Bond Parade Floats
Grounded by the Coronavirus Disease Pandemic, the Hull of the New York City’s Pride Parade Awaits an Opportunity to Float Again
Photo credit: iStock Photography; Heritage of Pride, lead float of NYC Pride March created by Bond Parade Floats (2017).
Fifth Avenue this time of year is raucous. Between the boom of loudspeakers and the chorus of two million, gyrating bodies covered in confetti and every conceivable color of the rainbow, you would hardly be able to hear yourself. It’s no longer the place for 6-inch-heeled leather platform boots, fishnet stockings, neon pum-pum shorts, or a reveler doing a split in all three. At least, not this month. The coronavirus disease pandemic has reefed this year’s New York City Pride Parade celebrations, leaving only chirping birds to carry on with the pomp and circumstance. With a ban on gatherings greater than 10 people in all of New York State, the city’s 50th Pride anniversary has gone virtual to the dismay of spectators, corporate sponsors and many contractors.
Considered a lynchpin of the event, operators like Bond Parade Floats, located in Clifton, New Jersey, have been a fixture since the very first Pride parade and help make the event equal parts ceremonious and bombastic. But with shelter-in-place policies still in force and no physical Pride events this year, it’s made the past few months and especially Pride month less than celebratory for the 77-year-old float building company. While virtual pride celebrations may bring the community together on their televisions, laptops and phones, it still won’t be a parade. There won’t be the same kind of atmosphere, excitement and romp. In short, there will be no float. At least not the kind that makes a parade more than a ramble, keeping quarantined spirits aloft, afloat.
If you’ve ever been to a Pride parade in the last 50 years, chances are you’ve seen one of Bond Parade’s amazing floats. In fact, if you’ve been to any parade in the New York Tri-State area, Boston and Washington, D.C., then you’re more than likely to have happened upon one. Currently owned by the father/son duo of Robert DeVito, Snr. (69) and Jr. (38), Bond Parade Floats is the largest purveyor of floats on the east coast with a fleet of 55. They are the chariot of choice for championship parades for the Yankees, the Giants, and the Women’s World Cup; they ferry dignitaries on more auspicious occasions like July 4th and Columbus Day; they help freight the city’s diverse ethnic partygoers from St. Patrick’s Day to the Puerto Rican Day parade. And they’ve even shuttled astronaut John Glenn. The only parade they don’t do is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which is under sole stewardship of the department store titan.
Photo credit: Robert DeVito, Jr.; Guilbert Bond “Bondwagon” from the 1940s.
Established in 1943, Bond Parade Floats was the idea of Canadian sign artist, Guilbert Bond, who at the height of World War II sold war bonds from his infamous “Bondwagon” at celebrity rallies in Times Square. Rudolph Ehrlich, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, later bought the company in 1964, as America saw waves of new ethnic groups migrate in search of a better life. This rush of newcomers from all parts of the world brought along with it a slew of new hyphenated American-named parade celebrations that we recognize today. It was during this time that Robert DeVito, Snr. assumed ownership from Ehrlich in 1983. “I went to work for him as an artist and within one year I was his foreman,” said DeVito, Snr. who describes himself as a hustler, “Seven years later I bought him out.”
DeVito, Snr.’s first hustle was painting the Vardo wagons of his family’s touring Carnival business back in the 60s. He said he grew up in the Carnival, which belonged to his great grandfather and grandmother whom he described as Gypsies that had moved here from Calabria, Italy. DeVito, Snr. then went to William Paterson College in New Jersey to refine his craft, where he got a degree in sculpting and a teaching certificate. His son, DeVito, Jr., who had been involved with the float company since he himself was 10 years old, would later pursue his Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design at the same institution. It’s as if the business of joy making and spectacle has been passed along through the generations like their last name.
Like many other small businesses, operations at Bond Parade have ground to a halt. Since the stay-at-home guidelines went into effect, the DeVitos have had to cancel everything since the St. Patrick’s Day parade in March. “When this all first started happening,” said DeVito, Jr., “my father and I spoke and we both agreed this is not good for us. Think about it, all the people gathered.”
Although this hasn’t been the first time they’ve had to shut down, DeVito, Jr. feels a bit uneasy, “It's just so different from 9/11 where you knew it’s just a matter of time before it came back. This is just so much of the unknown.”
