The parade route runs the length of Bridge Street in downtown Hot Springs. Measuring 98 feet and 11 inches, it is said to be World’s Shortest Street in Everyday Use. While the parade is short, it is anything but small with some 30,000 onlookers, celebrity guests, and festivities that span multiple days.
The first time I attended the event was in 2007. It was the First Ever Fourth Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade and I was desperate to get a photograph of Celebrity Grand Marshal Mario Lopez. While he went on to host the entertainment news show Extra and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, he will forever be immortalized in my mind as hunky A.C. Slater from Saved By The Bell.
I was on assignment for the state newspaper. It was early in my career and I had grossly underestimated the size of the crowd and my ability to get close enough to get a good shot. As I watched other photographers walking along the parade route with their big cameras and their press badges, I felt… well, green.
Nearby, a man had climbed a small tree. With no other trees in the vicinity, I jumped, clicked, and – by a stroke of luck that can only happen on the luckiest of holidays – I got the shot.
Visit Hot Springs, which sponsors and organizes the event each year, has excelled at bringing in celebrities that appeal to a wide range of people. It makes for an exciting atmosphere as onlookers wade through a sea of green for their chance at spotting the special guests.
Celebrity Grand Marshals have included George Wendt, Pauly Shore, Mike Rowe, John Ratzenberger, Bo Derek, John Corbett, Tim Matheson, Jim Belushi, auto racing legend Mark Martin, Kevin Bacon, Alfonso Ribeiro, and Joey Fatone of NSYNC fame.
The idea to host the world’s shortest parade was initially dreamed up in 2003 by Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison, an Arkansan of Irish descent, during afterwork drinks with colleagues. They’d been discussing their favorite holidays and a recently resurfaced article about Bridge Street’s designation as the World’s Shortest Street by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! back in the 1940s.
While other streets have since claimed the title, Visit Hot Springs maintains Bridge Street is the world’s shortest working street…and the length of the street isn’t as important as the length of the parade route, which inched its way to the top of the list of World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parades when it debuted on St. Patrick’s Day 2004. (Maryville, Mo.’s 99.9 foot parade had previously held the title.)
The First Ever First Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day featured Miss Arkansas Whitney Kirk, a full marching band, a hook-and-ladder fire truck, the World's Biggest Live Leprechaun and a couple dozen floats for a total of some 330 participants. It was led by two Grand Marshals: locals Dick Kelley (former President Bill Clinton’s stepfather) and then-City Director Bob Wheeler. Between 4,000 and 5,000 curious people showed up to watch the parade.
“People were so excited about it,” Arrison said. “People really got into it and we got such great feedback. People just enjoyed it and wanted to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day which had never been celebrated here before.”
The crowd nearly doubled in size the following year with onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of Celebrity Grand Marshal George Wendt, who played Norm Peterson on the television sitcom Cheers.
“I think he stands out,” Arrison said. “He was the first celebrity grand marshal and sort of set the standard for the rest of them. He was just a great person.”
Over the years, this family-fun event has continued to grow… not in length, of course, but in scope and scale with the addition of a pop-up pub, the Arkansas Blarney Stone Kissing Contest, a Zero K race, and live music. Concerts have been presented by Mini Kiss, Buddy Jewel, Morris Day & The Time, Grand Funk Railroad, and Uncle Kracker, among others.
In 2013, the parade committee added an official parade starter and various celebrities have since filled the role including Mountain Man from “Duck Dynasty,” actor Gary Busey, retired professional wrestler Ric Flair, and “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Heder.
Also making an appearance are the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders who have participated in the parade every year since 2013. "Since our initial visit, we have seen the parade grow by leaps and bounds,” said Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Director Kelli Finglass. "It has become a coveted appearance amongst the squad. Maybe one day the entire team can make a visit! Beyond cheering at the football games, we love getting out of the stadium and meeting our fans of all ages. The World‘s Shortest St. Pats has some of the best fans around!”
While the special guests add a lot of sparkle to the atmosphere, the parade is primarily comprised of locals whose creativity and support has helped make this small-town parade one of the best in the country. (The event is continuously ranked as one of the top St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country by various websites, news outlets and publications.)
