Preparing for Hal’s St. Paddy’s

Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade draws thousands to Jackson, and for over 25 years Charly Abraham has played a pivotal role in bringing the spectacular procession to life. In this interview, Abraham shares his insights into the behind-the-scenes happenings that come together to bring about Jackson’s signature annual event.

When do the organizers begin to put the parade together? Is a schedule in place by now?

rude krewe blogNot really. Malcolm and I might mention it once or twice from April to December if we happen to see each other. Malcolm usually comes up with a theme and a Grand Marshal before the New Year starts. We really try to have everything as far as the public is concerned (theme, Grand Marshal, application, route) in place by the second week of January. The smaller details are covered as we can find the time. Remember that this event isn’t anyone’s main job; we do it because we love it. By the way, the official trademarked name of the event is “Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade”. I see it called every possible variation, but it actually does have its own title.

Who are the primary people involved in the actual development and eventual operation of the parade?

Keep in mind that the parade is a multi-legged creature, with the big parade, the race, all the children and family events and the post-parade street dance. For 20 years or so, I pretty much ran it all. Since I am no longer at Hal & Mal’s (or in Jackson for that matter), my role has gradually diminished, a change that makes me happy. My life at Delta State University is so busy I have minimal time for anything else – particularly since the parade doesn’t fall on spring break week any more. As it stands now, I run everything from 7:00 a.m. until the end of the parade. My staff consists of Bob McFarland, who runs all of the kids’ events, Elton Moore, who handles all vendors, and Chuck Bryan, who handles float lineup. Captain Steve Bailey with the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office oversees security in the lineup area and at Hal & Mal’s. Of course, the Batson folks at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children handle the parade registration, and are there to check in participants as they arrive. All of these people have all been with this thing as long as I have, so they know their jobs extremely well. In fact, if we all do our jobs right in the planning stage, everything runs like clockwork. I don’t actually do much on parade day except handle the few problems that arise and make a few command decisions. I like to go watch the pet parade at 10:00 a.m.; it’s my favorite part of the whole event. Since I no longer work at Hal & Mal’s, when the parade is over, my role is over, and everything switches to Commerce Street. For the last couple of years, Arden Barnett has booked the street dance, and the folks at H&M’s handle all the logistics of the post-parade events. Hal & Mal’s is also in charge of the Friday night parade, which has never been my responsibility.

Any parade in any municipality requires the cooperation of local authorities, notably law enforcement and sanitation. As Mal’s St. Paddy’s parade has grown, how have the organizers’ relationships with the city of Jackson developed?

We have a great relationship with the city. Henry Brown is the special events coordinator with the Jackson Police Department and the city. GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll chat with him several times by phone starting around October and meet once with the city special events committee. The city folks pretty much know their job, which is huge, and they handle it well. They seal off the city to most traffic early in the morning and handle traffic control all day. Once the parade leaves the lineup area, it is completely in the control of JPD; it is no longer our event. They secure the parade route to protect participants and observers. In addition to JPD, City Services puts out a mile of barricades, and Sanitation starts sweeping the streets as soon as the last float leaves. Trustees from the County Farm come in early on Sunday morning and clean the area around Hal & Mal’s and the Fairgrounds. We also hire an independent cleanup crew to hit any hot spots. It is important that every trace of the parade be gone by noon Sunday.

What are the biggest headaches year-to-year, and how do you deal with them?

The biggest headache without a doubt, year in and year out, is insurance. Fewer and fewer companies write event insurance, and the price is astronomical.

How many krewes are involved in the parade? Are most of them associated with businesses or are they private groups? Where are they from?

The parade is limited to 50 floats, and we usually end up with about 47. I guess you can call them all krewes. There are also the marching krewes that have been with us forever: the O’Tux Society, which is Malcolm’s krewe, is the only local men’s marching krewe. Some years an all-male krewe from the Gulf Coast shows up. There are mostly female marching krewes; the oldest is Krewe of Kazoo, then the Green Ladies, and a recent addition, nugget league of mayhem (lower case correct). A few are businesses, but most are just groups of people having fun. Almost all are from the Jackson area. In election years, there are usually several political candidates. Governor Barbour used to bring his horse group. That was actually kind of cool. I should also mention the Knights of Columbus Color Guard; they aren’t exactly a “krewe,” but they have been in front of the parade for as long as I have been around.

How do the representatives of the parade krewes work with the organizers? Is there a set marching order for the krewes or is that order determined on a year-to-year basis?

