COTR began with ideas from Webb, Collins

Published 10:56 am Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Christmas on the River is celebrating its 37th year as a memorable festival that all started as the brainchild of two Demopolis natives after visiting larger northern cities with a river parade.

Mem Webb and Barry Collins each had seen riverboat parades early in the 1970s. Webb said he was attending a Memphis cotton school, learning to grade cotton, when he participated in their “Cotton Carnival,” featuring a river board parade at night, complete with fireworks.

Webb remembered those lighted boats floating down the Mississippi and the lady he escorted in that festival, and wondered why Demopolis shouldn’t incorporate a similar celebration on its own Tombigbee River.

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Meanwhile, Collins was impressed by a Chicago river parade of lights he witnessed while attending a convention in that city. One day, shortly afterward, the two compared notes and decided Demopolis should have its own parade, and easily convinced the Demopolis Chamber director at that time, Hal Bloom, to take on the project and get it all organized.

That summer, these three spearheaded the first Christmas on the River, with the Interact Club and the Chamber of Commerce, aided by the schools, civic organizations and the general public who put together lighted boats and fireworks for Christmas of 1972.

“I want to say we had 20 boats, but it might have been 12 or 15 involved that first year,” Webb said. “Back then, we offered cash prizes to the winners. We had a grand marshal, which I believe was either Gov. George Wallace or Cornelia Wallace. It was all very festive.”

Webb said there were fire works that first year that cost several thousand dollars, and the overall cost was probably around $15,000 to put on the festival.

“It was a cold, cold night,” Webb said. “But that river bank was packed. We sold tickets at $50 a ticket for the Civic Center to help pay for it all.”

Coca-Cola made a nice donation to help offset costs. The Christmas festival broke even, Webb said, and his sister, Biboo Webb, and Martha Neilson, sponsoring the Girl Scout float, won the first-place trophy with their Charlie Brown Christmas theme.

For the next several years, Webb’s life took on a new flavor. Christmas on the River was just something he and Collins felt compelled to help nurture and grow.

“The next year was the first Children’s Day Parade,” Webb said. “I remember that Demopolis Academy was always very active. Their (night parade) floats were very elaborate. Early on, they had a carousel in lights. It turned and had horses. It was really pretty.”

The carousel was such a hit that they took it all apart and showed it off in Montgomery after its debut in Demopolis.

Over the years, Webb said the lighted river parade sported some huge displays, some engineered with moving parts and which really wowed the crowd. Others were much more simple.

One of Webb’s favorite memories was Jim Bird’s chicken who rode a horse in the day parade one year, led by a elaborately tricked-out Bird who is locally known for his sense of humor. He said that as Bird, the chicken and the horse pranced along the parade route, laughs erupted in a rippling wave.

And it was Bird who designed the “signature float” that defines the night parade, sporting elves, the Christmas on the River banner and small dog tagging behind.

“The signature float probably started by the third or fourth year,” Webb said. “It started with one elf and the flag. Then, the next year, (Bird) added another elf, until it evolved as the elves walking on water carrying the COTR banner.”

Bird’s tugboat that carried these famous elves would sink quite often during rainy years, but before the Christmas night parade, Bird and helpers would rescue the boat in time to carry the elves one more time, Webb said, laughing.

One of his worst memories was when the grand barge’s scaffolding collapsed due to a rising wind just before night parade time.

“About 45 minutes before the parade, the wind picked up and blew down the scaffolding,” he said. “One of the helpers’ little sister was pinned under the scaffolding. The child wasn’t hurt at all, but that could have been tragic.”

He said the accident ruined the grand barge that year, but the little girl was unhurt and that was the only thing that mattered that year. These days, the night parade lights are custom-lighted affairs and are uniform in size.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the role Collins Communications plays in he festival. The business now owned by Barry Collins’ sons, Woody and Tim Collins, still provides the sound system and the communications devices that organizers involved during what is now a week-long event still use and count on every year.

Other business supporters have come forward to help offset the costs, too. In fact, without their support, Chamber of Commerce executive director Kelley Smith says, the Christmas event couldn’t happen, as costs have soared to around $75,000.

Webb said it is very satisfying to remember those early days and see how the event has evolved and changed. With the date set for the event on the first weekend of December, Webb said the weather has nearly always been cooperative.

“In all these years, I think the event had to be cancelled only once or twice,” he said.

Webb and Collins have since let go of the COTR reins. Webb said it just became time for “new blood” to infiltrate the event.

“For a long time it became just a way of life,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and effort, and it was time for new blood.”

According to Webb, the Christmas on the River event gets bigger and better every year. Now, there is the barbecue cookoff that is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Fair on the Square, children’s lanterns, Christmas in the Canebrake, this year’s “Cinderella” production at the Old School and so much more await those near and far who look forward to this event from year to year.

“I’m always amazed when I meet someone far from here and they ask me about the Christmas on the River Festival when they learn I’m from Demopolis,” Webb said. “It’s brought a world of good publicity to our city, publicity that money just can’t buy. It takes a lot of people, and they pull together to make the event happen and after the event is over you feel the sense of pride in our people and in our city that we all share.”