By Suzanne Ito
Mike Laino is a busy man. For the second year in a row, Laino and his event production team at Festive Productions are facing a Herculean task: Coordinating the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade. This includes launching almost 100 floats, organizing thousands of parade participants and appeasing the press, all while millions of spectators around the world watch the spectacle wend down Fifth Avenue. And this year--after the notorious attacks in Central Park that followed last year's parade--Laino and the New York Police Department will face even more scrutiny this Sunday. So we spoke with Laino to find out how he's preparing for the big day, and how he felt about last year's negative press.
Laino became the first professional event planner hired to run the event last year, after spending several years as one of the vast number of volunteers who had worked on previous parades. The committee that organizes the event, which is designed to foster pride among Puerto Ricans, hired him to oversee the event and work with the NYPD. The police department's biggest request last year: Make the parade end by 7:30 PM, in order to reduce officer overtime.
Laino listened to that request and delivered. The parade, which was notorious for running late into the evening, ended at 5:30 PM--a full two hours earlier than requested--for the first time in the event's history. Laino says the NYPD met the news with utter disbelief. “Yeah right, it's over. Who are you kidding?” he says most of the officers said when he reported the last float had launched. Most officers were relieved of duty. But the three hours of daylight left proved to be the problem. “The police never had a contingency plan for if [the parade] did end early,” Laino says. “When you have something that happens every year, and every year it ends late, why should they?”
Then what was intended as a day of celebration and community pride turned to a nightmare for some. After the parade ended, a group of young men in Central Park doused several women with water and tore off their clothes. The women's screams for help went unheeded by the police, and the bad publicity that ensued reflected poorly on the Puerto Rican community and the parade.
“I felt ashamed of what happened in Central Park,” Laino says now. “There were some people to whom I wouldn't want to mention that Festive was the official production company of the Puerto Rican Day Parade because I thought it would hurt the image of the company. We had worked so hard, and performed far beyond everyone's expectations, and then for it to end the way it did...”
“When it comes down to it, it was police error,” he says. “They never said, 'Hey, we should sweep the park because there's going to be three hours of daylight left, and nobody wants to go home.' Everyone wants to keep partying.”
Still, Laino believes last year's parade was a logistical success, and he was asked to organize the parade again this year--a task he still enjoys. “What lifts my spirits is that our grand marshal this year is Marc Anthony, who's well-known to everyone, not just the Puerto Rican community. And Miss Puerto Rico, Denise Quinones, who was just crowned Miss Universe this year, will also be there. So there was some negativity surrounding the event, but now there are all of these positive things that have diminished [the negativity].”
Laino is also planning more improvements for this year's parade, to make sure the event ends on schedule again. “We're freezing all of the formation areas and making everyone check in with wristbands,” Laino says. “And we have more rules and regulations regarding press interviews of the celebrities, which often delays the launch of the floats.” Strict control around the formation area is also necessary for the NYPD to do their work. All float drivers have their licenses checked and undergo a sobriety test. (“The last thing we want is a drunk driver with a float in a parade,” he says.) Other improvements include having more Festive staff in golf carts shuttling up and down the parade route to ensure it flows smoothly and to assist any float that breaks down or gets stopped for press interviews. And the NYPD will be out in full force, of course.
So what's Laino's goal for this year's parade? “Make it end early again, without incident,“ Laino says. “If that happens, then next year we want to have a one-hour concert in Central Park after the parade, for the whole crowd.”
By Suzanne Ito