Bacon, Busey, Bizarre
Possibly the quirkiest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country rolls down the shortest street in everyday use each year on March 17 to the delight of thousands of spectators, out-of-town visitors, and wannabe Irishmen.
The First Ever 13th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade on 98-foot-long Bridge Street traditionally begins with the official “Measuring of the Route” at 6:25 p.m.
And each year, the crowd waits for a glimpse of the celebrity grand marshal to follow. This year, there are two: actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, Michael, who comprise the Bacon Brothers Band, which is also the after-parade entertainment in the Bridge Street area.
Before the party gets rolling, though, the “official starter” has to give the word. This year, that honor goes to Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Busey.
And what would a St. Patrick’s Day parade be without its king and queen? This year, Lloyd Jackson, with the Hot Springs School District, and Hannah Mills, with Hot Springy Dingy, are serving as the Shamrock King and Queen for the 2016 parade.
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, and one of the inventors of the parade, said that when the parade began it was unknown what it was going to be.“We started the parade and had a good crowd the first year and it has grown each year,” he said, noting that a count of the crowd is “impossible.”
“Who knows how many were there? It’s impossible. I know there was a big brouhaha about attendance several years ago but the key to the parade is that it is a great, local, and national event now. The amount of awards the parade has won, the amount of recognition, the amount of times it has brought up the name of Hot Springs National Park, Ark., in other markets has been incredible; more so than any of us thought when we were drinking a beer and thought up the idea of having a St. Patrick’s Day parade,” he said.
Arrison said the parade started small but has gotten bigger, with coverage from the “Today Show” and “The Weather Channel,” which covered it from Hot Springs two years ago.
“We’ve won all sorts of awards, including from the Atlanta Constitution Journal, and other national awards. We’re mentioned in the same breath as Chicago and New York City, so the amount of publicity — regardless of whether anyone came to the parade or not — has paid for the parade many times over,” he said.
Arrison said visitors now actually plan trips around the parade.
“People come and have family reunions. I don’t know how many people have friends and relatives that come visit them around St. Patrick’s Day every year. And, besides the parade, we have so many other things going on, including some of the best horse racing in the world, high school basketball (championships), and great convention business. March is our biggest month of the 12 months in Hot Springs. You couldn’t say that in the past, so St. Patrick’s Day is really overachieving for us,” he said.
Arrison said he never dreamed the parade would be where it is today, but it has “created a great positive image, and I continue to remind people that there is always something going on in our community. There is always so much going on, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of those events that due to the celebrity grand marshals and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, that attracts so much media attention, not just in Arkansas but around the United States,” he said.
Although Dick Kelley, President Bill Clinton’s stepfather, and Bob “Mr. Hot Springs” Wheeler, served as the grand marshals of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Hot Springs, the decision was made to use celebrity grand marshals to “spice up” the parade, Arrison said.
“George Wendt (who played Norm on “Cheers”) was the first and one of the best we’ve had in the history of the parade, and people just loved it,” Arrison said.
“It’s really just a fun, family event that is exciting with good entertainment, sex appeal with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders — you can’t get any more All-American than that — and it just appeals to the whole family,” Arrison said.
While serving as the Shamrock King and Queen over the parade doesn’t carry any governmental authority, King Jackson jokingly said he “will rule with an iron fist.”
“Really, I just plan to go with the flow and have fun and a good time during this grand celebration,” he said. “I am excited about the opportunity to be the king of the First Ever 13th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It’s a pretty exciting time in our community and a lot of people are involved in the parade, so to get a chance to represent our community as the Shamrock King is pretty exciting.
“Of all the people they could have chosen in our community, to be chosen is quite an honor. How could I have turned such an honor down to represent our community? So I’m pretty excited, but I don’t feel worth of such an honor,” he said.
Mills, the ruling Shamrock Queen, takes a different tack than her King and says she will “not rule with an iron fist.”
“I’ll reign with a joyous smile,” she said.
“I am so honored and overwhelmed and just plain flabbergasted that they picked me. It’s an awesome honor,” she said.
Mills said the first thought that went through her mind when she received the letter asking her to be the queen, was what she would wear.
“Bear in mind that I’m a costumer by trade, and my first thought was ‘Oh, my goodness. What am I going to wear?’”
Without giving away her costume for the day, Mills said she “has a whole crew of friends” helping her figure out her wardrobe for the day.
“I have one that is helping me design it, another is helping me bedazzle it. They have taken me totally in hand and I almost have nothing to do with it anymore,” she said, but noted she is still involved because she “doesn’t want to wear big pink polka dots or anything like that.”
She said Arrison has “an amazing mind and a great crew of people who work with him to come up with these fun ideas.”
“I think that is the secret to the parade — everything about it is to simply have fun and there is no limit to what you can do. One of the things they told me in the letter asking me to be the queen was that I had to keep my clothes on,” she said.“Steve Arrison has surrounded himself with people who are kind and good-hearted and simply want to have a good time and I think that is the secret to why this works so well,” she said.
The St. Patrick’s Day events begin on March 16 with a wreath laying at the grave side of John King in Calvary Cemetery. On March 17, the Blarney stone Kissing Contest will be held at 4:30 at the Arkansas Blarney stone, on the sidewalk near the corner of Malvern Avenue and Convention Boulevard; kickoff with special guests at 5:30 p.m. at the intersection of Bridge Street, followed by measuring the street, the parade and at 7:3o p.m. the free post-parade concert by The Bacon Brothers.