Capped at 40 entries, the parade includes local businesses and organizations, as well as groups of families and friends who band together.
To honor its local citizens, the parade committee started naming a King and Queen of the parade, beginning in 2006 with Dr. Randy Hill.
“I really felt very honored,” Hill said of his reign. “It wasn’t a small deal to me. You look at all who’s been allowed to do it through the years and that puts you in pretty neat company.”
In addition to being very active in the community, Hill has participated in the parade nearly every year as a founding member of the International Order of Irish Elvi (IOIE). A crowd favorite, the group has marched in the parade every year since 2005, representing Elvis in all forms and fashions. (Hill even dressed up as “Darth Vader Elvis” one year.)
“We were just trying to come up with something that would be unique and appeal to a lot of people,” said Hill, who came up with the idea of the Irish Elvi along with his friend Doug Green.
The group started with about 20 Elvi their first year, peaked at 100 another year and now averages about 50. (Pricilla impersonators are welcome to join in on the fun too.)
“It’s not about the number of Elvi we have, it’s about the Elvi that know how to have fun the right way,” Hill said. “We try to engage the crowd. We get them excited. We play the music. We get pictures taken with them.”
The IOIE is open to anyone who shows up in Elvis attire and has included participants ranging from a one-year-old to an 80-plus years old.
“It’s always been open to anybody that wants to show up,” Hill said.
In addition to the Elvi, the parade often features colorful floats from Garvan Woodland Gardens and Mid-America Science Museum, a group of Irish belly dancers, a pack of Irish Wolfhounds, and numerous other off-beat entries.
“It’s not your normal parade,” Arrison said. “You have to be a unique entry. You can’t just enter with your pick-up truck.”
This year’s event has expanded to include three days of festivities and will feature Celebrity Grand Marshal Ralph Macchio. Famous for his role as Daniel LaRusso in the Karate Kid, Macchio also appeared in Crossroads and The Outsiders, delivering the classic line: “Stay Gold, Ponyboy.” The official starter will be Stephen “tWitch” Boss, Ellen Degeneres’ favorite DJ and So You Think You Can Dance star. Reigning over the parade as this year’s King and Queen will be Scott McClard and Dona Pettey, who represent two of Hot Springs’ most iconic restaurants. McClard co-owns and helps operate McClard’s Bar-B-Q, which has been in business for 90 years, while Pettey and her husband Mike own the Ohio Club, Hot Springs’ oldest bar.
The parade will be held Sunday, March 17 but the fun will begin on Friday, March 15 with the opening of O’Kelley’s Pop Up Pub followed by the First Ever First Annual World’s Shortest St. Patricks’ ZERO K, a 299-foot race, and live music by the one-man-band Mister Morphis. Saturday’s music will kick off with a performance by the Big Damn Horns at the Pop Up Pub, and will be followed by funk-rocker Ronnie Heart and multi-platinum pop rockers Smash Mouth on the Bridge Street Stage.
On Sunday, the most creative kisser will have a chance to win 100 smackeroos ($100) with the Arkansas Blarney Stone Kissing Contest at 4:30 p.m. (I remember the first year’s winner wooed the rock with a picnic before puckering up.) The contest is held on the sidewalk in front of the Hot Springs Convention Center. The parade kicks off at 6:30 p.m. but you’ll want to be on the scene early to make sure you have a good spot for viewing the parade and to see the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in action at 5:30 p.m. Immediately following the parade will be a free, live performance by rock-n-roll hit makers Three Dog Night. For more information, including a complete schedule of events, visit www.shorteststpats.com on the Web.Ever since I nabbed that lucky shot back in 2007, I’ve been fortunate to continue covering the parade for local media. I interviewed participants in the inaugural Arkansas Blarney Stone Kissing Contest and wrote a feature story on the parade’s first King and Queen. It’s been fun watching it grow and sharing the stories of the parade and the people who make it happen. Most of all, it’s been fun being a part of this quirky, colorful community that puts a lot of effort into making sure everyone is having a good time. Sometimes I have to pinch myself… even if I’m wearing green.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.