Jim Hammond talks about the newly expanded 2019 Florida Day of the Dead Celebration at the Puppet Network's satellite studio in Fort Lauderdale. (Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel)
With all due respect to the thousands of shamrocked revelers who gather every March for an afternoon of Guinness and jigs, the annual parade that has come to define downtown Fort Lauderdale does not sport a green T-shirt that says “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.”
On Saturday night, the cool kids along the New River will be found in a black T-shirt that says, “Kiss Me, I’m Dead.”
Now in its 10th year, the Florida Day of the Dead Celebration returns to downtown on Nov. 2, Dia de los Muertos, with a joyful mix of family-friendly spookiness and existential spirituality presented in an expanded version to celebrate its first decade and growing popularity.
Two weeks ago, the Travel Channel put Fort Lauderdale’s festivities on its list of America’s Best Day of the Dead Celebrations. The praise joins previous Top 10 rankings in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Thrillist.com and the experiential travel magazine Afar.
“I think the reason why we’ve been getting some surprising accolades is because we maintain cultural authenticity, it’s run completely by the artists and this family-friendly experience is free,” says the event’s charismatic founder, Jim Hammond of the Puppet Network.
This year the free Florida Day of the Dead Celebration begins at 3 p.m. and stretches from Huizenga Plaza, across the street from NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, to Esplanade Park, facing the Museum of Discovery and Science and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The enlarged footprint adds vendors and entertainment stages, and means the signature Skeleton Processional of giant puppets, ersatz Frida Kahlos and Mexican wrestlers along the river will be nearly twice as long and create more space for spectators as the parade loops through Esplanade Park.
Led by Hammond and business-savvy partner Jeff John of Damn Good Hospitality, which operates the entertainment complex that includes Revolution Live, America’s Backyard and the coffee-and-cocktail lounge Stache, the festival includes events in multiple nearby locations offering traditional music and dance, pop-up ofrendas, sugar-skull face painting, puppet building and holiday vendors.
RELATED: Florida Day of the Dead 2019 ofrendas honor dead with colorful celebration of life »
The Skeleton Processional, with more than 80 large puppets on parade, begins at 5:30 p.m. in Huizenga Plaza with a welcome ceremony by Consul General of Mexico Jonathan Chait and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis. The parade culminates in an expanded, family-friendly 7 p.m. block party outside Revolution Live in the historic Himmarshee District. The parade is open to anyone who wants to dress up and join in.
The 2019 Florida Day of the Dead Celebration falls on a Saturday for just the second time in its existence, adding to the general exuberance among adults. Stache will offer music and a VIP tequila tasting at 3 p.m., and America’s Backyard will host radio station Y-100’s official Day of the Dead after party at 11 p.m. For more information, visit DayOfTheDeadFlorida.com.
A ticketed Night of the Dead party begins at 9 p.m. in Revolution Live, with performances by Grateful Dead interpreters Unlimited Devotion and Crazy Fingers. General-admission tickets at the box office cost $10 in advance, $15 on the day of the show. For more information, visit JoinTheRevolution.net.
Coco and Mufasa
Hammond is a showman, having spent nearly a decade as a puppet master in the touring production of the Broadway hit “The Lion King.” When he got off the road, the longtime Fort Lauderdale resident found a large group of local artists willing to work on the kind of community festival he grew up attending as a kid in rural upstate New York.
Creating something that was organic and authentic and true to Dia de los Muertos traditions has been the guiding principal for Hammond and his artists, especially so at a time when Mattel will sell you a Day of the Dead Barbie for $75.
The most noticeable new symbol of Florida Day of the Dead 2019 will be an 18-foot, rotating puppet dedicated to Mictēcacihuātl, goddess of the underworld in Aztec culture.
Saturday’s events will include mariachis and dancers from the Mexican-American Council in Homestead; folklorico troupes from Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru; Mexican dancing horses; and Cine de los Muertos, a film festival at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale and ArtServe. Sponsors include the Consulate General of Mexico, the Florida Mexican Festival and the Foundation of Mexican Art & Folklore.
Variations of Day of the Dead are not limited to Spanish-speaking countries: Hammond grew up around a Polish grandmother who introduced him to the All Souls’ Day tradition of Zaduszki, when families visit the graves of loved ones and cemeteries throughout Poland glow with lights. In Esplanade Park, you’ll find a showcase of Harvest Festival traditions seen in Europe that parallel Dia de los Muertos, including a Samhain Circle, featuring traditional Celtic and ancient European music.
The other fundamental element of Florida Day of the Dead is its appeal to children, especially those fearful of the loss of a loved one, similar terrain explored in the Disney film “Coco” and “The Lion King.”
“When I was working on ‘The Lion King,’ and I saw Mufasa die over 3,000 times in my career, I was very connected to the loss that I had when I was a child, losing my father,” Hammond says. “There’s this moment in ‘Lion King’ and in ‘Coco’ where you are able to reconnect with the spirit and the energy of the person that has passed, and what we realize is that they always live inside of you. … What [Day of the Dead] does is it gives them a celebration to not focus on the loss but to celebrate the life and the playfulness of life.”
Hammond was 13 when his father died from cancer that the family believes can be traced to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Hammond’s work on Day of the Dead has been given added resonance this year by his own battle with cancer. He declines to dwell on it, saying only that he is healthy now.
9th Annual Florida Day of the Dead Celebration
Thousands gather as the ninth annual Florida Day of the Dead Celebration winds its way along Riverwalk in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The procession lead to a family-friendly block party in Himmarshee Village where live music, food and craft vendors continued the festivities. Fort Lauderdale, FL. November 2, 2018. (Jim Rassol / South Florida Sun Sentinel). (Jim Rassol)
No to Las Olas
Fort Lauderdale’s most comparable parade and festival is its popular St. Patrick’s Day celebration, a boisterous, in-your-face afternoon party, with fire trucks, marching bands and Clydesdales passing thousands of spectators lined up along Las Olas Boulevard, downtown’s main stage for such signature events as Christmas on Las Olas and the Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon. As it crosses Andrews Avenue, the St. Pat’s parade closes two of downtown Fort Lauderdale’s main traffic arteries.
Hammond’s sundown Skeleton Processional is a more solemn brand of joy, with marchers wedging themselves onto a paved path along the river that does not afford much room for spectating. Instead of crossing Andrews Avenue, it squeezes under the bridge.
With the increasing national reputation of Florida Day of the Dead, a move to a more high-profile route on Las Olas Boulevard might seem like a logical next step. Hammond and partner Jeff John aren’t interested.
“The authenticity of this is never going to change. That is what we own. That’s what makes it real. That’s makes it cool. That’s what makes this thing honest. You can’t lose that,” John says.
Hammond and John say they have pointed conversations with sponsors about the cultural integrity of the event. Major sponsors such as Corona and Modelo find that certain areas of the festival are off limits to their advertising, especially where there is programming for children.
“I’m totally loving that we are able to bring in big sponsors to keep this event free, but when you brand every little corner, it feels like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I don’t want the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I don’t think that’s what Fort Lauderdale is,” Hammond says.
A move to Las Olas Boulevard, along with the cost of closing the street, might add an unwelcome formality to the event, Hammond says.
“The beauty of this parade is that I have no idea who is coming out. People work in their living rooms, in their garage, on these puppets and these costumes and they show up and I get goosebumps when I connect with them,” he says. “They are so focused and so proud of what they’re creating as individual artists in their living room. That, to me, is what’s cool, and that, to me, is what Fort Lauderdale is all about, and that is the reason I’m going to be doing this 10 years from now.”