A few years ago, San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, ran the film Picnic. I was lucky enough to be in town when it was playing and I went to see it with my friends, Michael and Kim. The Castro is a gorgeous old theatre on Castro street, smack dab in the middle of the Castro, San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood. I’d obviously seen the movie a few times before, but I’d never watched it with two hundred gay men and their straight girlfriends and I listened to it for the first time through the filter of my people. I’ll never forget the shrieks of laughter that occurred when Rosalind Russell came to the window, her face covered in cold cream, and pondered, “Anyone mind if an old maid school teacher joins their company?” But the thing that touched me the most was the pride I felt when Kim Novak sailed down the river, the newly crowned Queen Neelah, and the townsfolk called out to her, “Nee-woll-ah, Nee-woll-ah.” And while the Neewollahs of my own youth did not include the queen riding down the Verdigris River on a candlelit float (that’s not safe!), it did remind me of the many, many Neewollahs that I’ve enjoyed since I was knee high to a grasshopper.
It doesn’t matter, where I am: when this week, Neewollah week, rolls around, I keep an ongoing timeline of what is happening back home. Last night as I was driving home, I wondered who the new Queen Neelah was going to be, even though I’m sure I did not even know any of the candidates. This morning I thought about how today is probably the first day of the rides at the carnival. Also, it used to be that today was the first day of the food vendors. I can taste the jaffles and apple fritters even still. Friday afternoon, I’ll be thinking about the Kiddie parade, where one year I went as an astronaut (Dr. Ryan Stone?) and the next year, I wore a frog mask and the same astronaut costume and went as the Martian who killed said astronaut and stole his ensemble. On Saturday, when I am at work, believe me, I will wish that I am at the aptly named, Grand Parade, running into old friends and feasting on barbecue and cinnamon rolls, and sneaking in another jaffle.
I haven’t been to Neewollah for about 15 years now. That seems unbelievable, but it’s true. The last time I went, my Dad had just recovered from his first bout with cancer and I remember it felt like we had something to celebrate when we went to the Parade. We did. The Grand Parade is for many of us who grew up in Independence, a holiday like Christmas and New Years that marks the passage of time.
I’ve travelled a certain amount and I’ve lived in a few large cities. I used to live in New York and I never went to the Macy’s Parade. I live miles away from where the Rose Parade takes place every year and I’ve never gone to that either. I guess you could say that Neewollah spoiled me on parades, when you’ve grown up with the best, you have no interest in lesser versions.
I’m 45 now, at an age where I’m realizing that few things I experience will resonate in the way the memories of my youth do. The scariest Magic Mountain roller coaster will never compare to the Tilt-a-Whirl, Yo-Yo Ma will always be second fiddle to Jana Jae. No brush with celebrity compares to the time HBO came to film a concert with Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard and we all thought it was going to make us famous. The prettiest beauty queens will always be Gail Moore and Jeannine Bailey and Missy Housel and Shelly Nelson and Kara Woods. And of course, the most exquisite, sophisticated, delicious, exotic food will always be the jaffle.
Once again — you’ve nailed it! I’ve been to Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and I’ve been to Tournament of Roses — NOTHING compares to the Neewollah Grand Parade — with The Hille Bandwagon as the last entry — Thanks for saying all of those thoughts running through my mind… except Lisa Swearingen will always be Queen Neelah in my world.
Yes Neewollah is in full swing! I thought I would pass this year but will probably give in and go to the Grand Parade. Last year your dad couldn’t eat but went and bought Cinnamon rolls. This is like a tradition for us. We sealed them and waiting for the day we can eat them. We dropped the tradition today. But there is hope we will be able to eat the frozen ones before next Neewollah
I so enjoy reading all of your stories, Ray. I read your Kim Novak one as well and it was fabulous! Thanks for sharing so much of your love for our hometown and Neewollah. You are such a good writer and I can relate to so many things you share in your work. I will think of you when I am there this weekend and will be wishing you were there too. xoxo
Yo-Yo Ma second fidde? That is blasphemy in my book! 😉 I love your post, it almost makes me feel like I’m there.
Ray thank you for that poignant article. Neewollah symbolizes all that is right in a small time. The food, parades, rides, friendship and fun all of us from Independence will forever remember. I am excited to go home today for the weekend. And will miss those of you who are too far to come. I will have a jaffle in your honor Ray! Shelly