Ten years ago, the annual Christmas parade in West Chester, Pennsylvania, was limp, at best.
“I saw the Christmas tree uptown, and I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore,” said West Chester resident Todd Marcocci. “It was a ‘Charlie Brown’ Christmas tree with a few lights in it.”
Marcocci, a professional parade producer, oversees the Thanksgiving parade in Philadelphia, the Miss America parade in Atlantic City and the Magnificent Mile parade in Chicago, among others. His company, Under the Sun Productions, happens to be headquartered in West Chester, so he volunteered to give his hometown parade an upgrade.
“We started getting very, very strict,” said Marcocci, who took over the parade nine years ago when he estimated about 500 people would show up to watch it. “It took about five years to educate parade participants that this was not your backyard parade.”
Now in its 35th year, the parade will begin at 7:15 p.m. Friday. It’s again expected to attract about 35,000 spectators, nearly twice the town’s population of 20,000. It features floats for hire made by professionals; 24 performance groups hailing from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio; and 16 regional high school marching bands competing for a $5000 purse.
The stepped-up parade has paid off, attracting a title sponsor (it is officially called the Mars Drinks Old Fashioned Christmas Parade). It’s been named by USA Today as one of the 10 best places to see Santa, and, for the second year, it will be broadcast by the shopping channel QVC to an expected 106 million viewers.
“Relationships are the heart of everything we do,” said Suzanne Quigley, director of community affairs for QVC, headquartered in West Chester. “Being part of this parade and sharing this wonderful time with folks in the region is part of what we do as good corporate citizens.”
QVC will construct a glittery backdrop in downtown West Chester, near the historic courthouse and bank buildings, surrounded by narrow streets and traditional brick buildings. From there, the shopping channel’s hosts will call the parade live as it rolls past, periodically cutting away from Friday night’s broadcast of “The Rachael Ray Show.”
“Some parades are made for TV, some are aired on TV,” said Marcocci, who has produced both. “This is a street parade aired on TV.” That means the parade is designed for the street, not for TV. While the participants are trained to look good for the cameras, they will not stop for them.
Small-town touches continue
While the parade is without a doubt ready for prime time, it cannot entirely shake its small-town vibe. Among the professional floats will be some crafted by local businesses.
“Penguin’s Paradise,” a float made mostly of 2-by-4s and paper mâché molded into an arctic confection, was created by local bakery Cakes and Candies by Maryellen. Resembling a handmade set of the Disney film “Frozen,” it will feature eight little girls dressed as princesses. The production is built on top of a flatbed log trailer, towed by hitch.
“Home Depot and Lowe’s are making a killing off of me to build it,” said Maryellen Bowers, the owner of the bakery. The float features an illuminated igloo made of semi-transparent one-gallon milk jugs that have been hot-glued together like ice bricks, attesting a crafty resourcefulness that would be at home with Martha Stewart, or, as it happens, QVC.
“It’s a form of advertising,” said Bowers, whose bakery staff will run alongside the float handing out sweets to spectators. “It gives my staff a fun time. I love it, or I wouldn’t do it.”
Bowers is not going after the 106 million viewers watching television, but the expected 35,000 visitors watching from the sidewalk. In spite of the massive audience offered by QVC, the parade’s bread and butter are the feet on the ground.
“From the moment this parade steps off on West Market Street to the moment it finishes on East Gay Street, we make sure that it is a fantastic parade for everybody who comes out to watch it,” said Mark Yoder, president of the West Chester Chamber of Commerce.
Yoder said the chamber had to educate local businesses to proactively engage with the crowds on the sidewalk, who tend to be so focused on the parade that they don’t buy anything.
“There’s a lot of towns that would love to have 35,000 people come to their streets for one night,” said Yoder. “So instead of worrying about how to park, you think about how to engage the people that are coming here and make sure they come back.”
QVC will broadcast an edited version of the parade on Christmas day.