We have one “float” meeting every year that I conduct about a month before the parade. Every krewe is required to have at least one representative there. I go over basic rules, particularly any new rules, discuss problems of the previous year and try to answer questions new krewes may have. Most of the krewes have been around so long they can answer the questions better than I can. As far as parade order, only the color guard, bands, Grand Marshal and marching groups at the very front are pre-programmed. Otherwise, the float order depends on arrival time: the earlier you get there, the closer to the front you are.

Have the specifications for the size of floats, personnel and vehicles been hammered out?

too_loud_blogAbsolutely – many years ago. The rules and regulations and the parade application are all included in a package available at Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade and at various other places around the ‘Net. I post it on Facebook every year as well. Floats are inspected in the lineup area by representatives of the Jackson Police Department, the Jackson Fire Department and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office. They are checked for safety violations, skirting, fire extinguishers, driver’s licenses, insurance, etc.

What role do the people at Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children play?

The Batson folks are wonderful. They play a role in the lives of Mississippians every day. They treat our children in Mississippi for severe illnesses and injuries regardless of the family’s ability to pay. But your question is about the parade. The hospital gang has several roles. Tena McKenzie, who runs the Office of Development there, is the central data center for the parade “Players” list, which is a group of about 40 people who have roles in one way or another. That would include sponsors, media people, all the city services, the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Mississippi Museum of Art; the list goes on. We have two luncheons where a great deal of behind-the-scenes work takes place, where we all meet face to face. The hospital, as I mentioned earlier, also handles registration for all krewes. Their people are present bright and early on parade morning and check in participants in the lineup area. They also bring a large group of people to run the “city sweep,” which is maybe the most important part of the parade. The city sweep consists of vehicles, golf carts, radio vans, employees, volunteers, patients, Star Wars characters, and anyone else who wants to play, and leaves the lineup area 30 minutes before the parade starts. They pass the bucket for donations and sell t-shirts, just about anything to raise money. I encourage everyone to take an extra fiver or larger, to drop in the bucket; you can’t beat this cause. The hospital also manages the race, and they are the beneficiary of the event as well.

How is media involved in the development of the parade?

Media is mostly donated. The Clarion Ledger has been a corporate sponsor for many years, so Sherry Lucas always gets first shot at news stories. When they had more people working, they would take an active role in events. Now they really don’t have the personnel to do as much. Radio stations are given access to anything they want. We don’t actually buy radio time, but we welcome their involvement on whatever level they want. Most put vans or other vehicles in the parade or help with the city sweep. The Jackson Free Press always has extensive pre-parade coverage, and Portico Jackson usually has a green-themed issue in March. The local TV stations differ from year to year. Some years they are all over it, some years they don’t seem interested. I suspect that has to do with ever-changing news directors and reporters who aren’t familiar with the event. WAPT has recently been a sponsor for the Children’s Festival.

What lessons in human nature have you learned in your many years of working on the parade?

To be honest, I have had nothing but good experiences working on the parade. Everyone wants it to succeed and remain a part of Jackson’s culture. That includes the city of Jackson’s administration. Everyone comes to have fun, including the parade organizers. Anytime there is a crowd of forty or fifty thousand people in one location there are bound to be a few people misbehaving, but those types of problems seem to be minimal.

 

Chicken Manicotti

Poach bone-in chicken breasts with diced white onion and celery seasoned with salt and pepper. Remove skin and debone, place meat along with vegetables and one or two cloves of roast garlic in processor. Mix thoroughly, fluff with a fork and mix well with ricotta cheese and sour cream. Moisten with velouté sauce or stock and season with white pepper and thyme. Use mixture to fill cooked manicotti. Place stuffed pasta in a baking dish, top with Mornay. Bake until bubbling and browned.

 

Lou LaRose: Chef at Work

I’ve always enjoyed cooking and helping my mom or grandmom in the kitchen, whether it was making fried chicken or chocolate chip cookies or even tater tots. You’re still cooking. I got a job at the original Poet’s when I was really young, and it kind of went from there. I worked there for a couple of years and moved up quickly. It was pretty tough on somebody as young as I was; it was a bar scene. Obviously I felt there was more appeal to things other than washing dishes. I started bussing tables after washing dishes, then found out I was pretty good with a knife; I picked a knife up and started hacking on chicken, prepping it, trimming it, doing shrimp, and I got pretty fast at it, so that’s how I moved up into prep. I waited tables for a while, cooked, bar backed, did a little bit of everything. While I was at Poet’s, I worked at Sam’s Westside, which is where Broad Street is now. And then I worked at Mick & Mott’s, which used to be Jackson Bar & Grill, now La Cazuela’s. Then I went to work at Bravo!.

