By Carolyn Males + Photos by Steve Eberhardt
If you’d ventured out to Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park after dark last year in early November, you would have found yourself in a line of cars circling the wooded loop as giant blue herons pecked at your windows, huge sea turtles flew over your roof, and larger-than-life butterflies flitted amid the live oaks. If you peeked into other vehicles, you might have caught glimpses of wide-eyed children, grinning adults and family dogs tilting their heads in curiosity at these flying lantern puppets. You had entered the enchanted world of Hilton Head’s first Lantern Parade Drive-Thru Safari, an event that came straight from the creatively fevered mind of Chantelle Rytter.
The year before, pre-Covid, Rytter had staged an ever bigger light extravaganza, The Hilton Head Lantern Parade. If you weren’t there, you missed the greatest visual highlight of 2019 as well as being part of the throng in one of the island’s most exciting community events. Hundreds of dancing lights embodied in fantastical shapes like jellyfish, gators, fish, egrets, turtles, happy faces, Mitchelville houses, and anything else that could be conjured up streamed along the South Forest Beach shoreline. The makers of these hand-crafted lanterns, kids and adults of all ages, held them aloft against the moonlit sky as bands set the marching pace. Meanwhile, spectators lined the sand, snapping photos and taking videos as a drone flew overhead recording this colorful river of light.
Chantelle Rytter, puppeteer/parade designer/creative muse extraordinaire of these events, believes that joy, along with the show, must go on. Like a fairytale wizard with a magic wand, she sparks communal creativity and taps into the imaginative parts of your brain you didn’t even know existed. And it’s not just her lantern parades that bring communities together in freeform-inspired happiness, but it’s also her other events like the Garden Gnome March, Parliament of Owls, Parade of Angels and more that she’s staged in Georgia and South Carolina.
I wanted to hang out with this woman! I wanted to whirl around with her in her orbit. However, she lives in Atlanta. So, for now I had to settle for a video chat.
I was not disappointed when she showed up on my screen. Wearing stylish round glasses, her long dark hair tied back, she was every bit as animated and luminous as her puppets in flight. There on her studio wall a trio of owl faces peered out as if keeping an eye on her interviewer. Over her right shoulder stood a life-sized skeleton clad in black, a feather on her hat blowing softly in the breeze of a fan. And on Rytter’s right? A 26-foot-long white alligator puppet named Alice, straight from the Lowcountry.
[Q] Where did all this whimsy spring from?
[Chantelle Rytter] I was a theater major at Penn State. I wanted to be the actor, the director, the playwright. But I had a falling out over a costuming requirement for my senior year. ‘I am not taking that costume class. It’s way too much of a time commitment. The girls down there are mean.’ (She laughs at the irony.) So I switched my major to give myself more freedom to read poetry and not be a slave in the costume shop. It’s funny now because I graduated with a degree in integrative arts. ‘What is that exactly?’ I thought. It’s funny because it’s exactly what I do now. But at the time I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I moved to New Orleans.
I got a job at Blaine Kern Parade Studio, where I worked with papier-mâché in giant studio buildings making giant Mardi Gras floats. (The floats are sculpted in foam, then in order to be painted, they have to be covered in papier-mâché.) I did the front end of a Cadillac, jesters, any and all of those large painted sculptures.
[Q] So moving to New Orleans was a defining moment?
[CR] New Orleans spun my head around. Parades are such a part of its cultural fabric. And there’s an expectation that you’ll participate and personally contribute to the culture of the city. Individual creative expression is celebrated. You’re a rock star if you really bust it out for Mardi Gras season. And it’s a season, not just a day. So a person who is really into it could go to a parade every weekend for six weeks.
Parades are a creative expression that change the vibe where people live. During the Post-Katrina Mardi Gras, it dawned on me that this celebratory bacchanal served a wellness function. It brought people together and uplifted their spirits in a way that few things do. Everywhere needs that. Krewes see their parades as gifts to the city. As the captain of the Krewe of the Grateful Gluttons, I felt I should at least try to deliver that gift of civic play to my adopted city, Atlanta. I changed my practice from parading as a private group to trying to engage and amuse the community
[Q] The Grateful Gluttons?
