The Old Port Festival parade officially kicked off the annual street fair at 11 a.m. Sunday with a madcap 20-minute romp down Exchange Street in Portland.

But the parade actually began days and weeks before as Nance Parker, official parade director, started planning for her Shoestring Theater’s annual festival appearance.

The parade is one of the signature events of the 42-year-old festival, which drew thousands of people into the Old Port on Sunday to hear bands play on six stages set up around the business district, dine on street food and take a spin on an amusement ride. The festival dates to when the Old Port was transformed in the 1970s from a district of seedy bars and derelict buildings into a thriving commercial area known for its brick facades, cobblestone streets and high-end boutiques.

Parker, 58, has been marching in the parade since its early days, first as a member of the Shoestring Theater and then as its director. A Portland native, Parker has lived in the city her entire life, except for a few years studying puppetry in Europe.

Founded by Michael Romanshyn in 1978, the Shoestring Theater is an offshoot of the Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically oriented puppet theater founded in New York in the 1960s and now based in Glover, Vermont. When Romanshyn decided to close the Shoestring in 1982, he handed the keys to Parker, who has been running it ever since.

The Shoestring operates on the third floor of 155 Brackett St., across from Reiche Elementary School. Parker lives four doors down. A frequent substitute teacher at Reiche, Parker is considered an institution by her West End neighbors.

“Nance is the prize of the West End,” said Rion Hergenhan, parade music director.

While work on the parade puppets takes place throughout the year, the parade planning shifts into high gear the day before, when Parker puts up a sign asking for neighborhood volunteers.

“Saturday is a neighborhood ritual. It’s put-the-parade-together day,” Parker said.

About 30 or so people showed up Sunday to put finishing touches on the dozens of towering street puppets, trunks of costumes and hats, and boxes of music-makers before hauling them down three flights on a fire escape to load into two trucks.

“She instills a sense of confidence in everyone,” Melissa Knoll, a neighborhood volunteer, said of Parker.

Then at 9 a.m. Sunday the parade before the parade began. Dressed in a flowing skirt and yellow vest covered with safety pins for last-minute costume adjustments, Parker started issuing orders to her volunteers.

“The horse does not take potholes very well. Those back tails on the dragons swing like crazy. And watch out for the wind,” said Parker.


The group slowly made the half-hour trip on foot, pushing and pulling the puppets down Brackett Street to Spring Street to their staging area on Federal Street. Motorists waved. Pedestrians smiled.

Parker led the way while reminiscing about the parade’s early years, when the Old Port Festival was a three-day beer bash and the parade included firetrucks, baton twirlers and other traditional features.

“Those were wild and woolly days,” said Parker.

Since then the festival has been pared down to a sleek one-day affair with a parade made up largely of the Shoestring String Theater and as many draftees as Parker can draw from the crowds gathering in the streets to bring their ranks up to 60 or so performers.

With an hour to go before showtime Sunday, Parker moved quickly back and forth, shouting orders and assigning puppets.

“I need a pair of white pants. I need more people. This is panic time,” said Parker.

Parker pulled Greg Cassella, who graduated from Portland High School this month, off the street and persuaded him to pedal one of the two dragon puppets.

“I was probably asleep five minutes ago,” said Cassella, texting his friends to tell them of the latest development.

“None of them are awake yet,” said Cassella.

Slowly the parade took shape. Marchers heaved on their puppet heads. The drummers warmed up. Parker’s assistant, Greg Frangoulis, jumped on his stilts.

Parker barked out last-minute instructions, showed the marchers how to dance and warned them to save their energy for the parade.

“And remember, small children and dogs will be afraid of you so don’t get too close. And have a really good time,” she added.

At 11 a.m. sharp everyone was in place and it was time to go.

“You guys ready? Should we start a parade?” shouted Parker.

Parker gave her bugle a few opening toots and the parade exploded down Exchange Street.