Just hours after the last float ventures down Market Street and the last booth closes on the Arch grounds, preparations for the next year’s Veiled Prophet Parade and Fair Saint Louis begin anew. The timeline is no exaggeration says Fair spokesperson Bob Schenk. “Planning starts all over again, from budgets to themes, etc. It really doesn’t stop.”
With the parade and fair as the premier events celebrating the Fourth of July holiday in St. Louis, their success is dependent on that extensive planning and preparation. This year will mark the 135th edition of the parade, funded and organized by the Veiled Prophet Organization. “It’s always been a gift from the order to the city,” says the Organization’s Thomas Cooke. “The tradition of the parade is a way of shining a positive light on the city on a national scale.”
With 130 units that include 17 custom-designed floats, 10 marching bands, eight helium balloons and a plethora of beauty queens and dignitaries, the parade requires broad coordination. Artistic director Bill Griffin has led the way for 40 years, conjuring up the annual theme, including this year’s, ‘Parade Around the World.” Griffin has a team of craftsmen who work with him year-round, and several months before the parade, members of the VP organization come together to contribute, as well. On Saturdays, members and their families are encouraged to help out at the warehouse (known as ‘The Den’), constructing, painting and decorating the floats. The young women walking in this year’s Veiled Prophet Ball also will participate as part of the organization’s community service initiative. “We hold the legacy of the parade as very sacred, so we will never sell sponsorships,” Schenk explains. “The members of the VP make the event happen.”
In the weeks leading up to the parade, the floats come to life, with flowers and live plants added the day before. More than 500 costumed characters, played by VP families, will man those floats or walk along the parade route. Each costume is fitted and altered for the participants by Jody Wilkerson and her staff of seamstresses, with brand new ones added for each year’s theme.
The end of the parade will mark the beginning of Fair Saint Louis, a three-day event (July 4, 6 and 7) on the grounds of the Gateway Arch. While members of the Veiled Prophet also contribute to the festival, it is organized separately by the Fair Saint Louis Foundation and relies on corporate sponsorships for funding.
The complexity of the fair, from the food vendors to the air show, requires several hundred people on a multitude of committees to plan and execute. In addition, volunteers are essential. “The fair survives on people like the community vendors, greeters, ambassadors and civic partners,” Schenk says.
With the musical entertainment, fireworks and air show as the primary drivers of the fair, planning for these elements begins early. The Foundation has to put in requests a year in advance for particular air show performers, with the availability dependent on military restrictions. Meanwhile, another committee has the task of pursuing popular and up-and-coming musical acts for the main stage.
While the core elements are being organized, the Foundation also has to plan the secondary components, including the Kids Zone and Cultural Stage. What it cannot control is the weather. With reviews of public safety procedures and communication outlets (including more extensive social media outreach), Schenk hopes Mother Nature will not put a damper on the fair. “The safety and security of everyone on the Arch grounds is our paramount interest, and we’ve spent a lot of time this year making sure we’re doing everything we can to ensure that.”
As the launch of the fair nears, production has kicked into high gear, from passes and tickets, to signage and banners. The executive committee meets at least once a week in the month leading up to the event, with “hundreds of emails, text and phone calls going back and forth as we get closer,” Schenk says. Although as much is planned in advance as possible, time-sensitive decisions will be made right up until the fair grounds open. “You’re in production mode, but you’re also calling audibles. Until the planes fly over in the air show, you never if they’re going to show up, because things happen.”
While both the parade and fair are complicated events requiring year-round preparation, getting a chance to see hundreds of thousands of people celebrate Fourth of July downtown makes the work worth it, Schenk says. “I don’t think there’s a better place to watch fireworks than underneath the Arch, along the banks of the Mississippi.”
With information courtesy of the VP organization, take a trip down memory lane with these key moments from the history of the Veiled Prophet Parade and Fair Saint Louis.
- 1878: The first Veiled Prophet Parade takes place Oct. 8 as part of an agricultural and mechanical fair that brought out-of-state visitors to St. Louis.
- 1903: Floats for the evening parade are lit by electric power from the city’s streetcar wires. Previously, the parade used ‘illuminations’—large torch lights with reflectors.
- 1930: Attendance reaches 375,000.
- 1942: Due to World War II, a War Chest Parade is held instead, promoting the sale of bonds.
- 1955: Farm tractors are used to pull the floats, replacing truck tractors, and before that, horses.
- 1969: The parade switches from night to day so more children can attend.
- 1978: The parade marks its centennial anniversary.
- 1981: The Veiled Prophet (VP) Fair launches as a celebration of the Independence Day holiday, and the parade moves to July 4 to become the opening event.
- 1982: Elton John performs on the main stage, in addition to the Beach Boys, who will go on to perform four more times (1992, 1994, 2001, 2003).
- 1984: John Denver performs.
- 1987: In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the fair features a Constitutional Village with a copy of the preamble and a 16-foot-tall portrait of George Washington. The fair is broadcast on an ABC special hosted by Oprah Winfrey.
- 1988: Vice President George H. W. Bush visits the fair, accompanied by Barbara Bush, who speaks on ‘Project Literacy U.S.’ ABC again broadcasts the fair, this time hosted by Patrick Duffy of Dallas.
- 1991: Bill Cosby makes an appearance (and will do so again in 1996).
- 1993: Dolly Parton performs. (Dolly Parton photo) 1994: The VP Fair changes names to Fair Saint Louis to be more descriptive of the event from a national perspective. Aretha Franklin plays the main stage.
- 2000: Fifteen years after his first appearance, Ray Charles takes the stage again at the fair.
- 2003: Brad Paisley performs.
- 2005: Live on the Levee concerts are the main element of a scaled-down celebration, minus the air shows and traditional fair features.
- 2010: Fair Saint Louis celebrates its 30th anniversary and the return of the air shows after a five-year hiatus.
- 2012: The Veiled Prophet Parade will be televised locally (on KMOV) for the first time in 10 years.
New highlights of this year’s Fair Saint Louis:
- Freedom 4 Miler and Family Fun Run (Wed., July 4): The St. Louis Sports Commission hosts two runs to kick off the holiday festivities. The Freedom 4 Miler begins at 7 a.m. and the Family Fun Run at 8:30 a.m., both starting and ending at Soldiers Memorial. For more information and to register, visit fairsaintlouis.org.
- Salute to the Troops (Fri., July 6): The fair will honor men and women in uniform and welcome home the soldiers of the 1138th Transportation Company from the Missouri Army National Guard who have been overseas in Afghanistan. Brigadier General David Irwin and Mayor Francis Slay will be on hand for the ceremony. 7 p.m. Free.
- Sea to Shining Sea: The second cross-country bicycle, hand-cycle and recumbent bike ride with disabled veterans will make a stop in St. Louis, and riders will participate in the Veiled Prophet Parade and Salute to the Troops. The coast-to-coast ride, featuring 20 wounded warriors from all services, is partly sponsored by Brown Shoe Company and Famous Footwear.
- Pro Plan Performance Team (July 6 & 7): Held in Kids Town, the event will feature more than 20 rescue dogs participating in athletic feats, including long-distance flying disc and acrobatics. Former major-league baseball pitcher Milt Wilcox will help showcase diving dogs, who land 22-foot-plus jumps in a 15,000-gallon pool. 5 p.m. (Friday); 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. (Saturday). Free.
For more information, call 434-3434 or visit fairsaintlouis.org.