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Parade celebrates 25 years of bringing holiday joy to Akron

11/24/2011 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

The Santa float in the 1997 Welcome Santa Holiday Parade is shown moving past former buildings along South Main Street in Downtown Akron. Those buildings were located on the site of Lock 3 Park.
Photo: Bruce Ford
Elves accompanied Santa on his float in the 1992 Welcome Santa Holiday Parade.
Photo: Bruce Ford
Santa (Ken Minrovic) waves to spectators during the 2010 parade.
Photo: Lew Stamp
DOWNTOWN AKRON — For many Akron residents, the holiday season doesn’t officially start until the city hosts the Welcome Santa Holiday Parade.

This year, the kickoff to the holiday season is the 25th year for the celebrated event, which brings dozens of units and hundreds of spectators to South Main Street.

According to Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, Akron storefronts traditionally decorated for the holidays, but the city never hosted a Christmas parade until 25 years ago.

“The big parade many, many years ago was the Soap Box Derby parade, which was a huge parade through Downtown Akron,” Lieberth said.

He added it’s interesting that the holiday parade began in 1986 because there wasn’t much taking place there at that time.

“Twenty-five years ago, there was nothing happening in Downtown Akron,” he said.

The parade was the idea of a group of civic-minded businesspeople and citizens.

Joyce Lagios, of Rubber City Radio Group, and Pattie Urdzik, who worked in the city’s Recreation Bureau, were among the group that would meet for breakfast on Fridays and “solve the problems of the world,” according to Lagios.

“There were three or four people over breakfast saying that we’re the only city without a holiday parade,” she said. “We decided, let’s do it.”

Urdzik, who retired in 2001, said Lagios agreed to have the radio stations sponsor the parade and the Recreation Bureau would put it together.

A highlight of the 2007 parade was the addition of 48-foot-tall balloons, as shown below. Costumed characters usually make an appearance in the parade, as shown above.
Photos: Ken Crisafi
Neither Lagios or Urdzik can recall much about that first year, but they did say the event was a success from the start.

“There was more interest in it than we realized,” Lagios said. “It blossomed; it really did.”

Yvette Davidson, who is now retired after many years heading up the Akron Recreation Bureau, said she started working on the parade after the first couple of years.

She added that originally it took place the first weekend of December. When she began working on it, she decided to move the event to Thanksgiving weekend, and that’s where it has remained.

“It wasn’t a really big draw until we put it on Thanksgiving weekend,” Davidson said. “Changing the date really made the biggest difference because a lot of Thanksgiving weekends we’ve had snow, but we’ve also had really good weather.”

In the earliest years, the parade was small, with a few floats created by Recreation Bureau departments. As the years went on, companies began to get involved and offered to sponsor floats and units taking part, Davidson said.

For many years, the parade served as a way for other local institutions, such as the Akron Art Museum and Akron Zoo, to tie into the day with special events. Davidson said a trolley shuttled people to and from different activities and events downtown.

In more recent years, one of the parade’s highlights was the inclusion of large balloons like those in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The city partnered with the Lighter Than Air Society, according to Lieberth.

Davidson said the balloons were a welcome addition but financially were difficult to bring back.

“We did get sponsors for the first years, but they’re very pricey,” she said. “And we needed several volunteers. We tried to bump up the parade and keep it exciting. The problem is the cost.”

But the biggest challenge for the event’s organizers has been the weather.

“One year it would be freezing cold, and one year it would be really nice,” Urdzik said.

“The parade crowd depends on the weather,” said Ken Minrovic, who has portrayed Santa nearly all the years of the parade. “If the weather’s good, the crowd is huge. If the weather is poor, the crowd is not as good.”

Lieberth said he thinks there may have been only one time that the parade was actually canceled because of weather.

“Our public service crews do a great job of cleaning the streets,” he said.

Urdzik said there have been other mishaps over the years, but all usually worked out.

“One parade, it literally started snowing when Santa went down the street,” she said. “The truck broke down that was pulling Santa, and we had no way of getting Santa down the street.”

The Akron Police Department eventually came through and pulled Santa’s float with one of its vehicles, Urdzik said.

One Santa

One of the requirements Davidson instituted for the parade was that there be only one Santa Claus, the one on the last float.

“Children get confused if they see more than one Santa,” she said.

For almost every year of the parade, West Akron resident Minrovic has portrayed Santa. He was a recreation coordinator for the city until he retired in 2009.

“I started working with the city in 1989, and they were looking for someone to [portray Santa] and I volunteered,” he said. “I just fell in love with it and continued to do it after that. I guess you could say I’m the city’s Santa. Everybody calls me Santa.”

Minrovic said he loves the attention he gets that day.

“There are always kids waiting for me when I get off the float,” he said. “They want to give me a hug and take their picture with Santa. I always try to accommodate as many as I can before I have to go.”

Though he’s retired from his job with the city, Minrovic has no plans to retire his Santa suit yet.

“I volunteer to do it because it’s a fun day,” he said. “It’s fun to see all the kids’ faces light up and be the focal point of the parade.”

Anniversary year

Brittany Schmoekel, community events coordinator for the city of Akron, said this year’s event Nov. 26 will feature some new attractions to mark the 25th anniversary of the parade.

“We’re trying to get some fun units in and try to make it a well-rounded, nice parade this year,” she said.

Kicking off the event will be the masters of ceremonies for the parade, Tim Daugherty and Christi Nichols from WONE FM, who will lead the parade in a horse-drawn sleigh. They will step off at the stage to announce each parade unit.

Schmoekel added the cast of Ballet Theatre of Ohio’s “The Nutcracker” will act as the grand marshals.

Lagios, who today is vice president of promotions and marketing for sponsors WAKR/ WONE/WQMX, said she’s excited the stations’ staffs will ride in the parade this year in The Rocket Car — an original 1930s silver car from the old Euclid Beach amusement park in Cleveland.

Schmoekel said the Recreation Bureau will decorate the Santa float again this year.

“We’ll have 25 golf carts before the Santa float to represent each year of the parade,” she said. “We will have some entertainment before the awards presentation, and if the kids are good, Santa just might stick around after the parade to meet with them in the basement of the O’Neil’s building.”

The parade, like last year, is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. due to the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game taking place that day.

About 80 units are expected to participate in the parade, which will begin at the corner of South Main and Cedar streets and run north to Bowery Street, where it will end at Water Street. The reviewing stand will be near the corner of University Avenue and South Main Street.

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