×

Lawn Chair Ladies celebrate 25 years

Winter Carnival favorites the Lawn Chair Ladies are celebrating 25 years of marching in the Gala Parade this week. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

SARANAC LAKE — Debby Harrison was decked out in everything Lawn Chair Ladies, commemorating Winter Carnivals from years past.

She wore a varsity jacket similar to the Pink Ladies from “Grease.” Her shirt said “Adirondack Women … Forever Wild” and showed the silhouette of a woman screaming from a mountain top. Around her waist she wore a blue sequined skirt, mimicking a mermaid’s fishtail. Little gold lawn chairs dangled from her ears and neck.

This weekend marks 25 years since the Lawn Chair Ladies’ Saranac Lake Winter Carnival debut. They celebrated Tuesday night with a party at the Left Bank Cafe. Every time a member walked through the door, all the other ladies would shout as if a sibling just came home.

“Lawn Chair Ladies are energetic, high-spirited women,” Harrison said.

Debby Harrison is seen at a party celebrating 25 years of Saranac Lake Winter Carnival favorites the Lawn Chair Ladies at the Left Bank Cafe Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

How did it start?

The origin of the Lawn Chair Ladies isn’t quite mythical or legendary like this year’s Carnival theme, “Myths and Legends,” but rather just a random, fun idea.

Sue Patterson is one of the founders of the group and one of only two to have marched in every parade since the group’s inception along with Karen “Doe” Smalley.

Patterson said a friend had told her about a parade she saw in Colorado where the Lawn Chair Precision Drill Team marched. In 1993, the team performed in then-President Bill Clinton’s inauguration parade. On her drive up to Saranac Lake for the 1995 Winter Carnival, Patterson thought, “We could do that.”

From left, three founding members of the Lawn Chair Ladies, Carla Milljour, Sue Patterson and Karen “Doe” Smalley, pose at the Left Bank Cafe in Saranac Lake Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

That year, a group of men rode lawn mowers in the Carnival parade. That was a little bit of extra motivation, Patterson said.

“We can do better than that with lawn chairs,” she said.

In 1996, the Lawn Chair Ladies arrived.

Since then, the Lawn Chair Ladies have been invited to perform in other events such as the Relay for Life fundraisers and regional St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Smalley said she didn’t even know what a Lawn Chair Lady was initially.

Julie Cotter, a member of the annually returning Winter Carnival Gala Parade act the Lawn Chair Ladies, performs in front of the judges stand during the 2019 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival parade. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

“I thought we were going to sit in lawn chairs and wave to people,” she said. “I had no idea what it was.”

Instead, they dance down the street, opening their decorated folding chairs and closing them with a clack in rhythm to their chosen music.

Smalley works for Community Bank, and when she went in for the interview, her employer took a good look at her and asked, “Aren’t you a Lawn Chair Lady?”

“I got the job, but I don’t know if one had to do with the other,” she said.

The Lawn Chair Ladies perform in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March 2019. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Evolution

That first year, the chairs were blank and the ladies wore white, crew-neck sweaters that said “Adirondack Women … Forever Wild.” Since then, aesthetics and performances have evolved to represent the theme of each carnival. In 2019, the chairs had pink leopard prints and dinosaurs on them. In 2016, the chairs were adorned with capes and had each lady’s name written on it in massive, 1960s “Batman”-style letters. Like plenty of aspects of Winter Carnival, the Lawn Chair Ladies’ upcoming outfits and routines are top secret. Nobody outside the group is supposed to know a thing before parade day.

“We try to keep the music and costumes a secret as best as we can,” Colleen Parker said. “A lot of us are known to blast the music as we drive or listen to it in our offices. Some people probably figure it out maybe before parade day, but we don’t advertise it.”

Lawn Chair Ladies, dressed as butterflies, smile while doing choreographed dance moves on Broadway during the 2017, "Adirondack Wildlife"-themed Winter Carnival parade. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

Like family

Heather Tuttle said being in the Lawn Chair Ladies is like being in a family.

“I don’t want to say it’s like moms and grandmas,” she said. “We’re more like sisters.”

Parker has been a Lawn Chair Lady for 19 years. She remembers the first time she saw the group in the parade.

“They came down the street, and I said, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to be a Lawn Chair Lady,'” she said.

She said the friendships she’s made through the Lawn Chair Ladies keep her coming back each year.

“We’re a small town, so a lot of the people you still see throughout the year,” she said, “but some of these ladies I really only see regularly when we’re practicing for the parade.”

It’s a tradition that never gets old.

“It’s like saying to someone, ‘Why do you celebrate Christmas every year?'” Parker said. “It’s just a great time.”

The Lawn Chair Ladies march in the 2016 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Gala Parade. That year’s theme was “Superheroes and Villians.”