When I first started cooking, I didn’t realize you could buy knives out of a catalog, I didn’t realize there were “chefs”. I mean, I did, because I remember watching “Yan Can Cook” as a kid on television and loving that dude because he was awesome. I also watched “The Galloping Gourmet”. While I was working, I was learning. When I was at Poet’s, I didn’t know you had culinary schools and real knives, so I started to learn and pick up on it and began thinking I should learn what I could at one place and then move on to another. So I progressed through the restaurants around here and ended up at Bravo!.

I started out as a hot line cook my first night there and soon picked up a lot of shifts because I was always the guy who wanted to work more. I was always one of those guys out there working. I worked at Brick Oven for a while, because a guy I worked with at Bravo! worked there as well, and he told me they were short-handed and needed some help. I picked up a few morning shifts at Brick Oven while working nights at Bravo!. I didn’t work at Brick Oven too long because I wanted to devote myself more to Bravo!. I really enjoyed working in the Bravo! kitchen; its well-run, well-organized, and I got to learn a lot of things that I’d never had my hands on before, whether it was making pizzas or baking bread. I started doing things such as that right off the bat. After about the first year I was there, I was making the breads three mornings a week. It was when I went to work at Bravo! that I began to think my career path was leading to the restaurant business.

After a couple of years, I started looking at the culinary schools. I chose Johnson & Wales in North Miami. I knew I had to go to a place to work and earn income because I couldn’t go on full scholarship, I couldn’t go with all the money in the world, and I was going to have to get loans. I went through an advanced-standing program, which let me test in and get on with recommendations for having prior experience. By this point, which was 1997, I’d worked for five or six years in kitchens, so I was able to CLEP-out of the lesser classes, since they had a program for people with industry experience. This advanced program only required me to be there about a year and a half, but it was still a full culinary degree. I went every day, early morning to mid-afternoon, and then went to work at night. I worked at some really good places there. I worked at Mark’s Las Olas for Mark Militello, who was one of the bigger-named chefs in that area when I was there.

I’m a native to Jackson. I grew up here; my dad’s been a realtor here for almost forty years. I grew up on Whitworth Street, and have lived on Belhaven, Manship and Poplar Streets. I love the Belhaven neighborhood, the old houses, the feel of it, and it’s one of the most storied neighborhoods around as well. There’s a lot of appeal to that. I chose Jackson for my restaurant because there are simply more people here who would decide to go out to eat than there would be in a more remote location such as Madison, Ridgeland or Flowood. It’s a tougher sell outside of Jackson. For one thing, you don’t get the draw from outside people in Madison or other places that you do here in the city. Not as many people go out, and you just get your local crowd, but from what I’ve seen people from those areas are more inclined to come into Jackson to eat and then go back home.

When we first came in to this location, we liked the space and we liked the way it looked at night. I really liked the old black-and-white checkerboard floors, which are still here. We kept the ceiling grid, cleaned it and repainted it. I came in and had an idea about what I wanted, how I wanted it laid out, talked to my architects about it, and we ended up gutting the whole place, took it down to four walls. The only wall that was left standing was a four-foot section that had the electrical panels on it. Everything else is brand new.

I really didn’t put a lot of thought into the menu before we opened. I wrote a menu a long time ago and just sat on it. I had a couple of different ideas for what I wanted to do, and depending on the spot I got, I was going to do a different concept. If I’d gotten the place in Madison I was looking at, it would have been completely different. You don’t want to open up something too similar to something else; I wouldn’t open up a wood-fired kitchen here with my buddy Alex Eaton at The Manship up the street, even though I worked with the pizza oven at Bravo! and worked with one at Brick Oven. I wanted to incorporate that somewhere, but it would have been at a whole different end of the culinary spectrum: less of the Creole/French/American that I’m partial to as well, and more to the Mediterranean/Spanish/Italian. That may be one day or not, you never know. I’m content right here with this one place, trying to keep the doors open, keeping the business going and building a good name and reputation as these other chefs and restauranteurs are doing.

The dynamics of restaurants in big cities change a lot more than it does in Jackson, but I like it better here because a lot of restaurants have been around for a long time, which is my interest. You know, in a lot of these cities you have restaurants that change what they do and open up for a couple of years, then they’re happy closing down and opening up another restaurant. But I look at restaurants like Bravo! and Walker’s that have been around for twenty years or longer, and that’s where I want to be. Obviously you progress with the times and you change so you stay relevant. If you can. I don’t want to be one of those restaurants that are open for five or six years and then closes down and does something different. That’s really not what I want to do. The industry is a marathon, not a sprint. The work itself is a double marathon, but it is what it is. I want Lou’s Full-Serv in Belhaven to be relevant for more than a just few years. At the end of the day, what matters is treating customers right and putting a good, well-seasoned plate in front of them that they enjoy and want to come back for. That’s really as simple as it is.