Carola Lillie Hartley
As we get ready to celebrate Christmas in 2021, and with the annual Christmas parade about ready to roll, I was thinking back to a past holiday season – Christmas of 1972.
In 1972 I was working as the executive secretary of the Greater Opelousas Chamber of Commerce. Huey Bourque, a great boss and a good friend, was the chamber’s Executive Director. The chamber at that time had a committee called the Retail Merchants Association, run almost like a separate organization of downtown merchants. One of my job responsibilities was to work with this committee, helping to plan promotions and in many other ways. That year as the group began planning events for the holiday season, I mention why not bring back the Christmas Parade to Opelousas. You see the Christmas Parade in town had lost support, so much so that there was no parade support in Opelousas in 1971. So, the chamber and the merchants decided to do something about that. They decided to get really involved in having a great Christmas Parade for the town. And they sure did that!
The group contacted the local Jaycee organization and asked if they would help with the parade. When they agreed, the name of the parade became the Jaycees Children’s Christmas Parade, sponsored by the Opelousas Retail Merchants of the Chamber of Commerce. The Merchants put money into the parade, and the Jaycees helped to organize and run it.
Since I was a member of the local Jaycee Jaynes organization and also an employee of the chamber, the group appointed me to co-chair the parade committee along with Jim Foti, who was with the Jaycees. We immediately went to work, and in just a little over two months were able to produce what was at that time called one of the biggest Christmas Parades in Opelousas.
The parade had 1,000 participants including many local and area celebrities. Rodney Milburn, Buckskin Bill, Polycarp, Big Bird and the Cookie Monster were just a few. I remember two local women, who were friends of mine, helped so much that year. Maxine Morgan, a member of the Jaycee Jaynes, made the Cookie Monster costume and Yvonne Brunner, the secretary for the Yambilee Association, made the Big Bird costume. Those fantastic costumes were a big hit in the parade and were used over and over for many years in the community.
The parade date was set for Monday, November 27, 1972. Originally it was scheduled to be on Thanksgiving Day. But when we started to get folks involved, and especially those celebrities from out of town, we discovered Thanksgiving was not a good time to hold a parade since many people had other plans for that day. So, to get more participation, we changed the date to that Monday after Thanksgiving, and made it an evening parade.
It took a lot of people in Opelousas working TOGETHER to make that parade happen. Civic clubs, schools, churches and even groups from area towns got involved in this parade. Opelousas businesses gave their support to this effort as well. Many of the local business ads in the Daily World reminded people of the parade, especially during the week leading up to its start. Other organizations showed up on parade day and helped with floats and organization. It was a great community effort. And there was a great turnout. Opelousas officials estimated over 30,000 people attended.
The parade rolled down Main Street, starting at St. Landry Church, turned onto Landry Street and continued to Liberty Street where it was disbanded. There was also a pre-parade ceremony, with Mayor Wilfred Cortez lighting the downtown Christmas decorations. And post parade activities with Santa Clause were held on the grounds of the St. Landry Parish Courthouse Square.
A special part of the parade was a float contest for local and area schools, churches and organizations. Many “homemade floats” entered the parade, judged by area TV personalities from Lafayette, Alexandria and Baton Rouge. That was a great success, with East Junior High School winning first place prize of $100.00; American Legion Post 514 won second place prize of $75.00, and Opelousas Senior High School Future Teachers of America won the third-place prize of $25.00. Vernon Schiff, chairman of the Retail Merchants Association, presented the checks to the winners at a ceremony held a few days later.
When the parade ended one of my jobs was to entertain of the out-of-town celebrities. I took them to Didee’s Restaurant on Market Street for dinner. I don’t remember everyone who attended that dinner, but I do remember Buckskin Bill of Baton Rouge being there as well as some of the Alexandria and Lafayette TV personalities who were parade judges for the homemade floats.
It is hard to believe that parade was 49 years ago. Seems like just yesterday. The parade continued as the Jaycees Children’s Christmas Parade, with the chamber and Jaycees working together for many years while there was a local Jaycee Chapter. My friend Lee Taylor worked on that parade with the Jaycees and the chamber for years and did a wonderful job of keeping it going. The parade continues today as the Opelousas Children’s Christmas Parade, now sponsored by the city. It is scheduled to roll through town this Thursday, December 9, 2021, at 6PM.
That’s my memory of a Christmas past in old Opelousas. How about sharing your Christmas memories with us? Send them to me at Carola@StLandryThenAndNow.com.
Have a very Merry Christmas!