Mark Washburn

The man who gives Charlotte’s Thanksgiving parade its marching orders

First off, you’ve got to understand elves.

There are 35 elves. They hang with Mrs. Claus, who will be getting the sleigh washed aboard the Autobell float. Elves are vital.

When you’re running a Thanksgiving parade, you herd your elves with care. You bring them in for a weekend’s orientation, you make sure they know how to pep up the crowd, to spread whimsy block by block. You take your elves seriously.

“People who walk in the parade are the most important part,” says Robert Krumbine. “They are on stage all the time.”

Krumbine says this with the bearing of a military planner describing how a flank maneuver plays into a precision campaign, how there are circles within circles and how munitions must be arranged for maximum impact, for squawk and awe.

There’s a flow to it, he says, pointing to the board where all 4,000 parade participants are represented by index cards, purposefully placed. Pink is for marching bands, orange for floats, green for balloon creatures.

You open with the Thanksgiving theme, then honor the military, then the whimsical kid stuff and roll out Santa for the big finish. Santa does not perch on a throne, he says with professional disdain. That is for lesser parades. On Thanksgiving in Charlotte, Santa rides a mobile toy workshop.

This board is a sketch of humanity and machines in motion. It represents 2,000 members of marching bands, 700 volunteers, 500 dancers, 44 cars, 18 performers, Miss North Carolina, Miss South Carolina and Gus the Bus. It started going up in February.

Some people are born to run parades, and some have parades thrust upon them. Krumbine is both.

He is an organizer, an inventor, a showman and an illusionist. He picked up the remnants of the worn-out Carrousel Parade in 2013 and recycled them into the Novant Health Thanksgiving Day Parade, which marks its second year Thursday. It was cited this week by MSN media as one of the top six Thanksgiving Day parades in the nation. Among the estimated 100,000 coming for it is Gov. Pat McCrory.

Krumbine, simply, is the right man for the job. He is 54 years old and he is a big kid. His 16th-floor Tryon Street office is strewn with toys and action figures like Buzz Lightyear and Kermit the Frog.

Parade baby steps

He grew up in Miami. His father was a bus driver. Each year, one day in the last week of December, his dad would drop him on Flagler Street. Krumbine would claim a spot along the curb and guard it all day as the family beachhead. After work, his parents would join him and they’d watch the Orange Bowl Parade, a dazzler back in the day.

“I’ve been studying parades since I was a little boy,” says Krumbine. He’s analyzed every footfall of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Pasadena’s Rose Parade is on his bucket list.

As a saxophonist at the University of Miami, Krumbine got involved with what musicians call “the other side of the checkbook.” He started managing the university’s jazz band, and he found he enjoyed the business end of entertainment.

He organized a three-week summer tour of Europe for the band, booking the dates and selling sponsorships. Word got around town. After graduation, a job was waiting for him at a Miami events business.

On to Charlotte

He went on to jobs in Atlanta and Washington, then came to Charlotte in 1988. He helped open the Charlotte Coliseum off Tyvola Road.

He was well-established as an entertainment maestro when the NCAA brought the Final Four to Charlotte in 1994. Krumbine created the Street of Champions, a temporary entertainment district that turned empty storefronts on a moribund Tryon Street into bars and restaurants, providing the illusion to visitors of an uptown bursting with vitality.

Afterward, locals made fun of it as a Potemkin village, a fraud settlement like those constructed in the dreary Crimea in 1787 to impress Catherine the Great. In his office, Krumbine reaches into a desk drawer and snatches out an article that he keeps handy. “ Who are we trying to fool?” says the headline. It ran in the Observer 20 years ago and satirizes the effort.

Still, that bogus boulevard resonated with people.

“It opened people’s eyes to the possibilities,” says Krumbine, who joined Charlotte Center City Partners 14 years ago as chief creative officer. “And for me, it was the beginning of being that Big Event guy.”

Word got around town. If you need a crazy idea that just might work, bring in Krumbine. People did. Within a year, he was producing a new uptown festival named Speed Street.

One phone call

Charlotte’s Carrousel Parade dates to 1947. At one time it attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators. But by mid-2013, it had run out of steam. It had been declared dead for weeks when Krumbine’s phone rang that Labor Day weekend.

It was his boss, Michael Smith, president of Center City Partners. Krumbine was headed to his favorite place – Disney World.

I know it’s a little late in the season, Smith told him, but do you think you could pull together a parade by Thanksgiving to replace Carrousel?

Krumbine had served on Carrousel’s board for a decade. He knew all the complications.

“Sure,” he told Smith. “By Thanksgiving … 2014.”

Smith talked him into it and Krumbine pulled it off that fall.

Krumbine, who has a wife and two grown sons, spent his first day of vacation by the pool at Disney’s Beach Club Villas on the phone, lining up a Santa Claus.

Krumbine’s is a rare personality, says Brian Baltosiewich, who produces the Novant parade for WBTV. “He’s creative, but he has that gene a lot of creative people don’t have – the ability to pay attention to details.”

A legacy event

Not only did 2013’s parade go off with a new sponsor, Novant Health, but Krumbine found time to invent something – “Segwalloons,” ground-level balloons built over Segway scooters. Last year he rolled out an elf and a snowman.

They scoot around like Olaf, that snowman in “Frozen.” This year, Krumbine is adding a Segwalloon drum-and-fife corps harkening to Charlotte’s Revolutionary War heritage. He’s got ideas for other new ones next year.

Only Charlotte’s parade has Segwalloons.

Also new this year: Front row seats selling for $15. Queen Charlotte, a tall turkey mascot with a bit of a smirk that says, “I survived.” Live radio coverage on WBT-AM. Other radio partners broadcasting the order of the parade every few blocks to spectators over loudspeakers (he pirated that idea from the Indianapolis 500 parade, which he was invited to this year).

“This is my legacy event,” says Krumbine. “I’m hopefully going to make a mark with it. Why not make this parade the crown of the Southeast? We can create big stuff.”

Big stuff takes big ideas and he’s got some. He wants to attract top marching bands with a competition and $10,000 in prize money. He wants to add characters and floats. He wants to create giant marionettes for the parade that will be its signature, like the towering balloons that distinguish Macy’s parade in New York.

Thanks Robert Krumbine, organizer, inventor, showman and illusionist. Thanks for saving our parade. Thanks for giving it a big future.

No, Krumbine will tell you. Thanks to you, Charlotte. Thanks for giving me my shot, my parade. Thanks for that moment that comes once a year.

“I love what I do. It’s not just a job,” he says. “It’s what I’m all about.”

“When they close the street, I walk out there and say, ‘OK, this is mine for the next couple hours.’ And then we make people happy.”

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