Already, they’ve had to cancel three of the four weeks of parades typically celebrated for St. Patrick’s Day in March, the Memorial Day parade in May, and the Puerto Rican Day and Pride parades in June—their biggest month. As well, the various small-town parades of which you may not know. Among all the parades, Pride has become the single largest draw and the most financially rewarding. From three floats in 1970, that DeVito, Snr. built and decorated, he has seen Pride grow from an event that only queer people would attend to today’s version, which many consider an over-commercialized celebration, involving people of every sexual orientation, every race, and every creed. For WorldPride last year, four million people from across the globe descended on New York for the longest Pride procession (in quite possibly the history of parades) that took 150-something floats till nearly midnight to complete the full route. Bond Parade’s floats carried a third of those passengers and they are always the lead float every year ridden by Heritage of Pride—the organizers of the march. Coming off such a high, it’s understandable why the shutdown hasn’t quite left the DeVitos in a party mood. Their losses so far amount to roughly 50% of the revenue they would typically make in a year and forced them to furlough the 12 workers they employ full-time. Luckily, the workers were able to obtain unemployment benefits.
On top of the street rules regarding the pandemic, New York City and the country is in a state of civil unrest due to the recent killing of unarmed Black man, George Floyd, that has brought thousands in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) out onto the street to protest in defiance of state regulations on public gatherings. Seeing the double standard, DeVito, Snr. lamented, “Right now they are killing our business,” he said of the state governments of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. “They could have 50,000 people out there on a protest in New York City, but they can’t do a four-block parade. I think it’s a little ridiculous,” given that some of the parades they do are of the hometown variety that can be done within socially distant guidelines. Whether it is or isn’t ridiculous, it’s most definitely ironic that Pride can’t go on, given that, like the BLM movement, it, too, started as a riot and protest against police brutality.
Photo credit: Robert DeVito, Jr.; Rabbi Chaim Hagler conducting one-on-one graduation ceremonies for Yeshivat Noam day school student in Teaneck, New Jersey.
But the DeVitos are no slouch. At a time when they would be putting out 40 floats a week and working as much as 100 hours, they’re not licking their wounds. Instead, they’ve been bringing socially distant joy to so many others: facilitating an outdoor mass one Sunday for their local church, drive by birthday celebrations, and saluting healthcare workers at St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals in Paterson and Passaic, New Jersey, all under supervision of police escort, of course. They’ve even done an 80-person high school graduation service for Yeshivat Noam day school in Teaneck, New Jersey, where school administrators drove up to the homes of 80 of its graduates over a two-day period and conferred their certificates one by one. DeVito, Jr. said it took a long time, but nothing he wasn’t familiar with, “We’re used to working 17, 18-hour days, so it wasn’t that out of the ordinary for the time it took.” Since then, they’ve gotten more inquiries.
Photo credit: Robert DeVito, Jr.; Bond Parade Floats for clients: T-Mobile, Newsday, NBA, and Coney Island Brewing Company (clockwise from top left).
Comprised typically of a steel frame and wood on a 24-to-32-foot-by-8-foot flatbed, the floats at Bond Parade can range anywhere from $500 to over $20,000, depending on many factors such as demand, the labor involved, the design and the location of the event. For Pride, the DeVitos work with a range of clients from non-profit organizations like God’s Love We Deliver and the Ali Forney Center to large international brands like T-Mobile and the NBA. Bond Parade offers out-of-the-box floats where a client can affix simple graphics on an ultra-board with a petal paper wraparound or a more elaborate custom-designed float with bespoke, branded sculptures and iconography. For Coney Island Brewing Company one year, they created a 10-foot high, three-dimensional layered painting of a tattooed mermaid. Last year, they made a six-by-six-foot bowl of spaghetti out of garden hoses for Newsday’s Feed Me magazine brand. They require a buffer of at least six weeks before an event to plan the design and construction, although, for Pride, and some of the larger parades, there can be as many as 6-8 months allocated. Their “guys,” (as they like to call their employees) then operate the floats on game day. Credited for initiating many of the ethnic parades we may take for granted, DeVito, Snr. says they are flexible, “Our philosophy is that we will do anything for anybody at any time. We’ll give it a shot. Whatever you want to do. You push for the limits, then we’ll go to the limits.”
The truism of which, Stephen Covello, partnership director at the community outreach non-profit, God’s Love We Deliver, who’s been working with the DeVitos for the past 11 years, can attest, “I remember the year we honored Joan Rivers (a board member) and we wanted to design a float in her honor at the very last minute. They completely rose to the occasion and designed an incredible float that we’re sure Joan would be proud of.”
Photo credit: iStock Photography; Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2009
Much like the evolution of the Pride parade, which has become more commercial from its early roots, floats in general have undergone their own metamorphosis. According to Henri Schindler, carnival artist, historian and writer, the first floats in the U.S. appeared in Louisiana in the late 1850s when the Rex float builders started importing props from the carnivals in Viareggio, Italy, “It was the first thematic organized procession built around a central theme, usually mythological or of some literature or history.” In his book, Mardi Gras Treasures: Float Designs of the Golden Age, Schindler describes the first sighting of a float, “Amid a marching horde of masked and costumed devils rolled the first two floats of scenic pageantry in New Orleans. Preceded by brass bands and surrounded by a ring of torches, the first float carried the masked God, Comus, greeting spectators with his golden cup. The second car carried Satan high on a ‘hill, far blazing as a mount, with pyramids and towers of diamond quarries hewn, and rocks of gold, the palace of great Lucifer.’ New Orleans with her passion for theater and parades, was stunned. The first torch-lit procession of the Mistick Krewe of Comus was hailed as ‘a revolution in street pageantry, a revelation in artistic effects.’”
