Chantelle Rytter lives in a zoo.
The creatures crowding her tiny Adair Park bungalow — a 25-foot white alligator on the living room wall, a blue-beaked 14-foot phoenix in one corner — don’t resemble the residents of an earthly zoo. They’re more like escapees from the bar scene in “Star Wars.”
These animals are made out of bamboo and paper and are illuminated with battery-powered strings of lights. Some of them are huge. “This one,” she says, patting the alligator, “has eyeballs that change color.”
Beginning at 8 p.m. Sept. 22, these creatures will join hundreds of others fabricated by like-minded souls. Their keepers will gather, 60,000 strong, like an alien army. Powered by four brass bands, they will stroll north on the Beltline, from Irwin Street to Piedmont Park, filling the night with music and delight, guided by the bright-eyed drum major who started it all.
It is a yearly celebration called the Beltline Lantern Parade, and it all emanated from the mind of this diminutive Baltimore native, a woman who enjoys a party, but also cherishes being by herself so she can draw pictures.
As a parade artist, Rytter has been successful beyond anyone’s dreams, except perhaps hers. Not only has she generated one of the biggest participatory parades in the city, she has spun the idea into similar events from Sandy Springs to Florida. But with success come some hurdles.
“The space is challenging to fit that many people in,” she said of the Beltline’s Eastside Trail. “It’s 14 feet wide, it’s like a canyon. We are bringing a lot of people into a very, very small place.”
That’s why when she hears that the crowd could swell to 78,000, she cringes. “That’s too much. That’s the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.”
Security is always a concern for Rytter. Last year, in addition to hiring 24 off-duty police officers (combined with additional security provided by Park Tavern and the neighborhood of the Old Fourth Ward), Rytter secured a group of volunteer marshals to help protect the larger puppets and the bands from the curious fans who can become tripping hazards. Alicia Johnson, who animates a giant bird puppet in the parade each year, said “people run out in front of you, trying to take pictures, and it’s hard to stop that thing.”
Rytter has also changed the date of the parade, making it later in September to keep from crashing into Music Midtown. In recent years, when the parade ended in Piedmont Park, revelers tangled with metal fences and construction equipment on hand in preparation for the upcoming music festival.
Now there should be unfettered green space for marchers and puppets to ogle each other and hang out at the end of the evening on the expanse of The Meadow by Park Tavern, in the parks’ southeastern corner.
Rytter said it is finally dawning on her that you can make a living out of encouraging people to have a silly good time.
“I think I believe this is going to happen,” she said.
It wasn’t always easy to believe.
The parade business
Organizing parades is not a common career, and for the first 20 years of her working life, Rytter lived hand to mouth.
She graduated from Penn State with training in theater and a degree in “integrative arts,” but she did not see an immediate path to a job.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my education so I went to New Orleans,” she said, showing off her collection of mirrors in her scrubby back yard. “I’m a huge Tennessee Williams fan and he painted it so romantically. It spun my head around. I was not prepared for what all New Orleans had for me.”
Along with parades, brass bands and great food, New Orleans offered romance.
To her chagrin, that romance resulted in a marriage that brought her to Atlanta, which, in comparison to New Orleans, seemed “a soulless parking lot.”
Nonetheless, she found a community of friends at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, a Little Five Points watering hole. That group and some of her New Orleans friends became the Krewe of the Grateful Gluttons, a social group modeled on the Mardi Gras krewes: adept at cooking, eating, partying and staging events.
Prior to the Lantern Parade, the Krewe had been amusing itself for years by competing in the Little Five Points Halloween Parade and dressing in red conical hats, beards and suspenders as the gnome contingent in the Inman Park parade. This year they believe they have set a world record for the “largest gathering of people dressed as garden gnomes.” A message in Rytter’s inbox says Guinness wants a few more details before they bestow the honor.
“We had 755!” she said, noting the significance of the number in Hank Aaron’s hometown. “That’s a Gnome Run record!”
A divorce, another sojourn to New Orleans to learn float-building, a return to Atlanta and 10 years working as an in-house caterer for a law firm followed. All along, Rytter was cooking up ideas. When the Atlanta Beltline was in its infancy, proposals were sought for art works to celebrate the pathway. Rytter proposed a lantern parade.
That first year, in 2010, she and the Krewe mustered about 500 souls. “We were the spectators and the spectacle, all in the same sentence,” said Cameron Ayer, a beer salesman and early member of the Krewe, along with his wife Joy. The couple built creepy smiley-face street puppets that are still trotted out each year.
“She makes stuff that’s amazing out of stuff that’s not amazing,” said Ayer of Rytter.
To help grow the number of lanterns and participants, Rytter hosted $25-$45 workshops that quickly filled up. There she taught people how to make make lanterns, both simple and complex.
The next year the parade grew, and Rytter quit her law firm job. In 2013 more than 10,000 people fashioned paper lanterns, donned lighted hats, waved glow sticks and sauntered along the path. That was a turning point.
“That made my phone ring,” she said.
One by one she began adding more annual parades. The Decatur Lantern Parade launched in 2012 and returns each May. Sandy Springs debuted in 2015, with lighted creatures floating at the Morgan Falls dam, and returns each June. The latest addition was in August where she convened a Parliament of Owls lantern parade in Midtown. On Oct. 13, she brings her floating creatures to Avondale for the annual Light Up the Lake parade.
And a couple of years ago, she moved out of her rental house in Grant Park. She bought “the last cheap house” in Adair Park for $38,000 by robbing her 401k, and she renovated it using her income from coordinating her public extravaganzas.
Why does it work?
On a recent summer day, several weeks before the big night, Rytter leafs through illustrated notecards that describe each chapter of the parade’s procession. Some of the cards have thumbnail sketches of 14-foot-tall street puppets, some contain the names of the bands that will accompany them.
A well-timed parade needs a mix of features, bands and participants, and Rytter organizes her elements the way a storyboard artist prepares the scenes of a movie.
She works from a glass-walled studio on the ground floor of a 40-story Midtown skyscraper. She doesn’t have a permanent homebase for her lantern parade operation, and scrounges for space big enough to hold workshops and prepare her giant puppets for the big night. Last year, she applied for, and won, two years of free studio space provided by Cousins Properties. “There were 54 applicants for this spot and they gave it to the weird one,” she said. In exchange, she gave Midtown the Parliament of Owls parade.
Her methodical attention to detail and organizational skills are the other side of Rytter carefree personality. She is a successful grant writer, a persuasive salesperson and a natural leader. From her theater training, she recognized that the parade needed a big finish. This year she’s been working quietly on a new giant street puppet in the likeness of Puddles Pity Party, the singing, tear-stained clown persona created by extra-tall Atlanta performer Mike Geier.
“Puddles saw a picture online and it made his heart swell,” Geier said about the honor.
Most brilliantly, Rytter has capitalized on the fact that people like to see their city doing creative things.
“I travel a lot to tell the Beltline story,” said urban designer Ryan Gravel, who first proposed developing the abandoned railbed into a greenway. “I use the Lantern Parade as an example of one of these unexpected, life-affirming outcomes. People are always blown away by this kernel of an idea that grew into this.”
And apparently the people of Atlanta not only want to watch parades, they want to be in them. They want to make lighted paper birds and fish, cover themselves with electro-luminescent wire and cakewalk into town. The enthusiastic reception Rytter has received for her projects has changed her view of the city as a “soulless parking lot.”
“Atlanta has been so sweet to let me have this weird career,” she said. “What I thought was only in New Orleans was in Atlanta all along. Atlanta’s collective character is creative and playful. The Krewe and I just created a platform where that can be seen — probably from space.”