S.F Chinese New Year Parade: The View from the Broadcast Tent
An R rating for the Chinese New Year Parade broadcast? Thats what raced through my mind when we saw the topless dancer on the Forbidden City float. Ben reminisces this week, as he gets ready to co-host live telecast of the largest Chinese New Year Parade in the western hemisphere.
An R rating for the Chinese New Year Parade broadcast? That is what raced through my mind when we saw the topless dancer on the Forbidden City float.
She was partly hidden by fellow dancers holding feathered fans, and when she turned around, she cupped her hands around what needed to be cupped, so she showed no more than, say, Janet Jackson or any Real Housewife.
Still, it was the Chinese New Year Parade, a beloved tradition and the most-watched parade on the West Coast, next to the Rose Parade. Performers, whether on floats or on the streets, are not supposed to show up naked.
They are also not supposed to do a lot of other things they have done, but surprises are part of the deal, and one of the reasons I look forward to it every year.
It has been a full lunar cycle, of 12 years, plus change, for me. This is my 14th year describing the parade.
I have had three co-hosts, three Emmys (all won with Julie Haener, who has been co-anchor since 2001), four directors (including Jim Haman, now the executive producer and producer), at least a half-dozen writers, and more rain, politicians and firecrackers than I can count.
It all began with a phone call in late 1996. KTVU was making a change with the parade broadcast, which, for years, had been hosted by Steve McPartlin and a parade of former Miss Chinatowns. Rosy Chu, the station's public affairs director, suggested me as part of the new team, and I was soon paired with Elaine Corral, co-anchor of the evening news with Dennis Richmond.
Just before our debut, in February 1997, Corral, the seasoned anchor, told me: This is not going to be fun. To the audience, it may look like it, but we are going to be working.
She was not lying. Just before we went on, our monitors - our way of seeing the parade - went on the fritz. They were fixed nine minutes before we hit the air.
Moments later, I would learn a truth about parade commentating: The script is no match for reality. No matter the blood, sweat and tears of parade organizers and on-the-street coordinators, participants show up out of order, or not at all.
They overstay their welcome in front of the cameras. Bands do not play when they are supposed to. As we fall behind schedule, the producer (Haman, the voice in our headsets) slashes and burns contingent after contingent from the broadcast. Just as we are about to read something, one of our production assistants rips the page out of our binders and hands us something else. Read, already! And sound relaxed and happy.
Through the years, with Corral, Thuy Vu (1999 and 2000), and, finally Haener, we have managed to do just that.
Up there in that cramped tent, with chaos all around us, set to a soundtrack of relentless firecracker explosions, and, sometimes, lashed by rain and winds, we weather the zigs and zags that come with a live, two-hour broadcast of a parade involving 130 units (selected from several thousand applicants each year).
And we sound like nothing is wrong at all. Viewers will say, You guys sounded like you were having fun. That, as Jon Lovitz used to say on Saturday Night Live, in his guise as The Master Thespian, is ACTING!
From my notes over the years, in the form of post-parade reports on AsianConnections.com, here are some low- and highlights.
1999: Thuy Vu and I make up an all-Asian anchor team. Nice. I celebrate by videotaping a performance of Elvis Presley's Treat Me Nice, with customized lyrics (But if you dont behave, I will sic Thuy Vu on you). She is moved. Keep your day job, she advises.
2001: Haener makes her debut and is welcomed by the topless dancer. She was on a float, sponsored, by the way, by The Chronicle, paying tribute to the Forbidden City, the pioneer nightclub, opened in 1938, that featured all Asian entertainers: singers, showgirls, dancers and comics. A star strip-teaser was known as the Bubble Girl.
Atop a mammoth float, members of Reincarnation, a local swing dance club, do the jitterbug while young women in Chinese gowns re-enact a stage show. And that is where the Bubble Girl pops out.
Oh, my, Julie exclaims. Good thing it is a warm night! Warm? It was hot!
2002: Our broadcast tent is in Union Square, which, this past year, has been going through a major renovation. The parade route had to be altered. The result: numerous mix-ups, jams and delays.
The Stanford Marching Band showed up so late they wound up following the grand finale, the 201-foot golden dragon, and missed the broadcast. But it was the first time I had ever seen the great dragon being chased by a tree.
We faced one crisis after another. In this, the year of the horse, it was wild horses all the way. But, once again, it came out looking smooth, thanks to Julie. Whenever I ran out of words, she would step in, cheerfully describing the weather, the scenery, the families in the bleachers, until we got back on track.
We are a good team: She is unflappable; I am prepared. Each year, I compile a stack of index cards loaded with facts and trivia about Chinese New Year, rituals, and animal signs (did you know that both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are dogs? Well, we knew one of them was!).
Whenever I sensed a lag coming on, I would pore over the cards and have some ready for Julie or me to use. By nights end, we had played all the cards.
For all that, it was a blast. Besides all my favorite regulars, like the St. Marys Chinese Girls Drum and Bell Corps, and its drill team, there was Martin Yan, the TV chef, cruising by in a convertible, talking through his own sound system to the cheering crowd. He spotted me and started shouting, Ben! Ben! as if I were a rare and prized ingredient.
2004: Smooth sailing in beautiful weather as we bring in the year of the monkey. I enjoyed seeing evidence of the continuing rise of Asian women to political power in San Francisco, including Supervisor Fiona Ma, Assessor Mabel Teng, District Attorney Kamala Harris, and Acting Police Chief Heather Fong.
2006: After this one, I get an e-mail from a friend, Gail Katagiri: The best part of watching you anchor this year's parade was after the broadcast had ended, and you and Julie disappeared from the screen. But I think your mike was still on, because I heard someone's voice (it sounded like you) exclaim, Oh, man!
Lucky me. It could well have been another word. On this one, we had audio problems that cut our director out of our headsets, so we got directions, mainly by hand signals from our PAs. And we went 30 minutes over. Oh, man to say the least.
2007: Julie is on the conservative side, so it is fun hearing her, at the first run-through of the script, saying loin dancers instead of lion dancers.
2008: The year of the big storm. At least that is what the meteorologists were predicting. San Francisco would be drenched on the weekend of the parade.
Expect traffic accidents and blackouts, they said. The parade, one warned, was a target; the winds and rain were likely to shred floats and knock stiltwalkers down to earth.
Various scheduled participants, especially those from out of town, dropped out; others covered their costumes and gear under clear plastic. Across Geary, the bleacher seats were largely vacant. A lot of people bought tickets and never showed up.
Well, neither did the storm; just on-and-off rain. Some marchers doffed their plastic, and Miss Chinatown USA and her court floated up the street, beautiful, beaming and dry.
On Monday, KTVU execs were also beaming. Jim Haman said the broadcast had topped the ratings in both hours (6 to 8 p.m.). We had all done a good job.
But the weather forecasters had done a spectacular job, scaring people into staying home and watching us on TV.
Gung Hay Fat Choy, indeed.
Turn on KTVU Fox 2 to watch Ben and his co-host Julie Haener broadcast live from the Southwest Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco Saturday, February 27, 2010 at 6:00 - 8:00 pm Pacific Standard Time (PST).