[CR] I have a big family of friends in Atlanta. When I lived in New Orleans, I wanted them all to move there. To lure them down for Mardi Gras, I declared us the “Krewe of the Grateful Gluttons.” I sent them all big packages with king cakes, beads, Krewe titles and the Krewe Creed. Our creed is ‘Try everything. Have seconds. Say thank you. Be a grateful glutton at the banquet of life.’ They came down for many Mardi Gras and totally got it. Though they agreed Atlanta was terribly boring by comparison, they did not all move to New Orleans, so when I moved to Atlanta, we started stirring up parade fun there.
[Q] The first big parade event in Atlanta you staged was a Gnome March with hundreds of people dressed like garden gnomes?
[CR] It’s a silly story. I got hired to do a float by a company in Savannah for its St Patrick’s Day Parade. And I have to say I took it a little bit too seriously. I’m not Irish and I’m not from Savannah, but I know to be respectful of cultural stuff. So I designed my float, covered it in shamrocks and had people dressed like leprechauns. But the day before the parade, the client called and wanted to know if we could put a gnome on the float. ‘No! Gnomes are Scandinavian! What are they thinking?’ Well, the ad they’d taken out in the parade program had a gnome in a field of green. So I was preparing for the parade, cussing about gnomes when one of my krewe said “Chantelle, you’re going to piss off the gnomes!” Then it hit me. Pissed off gnomes! Now that would be funny!
So that was our first parade event, part of the Inman Park Festival. Dress like a gnome and carry a sign with your preferred gnome issue. The gnomenclature is rich. The signs people made were funny. “There’s no place like Gnome.” “Gnomeland Security.” “Fight Gnomephobia.” “Legalize Weeds.”
We decided to try to set a world record. It wasn’t just “Hey, come and be a gnome with us.” It was “We need you to be a gnome with us.” The problem was the Guinness Book of World Records takes its rules very seriously. But I’m never throwing a gnome out of a parade if they’re not dressed right. So we didn’t get it. But we know we won. We had 765 gnomes! We blew that record away three times around.
[Q] Your first lantern parade was in Atlanta in 2010. How did that come about?
[CR] Art on the Atlanta BeltLine had issued a call for proposals on its interim trail. The BeltLine is a giant urban revitalization program reclaiming abandoned railroad tracks that circle the city. The interim trail was a dirt path covered in kudzu behind the dumpsters, and the art program sought to get folks onto the trail to imagine its potential.
I’d been thinking about doing a lantern parade for a few years and was looking at international lantern parades, particularly those in England. I liked the idea of seeing individuals as playful volumes of light. The BeltLine seemed like a good place to urban pioneer a new idea. It occurred to me to just mix it up with a Mardi Gras vibe where it’s based on individual creative expression.
Meanwhile, two of my krewe were building giant puppets with smiley faces, white clothes and clown hands, which they strung with lights. They were interactive, not static. So now, eleven years later I have two storage units filled with puppets.
[Q] I’m looking at those owls staring at me insisting I ask about Parliament of Owls.
[CR] I thought it would be really be great if it owls had their own parade, and we invited people to wear black and white. I got a sponsorship from the Midtown Alliance, an Atlanta neighborhood association, and a grant from the Office of Cultural Affairs. I invented and drew seven species of fictional owls and created lantern kits and workshops for them. I also put free downloadable owl masks on my website. Then I did a series of owls using photographs of my eyes, which they loved so. My eyeballs ended up on banners all up and down Peachtree Street for a couple of weeks. That made me laugh every day.
[Q] With the return of the HH Lantern Parade and the Drive-Thru Safari this year, how are you dealing with the pandemic?
[CR] I’m of the opinion that we have to find some adaptations for our fun. I think we should hang on to these events, even if we have to change things up.
One thing we discovered in the drive-through format in Mitchelville last year is that so many people hadn’t been there before. The park was like a cathedral of live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. And of course, it was so wonderfully dark. We also realized that we were getting some disabled people and truly elderly people who may not have made it out to the beach the year before. As for the Lantern Parade, the beach is nice and wide, and you’re not only outdoors but you’re not filling up a room with breathing, but you’re moving though a big space. I think it’s the best and safest fun you can have.
Watch the parade
What: 2021 Hilton Head Island Lantern Parade
When: 5:45 p.m., Saturday, November 13
Parade Route: Alder Lane Beach Access to Coligny Beach Park. The parade steps off at sunset.