"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
I love crazy like Oprah loves bread. And for weeks, there's only been one thing on my mind: meeting the living embodiment of insanity that is Gary Busey at the First Ever 13th Annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade in Hot Springs.
Yes, the procession is every bit as zany as its name. Back in 2003, when Steve Arrison, CEO of Hot Springs' Convention and Visitors' Bureau, was imbibing some adult beverages with a group of friends at a German pub at Spencer's Corner, the subject arose that Hot Springs was woefully lacking in that it had no St. Patrick's Day Parade. Arrison recalled that "Ripley's Believe It or Not" had declared nearby Bridge Street the world's shortest street in everyday use, and so the idea of the World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade was born.
But that's not the only tradition that pervades this peculiar parade. Every year you can just about count on green Irish wolfhounds, marching Irish Elvis impersonators, and, since George Wendt filled the role in 2005, a Celebrity Grand Marshal.
But this year — ah, the leprechauns must be smiling at me! — we were granted more than a mere single Celebrity Grand Marshal. This year, we got three celebrities: the Grand Marshals were the Bacon Brothers — Michael and Kevin — and the Official Starter of the parade was none other than actor, musician, pitchman and Hollywood mystic Gary Busey. Busey's reputation precedes both him and Kevin Bacon, and, quite probably, all 10 of the previous World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade's Celebrity Grand Marshals combined. With Ruth Carney, the mayor of Hot Springs, so clearly being off her rocker (in 2011 she "joked" about getting snipers to "eliminate some of the tourists" and just last week quoted Hitler when questioning previous parade attendance figures), my cray-dar was beeping like an FCC-censored broadcast of an unscripted Busey rant.
Busey was specifically chosen because, as Arrison says, "He sort of fits the parade. He's zany. Quirky." When I ask how I can meet up with Busey — or at least Arrison — Arrison tells me he will be near the stage in the mid-afternoon, or at the Blarney Stone for the Kissing Contest at 4:30 p.m. Sounds to me like a place Busey would be.
I leave for Hot Springs about noon to make sure I have a decent place to park. On my way into town, I follow a 16-wheeler with a decal showing Jesus to the left and sin to the right, and sure enough, we eventually have to part ways, it headed to the left and me headed to the right. My radio plays "Hotel California," and my mind begins to form questions like Are Gary Busey's teeth really THAT big? And What will he say to kick off the parade? And No really, how could his teeth possibly be that big?
After I arrive, I amble down to the far end of Bridge Street, where the stage for the Bacon Brothers has been set up. Kevin is actually onstage for the sound check, and a small crowd of 33 (I do a quick head count in fear of getting the number wrong and facing the wrath of the Hitler-quoting mayor) has gathered in front of the stage. But Kevin is just up there, tuning his guitar, singing into his microphone, acting like a musician. This is so not what I came for.
The nearby side streets are not yet blocked off, and with every black Cadillac-y SUV with tinted windows that drives by, my eyebrows raise and my calves tense. Could Busey be inside? If I could find Arrison, maybe he could set me up with some one-on-one time.
I head to a nearby merchandise tent, where I could buy leg-warmers, crowns festooned with shiny shamrocks, or neon green shirts that proclaim, "Even a parade is better with Bacon." The real attraction here, though, is the exclusive Busey-ism that Gary himself concocted for today: I.R.I.S.H., to the man with the teeth, means, "INDEPENDENT. ROWDY. INDOMITABLY. SPIRITED. HUMANS." This is printed on a shirt.
A lady in a green feather boa guides me back to the stage where I run into Arrison. Dressed in a windbreaker and ball cap, Arrison is the least outlandishly dressed person here. He instructs his assistant to issue me a press pass, and directs me to Transportation Plaza, the staging area for the parade.
"Do you think everybody's there?" I ask, with only one body in mind.
"It's just 40 minutes before the parade, so I'd think so," he says, and that's all I need. I hoof it like the Clydesdales Arrison's trying to secure for next year's parade.
