KEY WEST -- Fantasy Fest’s grand marshal used to traverse the parade route waving from a convertible, at eye level with the drunken masses along Duval Street.
It wasn’t exactly a grand stage, especially in comparison to the 50-plus floats that followed. But that changed in 2004, when Red Barn Theatre set designer Gary McDonald did the float for that year’s grand marshal, Tom Oosterhoudt, a Key West commissioner who also owned the local magazine Conch Color.
“I wanted to do a parody on Lord of the Rings, so we called it ‘The Lord of the Wings,’ ” Oosterhoudt said. “I wanted to be on a large Pegasus. So Gary built me a huge white horse with wings. It was pretty spectacular, 15 feet tall, a monster.”
McDonald has been the creative force behind every grand marshal float since, except for 2010 when he was a judge for the float competition.
This week, he has been putting the finishing touches on his ninth grand marshal float, featuring a replica of the Key’s most photographed attraction: the Southernmost Point buoy.
It’s the perfect perch for this year’s grand marshal, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who made international headlines Sept. 2 when she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage.
The parade, sponsored by Captain Morgan and the main event during 10 days of debauchery, begins at 7 p.m. Saturday on Southard Street. It goes down Whitehead, cutting along Front, where it reaches the main masses for a nearly mile-long march down Duval. Past crowds have been estimated at 50,000, although about 30,000 is the norm.
Nyad said she’s delighted to participate as a way of giving back. “For the past four years in the summers, when I was there training and getting ready, the small, tight-knit community helped at the marinas, with boats, crews and catering services to lower the budget. They dove in to help me. I owe them.”
When Nyad was announced as grand marshal in late September, McDonald’s daughter, Amber McDonald Good, suggested the theme.
That’s why there is now a large black, red and yellow buoy — with a picture of a pink conch shell on it and the familiar lettering that states “90 Miles to Cuba” — sitting on the bed of the black pickup truck parked in McDonald’s driveway.
The real landmark is actually an old concrete sewer junction painted to look like a buoy.
McDonald, who will celebrate his 63rd birthday the day of the parade, has been building floats for Fantasy Fest since its first parade in 1979. His first had a Rocky Horror Picture Show theme. He also has designed and constructed the elaborate backgrounds for the Pretenders in Paradise costume competitions and Halloween facades for Hard Rock Café on Duval Street.
Some floats have been quite elaborate, like the one he did in 1997 for the Key West hotel and motel association when the theme was “TV Jeebies.” He created a Miami Vice scene on the bed of a tractor trailer, with a crushed Cadillac underneath a Mercedes, complete with cocaine spilling out of the trunk and a fallen telephone pole and streetlight. Fire and smoke came out of the cars for dramatic flair.
“I think he got the crushed cars from Arnold’s Towing,” recalled his son, Jack McDonald, who was about 12 at the time. “My dad would be the director on top yelling ‘Action,’ and guys would come out of the cars and have a gunfight. My job was to play a little kid on the side, hiding behind a mailbox. It was pretty cool.”
On the day Jack was born, 28 years ago, Gary McDonald won the grand float prize for a creation he did for Sloppy Joe’s Bar called “Frankie Goes to Broadway.” Frankie was Frankenstein.
McDonald eventually came to realize that despite all the effort that went into the parade productions, what the crowds wanted most was a “two-cent strings of beads. It was frustrating.”
So he created a shiny float that started with Spice Girls singing and looking pretty. Then McDonald would announce that he knew what the crowd really wanted and everything would fold in and become a big rusty box that said “Attack of the Killer Beads.”
Jack and his middle school friends were dressed as bees and jumped up with spring-loaded bazookas that shot beads into the crowds.
“We started playing Flight of the Bumblebee, the Ventures’ version,” Gary McDonald said. “It had a lot of heavy drum. Then the whole thing would fold back up and the girls would start entertaining again.”
It hasn’t been all fun for McDonald. There was the time a drunk guy punched him twice while he was on a float playing drums.
“I remember he had blond hair and nice teeth and started breaking up the set,” McDonald said. “I said, ‘Hey, and tapped him on the shoulder with my drumstick. … He punched me in the head. I’m still playing “ Won’t You Let Me Take You on a Sea Cruise” and he gets mad and threatens to kill me.”
Fantasy Fest’s grand marshals have been local celebrities — like Capt. Tony Tarracino and Fast Buck Freddie’s founder Tony Falcone — and also national ones, including Jimmy Buffett, Kelly McGillis ( Top Gun), Daisy Fuentes (MTV’s first Latina VJ) and Bridget Marquardt (Playboy centerfold and former Hugh Hefner girlfriend).
In 2009, McDonald created the grand marshal float for Marquardt, fashioning a cemetery to go with the theme: “Villains, Vixens and Vampires.”
“She came with her boyfriend and a couple of her friends that decorated the float just fine,” McDonald said.
The Market Share Company, which runs Fantasy Fest, provides a budget for McDonald to create the grand marshal float. He and his helpers mostly donate their time.
Fantasy Fest director Linda O’Brien said she is fortunate to have McDonald’s creative talents: “We always look forward to whatever whimsical creation he comes up with.”
For many of the floats, Gary McDonald and his two kids have dressed up as part of the entourage. Gary says he does so primarily so he can make sure the sound and light systems, as well as all props, work throughout the parade.
This time, he may drive the truck. Amber and Jack plan to go as jellyfish.
Part of their job is to throw out the 10,000 or so strings of beads that will be stuffed in the bed of the truck, under the platform that holds up the buoy.
Nyad isn’t sure how she will dress. Originally, someone had suggested she go as Wonder Woman for the festival themed: “Super Heroes, Villains ... & Beyond.”
“I said: ‘Wonder Woman was the least feminist, with the big boobs,’ ” Nyad said. “I can’t relate to Wonder Woman. Why not make me Aquawoman? I don’t even know what Aquawoman looks like, but that sounds like a good idea.”