Mark Tucker is the biggest fool in Ann Arbor. I meet up with him on a frigid winter morning at Ann Arbor Open School. He is the center of a maelstrom of activity, surrounded by a couple dozen third and fourth graders who are constructing circus characters from cardboard, staples, and tape. He’s the one with the orange yarn hair poking out from under his cap. As Executive Director of the annual Festifools parade, he is guilty of producing this local rite of spring which invades the downtown business district with giant papier mache creations and associated artsy mayhem. On this day, he is instructing the children on the finer points of fabricating a clown out of newspaper and flour paste.
“I want to make some hands,” declares one girl, holding a disembodied head on a stick.
“You need to make the body first,” replies Tucker. “You start big and then go small,” he explains.
That’s pretty much the reverse of the evolution of Festifools. What began nine years ago as an art project by some U-M students has grown to a major event that fills Main Street with dozens of larger-than-life puppets and thousands of spectators. And the man responsible for this nonsense is a self-described “oddball.”
As a kid growing up in Vermont, Tucker says, “I rode a unicycle to school, I had a briefcase in 7th grade.” When he wasn’t (undoubtedly) getting his face rubbed in gravel during recess, he also practiced magic and juggling. “I’ve just always been attracted to unusual activities that, I guess, bring delight out in other people.”
During a stint as art director for The Parade Company, producers of America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit, Tucker spent some time in Viareggio, Italy, where he collaborated with some of the world’s foremost creators of papier mache floats and theatrical constructions. He came to Ann Arbor in 2001 to teach art at U-M’s Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, where the seed of Festifools was planted. He wanted to teach a class that went beyond the four walls of the residential program. “If you only have one course, what should the mission of that course be? At that time I thought, community-made art for the public seemed to resonate and seemed to make sense.”
Long-time residents of Ann Arbor may recall the delightfully raucous Ozone Parades that rolled through town in the late 60s and 70s. Sort of a “Carnival meets the Shriners” mash-up, it was a spontaneous celebration of foolishness, the type of communal weirdness that put A Square on the Fun Map. Mark Tucker wants to bring back that element of civic goofiness. “Maybe it’s the antithesis of the image that most people have of Ann Arbor that makes (Festifools) fun.”
He believes a celebration like Festifools transcends the presentation itself. “Even though we’re an ephemeral event, we happen for an hour on the street every year, there’s a residual remembrance of it. The whole city comes out and transforms Main Street; Main Street USA is given this whole new experience. It’s a stage where everyone can come out and be whoever they want to be on that stage for an hour.”
The community is certainly embracing greater involvement, as more groups and individuals take part in crafting the event. Tucker estimates that 30 to 40% of local parade participants are unaffiliated fools just looking to be part of the fun. “Even though it was bred out of a University class, it still has the look and feel that anybody can come and get involved and participate and that’s what we hope actually happens. We hope it becomes more of an Ozone Parade down the road where it’s self-sustaining and doesn’t need a lot of structure.”
Perhaps, just as every village has its idiot (insert name of your least favorite politico or former football coach here), every community needs its fool, and Mark Tucker is up to the task. “I’m lucky that it’s built into my schedule,” he admits. On April 12, “You’ll see no bigger fool than me, with a happy ear-to-ear grin. I was an oddity when I was a kid, and now, at least one hour a year, it’s almost mainstream in this town.”