On the way, I see a tottering, white-haired guy, but as he's not talking to himself, I figure it's not Busey. At a clearly roped-off area behind which begins a long line of parade entries, a nice lady in an orange security shirt stands with a clipboard. Her name is Leslie.
"There's 43 floats this year," she tells me. "You're welcome to go in."
So I do. And I see the Marching Irish Elvises; I see Robin Hood-looking characters and the Wednesday Night Poetry folks and the Arkansas Department of Correction float with its X-wing fighter. But where is Gary Busey?
I make it to the final float, number 43 — the Fun City Irish Chorus — and they are singing a lovely four-part harmony rendition of "Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah," when I see it: a trailer off on its own, about 50 feet away. From afar, I see a rainbow arching over a seat, clearly made for a VIP. On the rainbow is written, in white block letters, STARTER. I head over, and a delightful child is dressed as a leprechaun, just poised to throw candy or necklaces or some such gratuities.
"Is this your first time in the parade?" I ask him.
"Nope," he said. "But it's my first time as a leprechaun."
"Do you always walk with the Starter?" I ask.
His mom approaches. "With Startek," she clarifies. "Yes. He always works with Startek."
Oh, how the hopes can affect the eyes! This is not Gary Busey at all. I return to the orange-shirted Leslie, and ask her if she happens to have any insider info on Busey's whereabouts.
"No," she says and sighs. "I mean, he's not in the car, right?" And she gestures directly to her right.
"No," I say and sigh, as if I know. I follow that arm gesture up one short block and there is the official starter car for the First Ever 13th Annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade. It's plastered on a magnet right on the side.
At 5:55 p.m. — with a parade start time of 6:30 and a rumored launch from this point of 6:10 — Busey has still not shown. I'm beginning to wonder if my waiting here will cause me to miss the parade when none other than the former First Bubba, Roger Clinton, walks up and starts to wait with the small crowd that has gathered around the starting car. At 6:18, word circulates through our little group that Busey has just woken up back at his hotel room. At 6:21, Busey arrives in a black Chevy Suburban with tinted windows and Roger Clinton says in my general direction, "They say he's having a panic attack."
But he exits his Suburban clad in khaki pants, navy windbreaker, his hair a tornado, and fist-pumps to the crowd. He gets in the convertible quickly and, already significantly late, takes off to drunken cries of "Busey!" Standing in the remaining exhaust fumes, one particularly inebriated fairy maiden in shamrock tights and glitter wings mumbles, "He acknowledged me."
I walk — not all that quickly — to the parade route, and beat the entire procession by a good five minutes. The parade starts late indeed. Gary delivers a coherent, uninteresting speech, fires an almost inaudible starter pistol, and walks the 98 feet of Bridge Street instead of riding in his specially chosen convertible. At the end of the route, he climbs back into the car next to his pretty blonde wife, and they ride another four or five blocks down connecting Malvern Avenue, throwing thick green beaded necklaces to the crowd. I follow them, picking up the necklaces he and his wife aren't able to throw far enough to reach past the parade barriers.
At the end of the barriers, Busey and his wife get out of the convertible and head for the suburban. His wife smiles at me, but Busey doesn't look at me once. I wonder if it's too late to score some time with the Bacons, and I head back to the parade.
Walking through the parade backward, I pass Irish belly dancers and see that the Irish Elvis impersonators have put up a sign proclaiming "Elvis for Mayor." It starts to rain. No one leaves. There are thousands, I dare say, in this crowd, and every one of them must be at least a little bit insane to stand in this weather for this lunacy.
Busey may have brought the most anticipated crazy to the table, but today, it wasn't the actual best. It turns out that on this most ridiculous of days, the Busey spirit really resides in the lady in the green feather boa, in the drunk fairy, in partially Irish store-bought redheaded me. And even though I'd like to say that the mayor is the craziest of all, I am forced to confront the inalienable truth that the insanity of Busey really lives in each and every one of us, just waiting for the right occasion to rear its smiling face.
And for the record? Yes, his teeth really are that big.