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Learn to make your own smelt head

Some of last year’s “smelt royalty” from the Magic Smelt parade. Jim Ouray said people often distinguish their smelt heads by adding distinctive characteristics. Here we see a fancy smelt with a bowtie, a smelt pope and a smelt cowboy. (Teri Cadeau / Budgeteer News)3 / 6
Nancy Olson repairs a smelt head mold. Olson said she hadn’t worked with the clay or papier mache, so this was a new experience for her. (Teri Cadeau / Budgeteer News)4 / 6
Shannon O’Nabigon works with Joseph Sutherland to create a crown out of silver bubble wrap to wear in the parade. (Teri Cadeau / Budgeteer News)5 / 6
A banner from last year’s “Run Smelt Run” parade. Nancy Olson helped sew the fringe onto the banner. (Teri Cadeau / Budgeteer News)6 / 6

At the “Pineapple Building” on 1st Street, the smell of papier mache lingers late into the evening as conversation fills the air.

“How does my smelt head look? Am I forming it OK?”

“I think you have enough newspaper on that one. It’s time to start the next layer of brown paper.”

“Did I wrap enough Saran Wrap around its head?”

Members of the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe have gathered to work on their puppets for this year’s “Run Smelt Run” parade. The parade won’t be for a couple weeks, on Sunday, April 27, but until then everyone is invited to create costumes, papier mache puppets and smelt on a stick at the workshop space downtown.

“We like to really involve everyone and create a place that’s comfortable. It’s kid friendly, too,” said Anton Jimenez, co-founder of the puppet troupe.

What exactly is a smelt?

“Smelt are related to salmon. They’re like tiny silver fish that live in the lake. When the water in Lake Superior reaches 42 degrees in the spring, that’s their biological cue to run up the tributary rivers,” said Jim Ouray, co-founder of the smelt parade.

Ouray lives on Park Point. From his backyard he can see hundreds of smelt running to the St. Louis River. This was part of his inspiration for the smelt parade.

“It’s quite the spectacle,” Ouray said.

The parade occurs around the time the smelt begin to run. In fact, two years ago, the smelt began to run the night after the parade.

“We credit ourselves for that. We like to say we called them,” Jimenez said.

Ouray considers the running of the smelt to be a symbol of the abundance and vitality of spring.

“We tend to worry too much in our lives. We have this mentality of deficit. This parade is a chance for us to stop, look around and see that there’s plenty for everybody,” Ouray said.

When the Budgeteer visited the workshop on Tuesday, Ouray and Jimenez were busy fixing the clay smelt head molds.

“We have these molds we made from last year and they dried out and started to crack and they started to fall apart. But they should start to come around once we work on them a bit,” Ouray said.

After the molds were reshaped and covered with plastic wrap, volunteers Nancy Olson and Pam Gustaveson began layering newspaper and “goop” to create the first layer. Normally the masks require four to six layers of newspaper and brown paper interchangeably.

On the day of the parade, the smelt head puppets form an entourage surrounding the large main puppet known as “The Smelt Queen.” Ouray says he likes to think that there are smelt royalty under the water and all the smelt heads are noted dignitaries. People are invited to distinguish their smelt heads by adding unique details.

“Last year we had a smelt pope, a smelt mayor, a smelt cowboy and a smelt wizard,” Ouray said.

If papier mache isn’t your forte, you can also work on sewing together silvery smelt costumes and sashes. Or you can work with with other materials to create crowns and symbols of royalty. Young Shannon O’Nabigon worked with Joseph Sutherland to create a crown out of silver bubble for her to wear in the parade.

The workshops are also a chance to get involved in the parade planning process. On Tuesday there was talk of adding a dance for the people in fish heads to the processional parade.

“I was thinking of having 20 of the smelt puppet people do a dance,” Ouray said. “There’s a dance called the Cupid Shuffle that would easy for people to learn.”

“Do it! Do it!” Olson encouraged.

Not able to make it to the workshops? Never fear; anyone is invited to march along. This year’s parade will start at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 27 at the grassy plaza near the Aerial Lift Bridge, behind the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center. The procession is a “second line parade,” meaning people move along with the 10-piece brass band called “The Brass Messengers.” The parade will run to Zeitgeist Arts, where smelt will be served to participants.

“We encourage people to look for silver clothing and garments, but you don’t have to be a masked character to be involved in the parade,” Ouray said. “We want to encourage everyone to come with us. We’re pretty open with the smelt theme. It’s a chance for everyone to dress up.”

The Magic Smelt workshop is open every Tuesday and Thursday 7-9 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and again 2-4 p.m. until April 27.

If you go

What: Magic Smelt Parade Public Workshop

When: 7-9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m to 12 p.m. and 2-4 p.m. Saturdays until April 27

Where: 134 W. 1st Street

Cost: Free, donations welcome

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176