From a Mrs. Claus fight to a ‘racist’ float, Raleigh’s parade has weathered controversy

This week’s announcement that the 2017 Raleigh Christmas Parade will be sponsored by WTVD ABC11 instead of longtime sponsor WRAL – and WRAL’s insistence that it will broadcast the parade anyway – could be the biggest controversy in the parade’s 73-year history.

But it’s not its only one.

As with any major event – Raleigh’s parade is billed as “the largest Christmas Parade between Washington, DC and Atlanta” – there are hiccups along the way. Someone misbehaves on a float, a rogue Mrs. Claus tries to edge in, that sort of thing.

Here are a few of the parade conflicts we found (and no, we don’t consider “the parade happens too early!” to be a conflict, though we realize some do).

Dancing dispute

Some people complained in 2004 that the Helping Hand Mission Band featured “scantily clad” young women who performed risque dances. Others defended the dancers as being perhaps undisciplined, but “jubilant.” (Note: There was a similar complaint the following year when the band performed at the Zebulon Christmas Parade.) Jennifer Martin of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, the group that puts on the parade, says McDonald’s stepped forward to buy uniforms for the group and it hasn’t been an issue since.

Mrs. Raleigh’s revolt

Mrs. Raleigh (wait, what?) threatened to sue the merchants association and the city of Raleigh in 2002 because she wasn’t allowed to ride on her own float during the parade. She cited discrimination against married women. Turns out, the merchants association limits individual floats to title winners in contests sponsored by the Miss North Carolina and Miss America organization, which are open to single women. Radio station WRAL-FM let Mrs. Raleigh (Melanie McNeely) ride on its float.

The threatened band boycott

In 2005, the parade began charging a $50 fee to high school bands and nonprofits to march in the parade. Nearly a dozen local marching bands threatened to boycott the parade, Char-Grill offered to cover the fees the bands and other nonprofits would have to pay, and GRMA decided to waive the fees. Martin says high school bands are not charged to march in the parade.

No Mrs. Claus

Then Wake County school board member Debra Goldman wanted to wear a Mrs. Claus costume in the parade in 2009, but was prohibited because only Santa gets to wear the official red and white Santa suit. The previous year, Goldman had worn the costume as she walked with Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison in the parade, while he touted a program that makes daily calls to check on the elderly and shut-ins. That year, parade officials said they were unaware she would show up in the costume. In 2009, Goldman sent out a news release announcing her intention, leading to the rejection from parade organizers.

Color guard controversy

The Air Force JROTC leader at Sanderson High School in 2010 pulled his U.S. flag-carrying group from the parade because it was positioned at the end of the parade. He said putting the flag at the end – “at the foot of Santa Claus,” he said – was disrespectful. Parade sponsors said no disrespect was intended and noted that flag protocol states that as long as there is a flag at the start of the parade – and there always is – it’s fine for flags to be sprinkled throughout the parade. All school color guards march with their bands, GRMA’s Martin says, which are indeed sprinkled throughout. The color guard is always at the front of the school band’s procession.

‘Showgram’ squabble

Radio station G105’s “Showgram” float in 2012 featured a black man dressed in a skirt with fairy wings, strapped to a harness that was suspended from the back of a tow truck. The scene was described by Showgram morning show host Bob Dumas as “Tyrone the Black Christmas Fairy,” who was going to turn “crackers” into Beyonce. Many people decried the spectacle as racially insensitive. Raleigh mayor Nancy MacFarlane wrote that “Raleigh will not tolerate racism or anything that comes remotely close.” GRMA met with Clear Channel, the station’s owner, and the station manager apologized. GRMA’s new policy has been that Dumas appears in the parade with Bob’s Buddies, his charity benefiting the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It’s not just the Raleigh Christmas Parade, either. Here are some memorable parade controversies in other North Carolina towns:

Lincolnton’s horse DWI

A man riding a horse in the Lincolnton Christmas Parade in 1980 was cited for “driving while impaired” when he lost control of his horse during the parade. He had a blood alcohol level of .18. The Lincolnton Jaycees announced that no horses would be allowed in the parade the next year.

Durham’s toy gun debate

Parade-goers in 1993 complained that a vendor sold toy guns, plastic handcuffs, and skull and crossbones flags at the Durham Christmas Parade.

Rockingham County’s disputed grand marshal

A 6-year-old boy whose kiss of a classmate got him in-school suspension – and some national media attention – in 1996 was named grand marshal of the Madison-Mayodan Christmas Parade. Twenty-three educators signed a letter in the local newspaper denouncing the decision as inappropriate.

Jacksonville’s pole dancers

Just last year, a fitness studio in Jacksonville entered a float with a pole-dancing theme. There were complaints.

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, @brookecain

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