PERRY — Breaching from the Perry Public Beach on Silver Lake, Perry’s famous sea serpent wove its way down the street on Saturday afternoon.
Hosted by Shake on the Lake, the Socially Distrant Sea Serpent Puppet Parade was a collaborative community effort. The main puppet was designed by Shake on the Lake founder and Artistic Director Josh Rice, Sara Stabley and Margaret Gayford. Emma McLaughlin also pitched in to help during construction, which had been ongoing since August.
Pieces of the body were given out to the community to paint prior to the parade. Due to guidelines on public gatherings related to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was only a total of 50 pieces of the sea serpent distributed to people who wanted to be a part of the project. Each person helped form a segment of the giant sea serpent puppet that they carried – or could rest on their heard – in the parade. Each piece formed a part of the overall creature, which with the participants spaces six feet apart during the procession could have stretched the length of a football field.
The parade began at Perry Public Beach and followed a route through the Silver Lake Institute and back to the beach.
“It’s weird to do an event in a pandemic,” Rice said, adding they are doing everything they can to keep people safe. “We’re just walking around but we’re doing something that’s historically significant to the area.”
The sea serpent project allowed Shake on the Lake to create some sort of summer content as New York State guidelines have not yet allowed theaters to reopen. Shake has spent the past several summers staging the works of William Shakespeare across the Western New York region.
Rice, who also founded the New York State Puppet Festival, said he had wanted to do something like the serpent puppet for the past five years. A grander display was being planned to take place at the New York State Puppet Festival this year, but the pandemic led to the festival’s cancellation.
Stabley and Gayford said designing the puppet was a collaborative effort, involving a lot of searching of images, doing historical research and wandering around Perry to get ideas about how the locals imagine the serpent in the lake.
The puppet sea serpent was made out of recycled materials such as cardboard and papier-mâché.
The story of the sea serpent in Perry comes from the Haundenosaunee originally, where they were known to be below-the-surface dwellers who feasted on the sick, pained and suffering as well as being noted for spreading illness and plague amongst the people to have more corpses to feast on.
In the mid-19th century, hotel proprietor A.B. Walker capitalized on the serpent legend to generate business for his hotel. In 1885, Walker and his friends built a fake sea serpent of coiled wire, waterproof canvas and paint, with air forced from bellows through a hose which ran through a gas pipe sunk in a trench in the lake. The serpent would appear on the lake at nighttime.
The monster’s appearance generated lots of publicity, scared some fisherman, and drew the public from all over into the area to get a glimpse of the monster. But the trick was revealed years later during a fire at the Walker House Hotel, when firefighters found “the creature” in the attic.
The serpent continues to inspire, lending its name to a community festival and bringing the first instance of large-scale pageant-style puppety to Perry on Saturday.