time for the start. People would have to skip out of work early.”
The most devotion to the event is no doubt that required of the Parks and Recreation Department, who, led by Cioffi, secures events permits, meets with various city agency department heads, coordinates with emergency services, and manages the overall affair. Though not the largest Halloween parade in the world (it’s dwarfed by New York’s Village Halloween parade), the logistics involved are considerable. In any given year the number of entries ranges from 60 to 90, each consisting of anywhere from two to 75 people, and the running time is anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours, varying year to year.
No float can be over 13 feet in height in order to avoid streetlights and other obstructions, and there are also width limits. For the past 11 years the parade has run the same route, less than 3/4 mile, but when pedestrian bump-outs were added to extend the sidewalk into the street at downtown cross-walks to increase pedestrian safety, Cioffi reached out to Fabian Earth Moving of West Rutland to help her run field tests. The company navigated the parade route with its 18-wheelers to determine if there was sufficient room for the larger vehicles used in the parade to make turns.
Fabian’s Chris Center and her husband John have been organizing floats for the Halloween Parade since 1994. “We did take a few years off here and there,” said Chris Center. “This will be our 21st float for Fabian Earth Moving.” The Centers had gone to the parade for years and then started to help build floats for West Rutland School while daughters Danielle and Julie were there, before deciding to sponsor their own entries.
Since then they’ve become Halloween heavyweights, frequently taking the trophy for Best in Parade. “People are looking for Fabian,” confirmed Cioffi. “They’ve won so many trophies, it’s crazy, because they put so much effort into it.”

Noting that they get feedback from the community about their parade entries throughout the year, Center said her crew votes on a theme and gets started on next year’s as soon as the dust settles from the last parade: “We start planning a year in advance with ideas, we start our costumes a couple months ahead but the float we start Oct 1.”
The months of labor produce elaborately themed floats like Under the Sea, a sub-oceanic scene with starfish and octopuses, and 2014’s Walk the Dinosaur, which had a mobile dinosaur along with the float. Sometimes those themes might be a little too ambitious.
“Our hardest to build was Everyone Wants To Go To Heaven,” said Center. “We built heaven on the float with angels and had devils walking along the side. Trying to figure out how to build heaven was a bit difficult but it all came out great and ended up being a lot of fun.”

Pumpkin Royalty
Every year since 1965 a Pumpkin Princess has reigned over the parade, chosen from local high school students nominated by their individual schools and the winner announced during a live broadcast on local community access network show Peg TV, airing on Channel 15 in Rutland. Stephanie Wilson of West View Digital interviews the candidates, while off-screen they appear before a panel of judges made up of three or four community members whose identities are kept secret until after the contest, sometimes including past Pumpkin Princesses. A reel of old parade photos is played while the panel of judges deliberate, following which they reveal the winner, who is awarded a trophy and rides in the parade accompanied by the other contestants.
In 2017 Rutland High School had a male student express interest in running for Pumpkin Princess. The student ultimately backed out, but the issue had been raised and beginning in 2018, a Pumpkin Prince became possible, with each school allowed to nominate a male, female, or pair of students and the contest being renamed the Pumpkin Royalty Contest.
“It started a conversation,” said Cioffi. “Not just about honoring both sexes, but how this was a different era and we should keep it open.”
For the first time, a Pumpkin King has been chosen (move over Jack Skellington!) in the person of Rutland High senior Matthew Creed, who will rule over the 2019 parade beside his classmate Emma Duffy.
And that’s not the only first for 2019. Generating no less excitement, the annual Jack O’Lantern contest chooses a community member nominated for community service and devotion to recreation who’s given a place of honor in the parade, chauffeured by Icehouse Limousine bearing a jack-o’-lantern made of papier-mâché. The winner’s identity remains a closely guarded secret until it is revealed during the parade.
“I absolutely cannot tell you,” confirmed Cioffi.
People are encouraged to guess, however, and poems published in the Rutland Herald give clues to the Jack O’Lantern’s identity. The contest ends the Friday before the parade and the winners are picked from the correct answers the following Monday. Previously only open to schoolchildren, this year the contest includes an adult category as well.
The reasons for so much enthusiasm for such a peculiar holiday are as varied as the floats it produces.
“Halloween is my favorite day of the year,” said Goss. “For me, it starts on October 1 and runs the whole month. Mostly I use Halloween to say goodbye to the year and the light, to remember my ancestors and loved-ones who have passed away and to set some goals and aspirations for the coming year. I also watch every old Grade B monster and sci-fi movie I can get my hands on, preferably with people who are of a similar mind. I truly love Halloween and everything it represents.”
A Rutland local, Cioffi grew up with the parade: “I’ve seen tons of them since I could walk,” she said but her fondest memory of the parade was of her first time helping to organize it, making it happen.
“To express other aspects of our selves is not only allowed but supported by being a part of the Halloween experience,” added Meitrott. “To be that individual, to be other. This is extremely important to me, because it rests on the major premise of what this country is supposed to stand for, which is individual freedom. The rest of the year nearly everyone falls in line subconsciously to be the same so that they are accepted. So for me, even though what we are doing is accepted by the city and the people, there is this sense of feeling one’s individual power by taking over the streets of Rutland.”

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