Thursday, November 27, 2003

Anything’s Possible With a Little Taste and Charm

From the NY Times:

Gather round, my lovelies. ‘Tis that very special season. The turkey is roasting. The family is here. And a flamboyant, guttural-voiced openly gay male cross-dresser is having it out with a unit of a corporate retail conglomerate capitalized at more than $8 billion.

It must be Thanksgiving time in New York.

Making this year’s celebration memorable, the actor Harvey Fierstein and the producers of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade engaged one another yesterday in a fierce and somewhat indirect debate over whether or not the parade is a sacred institution that should be regarded as above politics.

The festivities began when Mr. Fierstein wrote an Op-Ed article in The New York Times using the fact of his scheduled appearance in the parade as a rhetorical device to introduce a meditation on the politics of same-sex marriage. The Santa Claus in today’s parade would be half of a same-sex couple, he declared, with him as the other half, “dressed in holiday finery portraying the one and only Mrs. Claus.”

By the end of the day, it was clear that tradition would hold: Santa Claus would be on the final sleigh float, accompanied by Mrs. Claus, a woman. Mr. Fierstein would be on a separate float. But the confusion set Macy’s, owned by Federated Department Stores, on a madcap public relations campaign to distance its parade from his opinions without addressing the topics he raised.

In the morning, Macy’s officials quickly issued their first statement: “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the icon of the Thanksgiving Holiday. It has delighted and entertained families throughout the world for 76 years. The parade has never and will never be a platform for political and social issues and opinions.”

The statement emphasized that Mr. Fierstein would be dressed not as Mrs. Claus but as “his beloved character Mrs. Edna Turnblad of the Broadway hit musical `Hairspray.’ ”

But then the actor’s costume designer said that Mrs. Edna Turnblad, as portrayed by Mr. Fierstein, would be dressed as Mrs. Claus. That notion put Santa in the delicate position of sending mixed signals. Perhaps because Mr. Claus is a character famed far and wide for diplomacy and, above all, minimal disclosure, the debate quickly took on a life of its own.

“We couldn’t get off this subject,” Curtis Sliwa, a co-host of a WABC radio call-in program, said in a telephone interview. During five hours on the air, he said, callers deconstructed many of the issues raised by Mr. Fierstein and his article, and questioned whether it was appropriate to use the parade as a political pulpit.

Macy’s kept a narrow focus on separating the politics from the parade.

Company officials did not return repeated calls to discuss the dispute, but they did provide a telephone number for more information. At that number, a woman’s recorded voice read the statement aloud in its entirety, highlighting certain words with a lilting emphasis: “Families,” “never” and “beloved.”

This did little to clear up the matter of whether Mr. Fierstein would serve through the Mrs. Turnblad character as a gay Mrs. Claus. So his costume designer, William Ivey Long, tried to elucidate things by describing the outfit that Mr. Fierstein planned to wear in the parade. He said it was a Balenciaga swing coat worn over a floor-length pencil skirt with a stamped red velvet jacket with fake fur collar and cuffs topped with a white fake fur French beret.

“Those are just words,” Mr. Long said. “The effect is, of course, insane.”

He added that the notion of the identity of Mrs. Claus would be further complicated because, just as in “Hairspray,” those viewing Mr. Fierstein’s costume would be expected to suspend their disbelief and see only Mrs. Turnblad dressed as Mrs. Claus, not Mr. Fierstein dressed as Mrs. Turnblad dressed as Mrs. Claus.

“The semantics are confusing,” Mr. Long said.

Addressing that confusion, Macy’s issued a revised statement later in the day. This version noted that Mr. Fierstein would not appear on the main Santa Claus float but rather on a separate float “in Edna’s interpretation of Mrs. Claus.”

It continued, “As for Mrs. Claus herself, she will be appearing with Santa on Santa’s sleigh, as part of the Grand Finale of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

The names of the other floats in the parade make clear that the celebration is thoroughly devoid of political and social advocacy. These include Amica Insurance’s American Classic Malt Shop Float, Hershey Foods’ Kids Candy Creation Lab, Amerada Hess’s Bridge to the Future, and the float that will carry Mr. Fierstein dressed as Mrs. Turnblad dressed as Mrs. Claus, Macy’s Percy & the P-Birds.

Mr. Fierstein said in a telephone interview after the matinee performance of “Hairspray” yesterday that the point of his Op-Ed article was being missed or obscured.

“I’m not saying Santa is gay,” Mr. Fierstein said. “I’m not saying I’m the real Mrs. Claus. I’m saying, `Look what gay Americans do.’ ”

He added that the disagreement with Macy’s was not substantive, as it did not directly address the issue of gay marriage, which was the point of his article.

“As far as Macy’s and I go,” Mr. Fierstein said, “Macy’s is a store; it’s not a political organization.”

And what’s Thanksgiving without at least one relative in drag hogging all the stuffing?