Puppeteers save parade with stand-in dragon


This year’s Holiday Parade almost took place without its fire-breathing star, the multi-legged thing that for years has snaked down Main Street snorting pressurized flour out of its snout to simulate smoke.

The snow dragon.

Annette Smith, the keeper of the dragon who has worked for years to make the beloved prop work, was out of town for this year’s parade on Saturday.

She told organizers she wasn’t comfortable with it being used without her guidance. The dragon, she said, was getting old and fragile. And so it’s angry-looking, beady-eyed head and sheets that make up its body sat curled up in a storage room at the Chilkat Center.

Then a Christmas miracle happened in Haines: A new snow dragon emerged.

A trio of artists from Geppetto’s Junkyard created a new dragon; one with 14 feet (seven people) as it marched Saturday evening in a bitter cold from Thor’s Fitness to the Sheldon Museum, to the delight of scores of residents.

It almost didn’t happen.

“On Friday night, we decided we had to do something,” said artist Melina Shields. “So we built one. It’s such a tradition that we had to have one.”

Shields, Joey Jacobson and Merrick Bochart crafted a head out of wire and added fabric.

And the show went on.

Reached in Washington, D.C., Smith let out a laugh when told there was a new dragon in town.

“Oh, wow,” she said. “So, I’ve been usurped!”

Smith’s dragon was created 25 years ago for a chamber of commerce Shop-At-Home event. It’s makers were artist Tresham Gregg, Smith and Jim Shook, who supervised building the head.

The prop was also featured in a 1991 play that Gregg wrote called “Ojo and the Gypsy Bear,” which was staged at the Chilkat Center. The play was based on a Frank Oz book and Gregg wrote the lead role for his then 8-year-old son Rahsaan.

“In the play, there was a castle that was all frozen and guarded by an ice dragon that ran around a frozen moat,” Gregg said. “Somehow they managed to melt everything.”

The dragon, he said, “came in through the lobby, went through the audience and back out.”

Later, the family volunteered the dragon prop to the annual Christmas holiday parade.

When asked about the dragon’s no-show this year, Gregg paused.

“I know,” he sighed.

Gregg said he respected his sister’s decision. “It’s a delicate piece that could easily get damaged. I’m sure if (Annette) had delegated the authority for the dragon it would have worked.”

He said his sister has worked tirelessly to make the dragon available each year. “Trying to get all the right people to be there at the right time; she organized all of that,” he said. “It was more than just taking care of the dragon.”

Debra Schnabel, executive director of the Haines Chamber of Commerce, said she learned in late November the original snow dragon might be in jeopardy.

Smith had told her she was going to be out of town on Dec. 17 and suggested that the parade be held a week earlier so she could be there to manage the dragon prop. The Uglys said they could stage their post-parade fundraiser on either date.

But most people agreed that Dec. 10 was too early for the event.

“It was too big of a gap,” Schnabel said.

Smith wouldn’t budge.

“It’s not so much that it’s fragile,” she said of the dragon. “It’s just that it’s in pieces. Some are here, some are over there and the rest is still over there.”

The dragon, she suggested, should come with a sign: Handle with Care.

“If you don’t walk through the door correctly, you could take some of the horns off,” Smith said. “You have to know its idiosyncrasies. I could see how it could be mishandled, the skin put away wet, and I’d have nothing but mold for the next year.”

Then Melina Shields offered to make a dragon with her artist friends.

A week later, though, just days before the event, a new dragon had yet to be born.

Then came a breakthrough. Shields called Schnabel to say the group could get a dragon made by 5 p.m. Saturday, but not 3 p.m. when the event participants start to gather.

But the artists came through. And perhaps many people didn’t even know the difference.

“It was a beautiful dragon,” Schnabel said.

Which dragon will appear in next year’s parade is anyone’s guess.

“My dragon’s pretty wonderful – he’s still alive and well,” Smith said. “But he’s pretty low-tech. Maybe he should be replaced.’


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