Parade of Memories 

Dominion chairman Robert Kelly reminisces about the ups and downs of Richmond's longest-running seasonal parade.

For the last six years, Robert Kelly has served as chairman of the longtime Christmas Parade, which celebrates its 30th year.

For the last six years, Robert Kelly has served as chairman of the longtime Christmas Parade, which celebrates its 30th year.

If you're going to have a Christmas parade, do it right.

And have a sense of humor when your Rudolph float gets stuck on a light pole, deflates, and video of it goes viral across the country. Bring him back next year with a Band-Aid on his head.

This has been the philosophy behind Richmond's Christmas parade, which runs east from the Science Museum on Broad Street to Seventh Street, where it turns and ends at the Richmond Coliseum.

The family-oriented grocery chain Ukrop's Super Markets was the major sponsor throughout the '90s. But since it was sold, Dominion Resources has kept the tradition humming; it's a nostalgic feeling that dates to the '50s and '60s, when it was run by Thalhimers. (There was a 13-year hiatus in the '70s before the Richmond Jaycees got involved in the mid-'80s).

Robert Kelly, a full-time contract administrator with Dominion, has been a longtime parade volunteer and, for the last six years, chairman. He's been there for many of the most memorable moments, such as in 1990, when singer Paul Simon suddenly requested weeks before the parade to film a goofy video ["Proof" from "Rhythm of the Saints"] using a parade float with himself, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase.

"They got about halfway down and exited the route, didn't even finish the parade. Got off around Belvidere," Kelly recalls. "There was no love there. They got their footage and got out. That's what you learn when dealing with these Hollywood types."

Still, it was better than when Gumby went down for the count into a pile of rubber.

"In '91 or '92, when the parade stepped off, weather was beautiful. Then suddenly, a cold front came in 35- or 40-mph gusts," he says. "Gumby was destroyed, totally deflated, around Belvidere, stuck on a light post. And I remember hearing some kid crying, "Mommy, Mommy, Gumby's dead!"

The 2011 viral video of the parade's Rudolph balloon becoming sliced by a traffic-light pole occurred because of handler error, Kelly says with the characteristic good humor that gets him through his busy season.

There ave been a number of recognizable grand marshals through the years: Petersburg native Blair Underwood, country singers Kenny Rogers and Trisha Yearwood and popular Disney child star Aaron Carter. This year organizers again tried to get hometown baseball star Justin Verlander, Kelly says, but it fell through, so they likely will go with a military veteran.

"We don't have a huge budget. We just choose to spend it on floats and parades," he says, noting that 20 percent of his budget comes from title sponsor Dominion, with the rest coming from local businesses and corporate sponsors. "We don't do this to make money. We do it to break even, leave a little in the can."

One thing Kelly says his team learned through surveys is the popularity of marching bands. The only problem is that local high schools aren't as interested anymore.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the directors don't want to work on Saturdays," he says. "We formed one big city band, and the counties send one big county band. But we need more than that, so we bring in college bands." Virginia Military Institute's marching band will perform this year.

Parades may be a bygone era, but Kelly works hard to keep them going for his demographic — mainly children ages 4 to 10, and often the grandparents who keep bringing them back. He cherishes moments like the one that occurred when his favorite grand marshal, astronaut and University of Richmond graduate Leland Melvin, spoke to a group of inner-city youth.

"We had a children's luncheon. Gave them lunch, trip to the Science Museum, and a great seat for parade," Kelly says. "That year, Melvin [who wore his astronaut suit] addressed 200 of them, saying: 'Hey, look at me, I came from the same families as you. If you study hard, stay out of trouble, you can be an astronaut too.' That was a powerful, poignant moment. You could see that it can be a life-changing thing."


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