Floats at this time were more than vessels, but literally elevated and heightened the parade with theatricality, since before their usage, parades were more akin to today’s Halloween culture of masquerade. What was important was the art, the ostentation and the symbolism, which doesn’t really exist in today’s rendition outside of New Orleans. The great artistry of yore is still there in today’s commercial floats but may not be as appreciated because of their marketing or political ambition. It would appear that the DeVitos are the direct descendants of these first float builders from Italy, if not, of the tradition of Carnivals and the great history of float building that has transformed into today’s parade culture.
Much like Pride, the Carnivals in Louisiana still to this day involve weeks-long celebrations and debauchery that end in a procession. Mardi Gras’ tradition of bead throwing seems to have morphed into the doling out of corporate sponsored tchotchkes in places like New York City. The floats in Mardi Gras are about a connection to tradition and the past, whereas outside of New Orleans, they are more utilitarian to ferry people, to announce the arrival of a new group in the parade, or to send a political or commercial message. While the events themselves outside of New Orleans respect and honor tradition, floats outside of the Creole culture have lost that symbolism. Few people understand this stark difference like Jeff Day, an independent photographer who has taken numerous images of parades all across the U.S. over the past 20 years, “The commercial floats in New York are put together by a specific media company or a specific product. In New Orleans it’s more about the theme. And the theme is established possibly by a number of different ideas on the parade route: maybe historical references, depending on what their theme is. Endymion [a float krewe in New Orleans] might have a theme of movies, or specific years of celebration in Louisiana. So, there are different combinations of people that they’re celebrating or birds that they’re celebrating. What I enjoy about seeing them is seeing how each theme is executed on the float: the painting, the signs, the figurines they use, whereas I don't think the parades in New York have that same idea. It’s only recently that I’ve noticed that maybe in the Halloween parade they’re starting to develop floats that are a little bit more than just a flatbed trailer with a railing and maybe signage and plastic fringe hanging from the side of the float.”
Although the construction and the utility of both float traditions are different, what they do for society is still the same. In addition to being the backbone, the physical vessel, the hull of the parade, if you will, floats add to the spectacle and bring people together to celebrate a common cause, tradition or identity. The absence of physical Pride and the many celebrations are a real loss to the spirit and cultural vibrancy of a city, especially at a time of such hardship as we are experiencing during the pandemic and the civil unrest. DeVito, Jr. sums it up nicely from conversations he’s been having with folks tired of quarantine living, “It’s like one of those things that you don’t know what you’ve got until it's gone. A lot of people have been coming up to me, like: ‘I’ve never even thought of the people who make parade floats,’ or ‘Yeah parades are pretty important.’ And they really are. Let’s put aside that it’s a form of advertising, that’s a huge aspect of it. But more importantly than that, it's togetherness. It’s something that keeps you close to your roots, your family that came before you. It keeps what they do alive: their traditions, the values, the culture, and so it’s a way to gather and express that and it’s been taken.”
DeVito, Jr. is also aware of what these parades he's dedicated himself to since the age of 10 mean for him, especially Pride, “I haven’t missed a Pride parade in 25 years. So not having that for a whole year it’s a weird feeling. Like you’re missing something. There’s certainly a love for it. We’ve been doing it forever. We take a lot of pride in it, pun intended. It’s a crummy situation right now and obviously one we understand.”
But the Pride celebration has had past uncertainty before. Right after the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, there was a similar unease in the air, even in New York City. The senseless killings made many people anxious about the threat of someone potentially terrorizing the event. But for many, it was expressly why Pride was so important and why they needed to turn out to celebrate. While the pandemic has put a damper on the events for both the public and the DeVitos this year, DeVito, Jr. knows not only that it’s temporary, but that Pride is a force that not even a pandemic can stop. Reflecting on the Pride parade after the Pulse Nightclub shooting four years ago, DeVito, Jr. recognizes the value of physical parades, how they allow people to bond, and is hopeful for next year’s Pride, “There’s not many mediums that can create what a parade does. There was a lot of hesitancy because of [the shooting], and the city assured everybody that you’re safe. The ticker tape parades are big, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never seen such a celebration like that one. When you turn the corner and you’re down 5th avenue in the alley, you come up the side street, where some of the sound is muted, naturally, because the buildings are there. And then you come around and you just hear that roar of the crowd. It was deafening! That’s the kind of stuff that you really remember. Those are the moments you really hold on to and you realize how important these moments are.”