Marche du Nain Rouge returns to Detroit — but where's the fabled red dwarf?

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — For the first time since 2019, the Marche du Nain Rouge breathed life, and flames, through the Cass Corridor and ushered the return of spring after a long, dark winter.

One key element was missing from the parade, however: the Nain himself.

The parade kicked off from Second Avenue and Canfield Street, and fire show performers led the way with hula hoops and batons that shot flames.

Throughout the march, people held up signs with social and political messages, ranging from abortion-rights slogans and statements of solidarity with Ukraine to fluorescent yellow posters that read "Everything is Weird." 

At the tail end of the procession was a black hearse, with "Detroit Vs. Nain Rouge" painted on a large white banner on its side. 

A large crowd of costumed revelers gathers around the entrance to the Masonic Temple in Detroit at the end of the Marche du Nain Rouge, technically a dress rehearsal for next year’s Marche.

As for the devilish red dwarf himself, there was a "stand-in" that organizers tapped to wear a costume and stand beside them when they gave speeches at the closing ceremony that took place on the steps of the Masonic Temple.

But the people who brought the parade to life know that the real Nain was not around. 

People see the Nain as an embodiment "of everything that holds us back," according to parade organizer Vince Keenan of Detroit. 

"I think if the Nain is responsible for everything that's gone wrong, he's probably on vacation right now, given how much is still going wrong," Keenan told The Detroit News after the closing ceremony. "He doesn't need to come pester us at the moment."

A stand-in for the Nain Rouge checks out the crowd from the steps of the Masonic Temple in Detroit at the end of the Marche du Nain Rouge, which was hasn't happened since pre-pandemic 2019 and was technically a dress rehearsal for next year’s Marche.

Keenan and other members of the organizing committee decided to treat the 2022 march as kind of a transitional event, and a rehearsal for the "post-apocalyptic extravaganza" that will come in 2023.

Part of the reason they are rehearsing and deciding what the parade should look like, for Keenan, is that in 2019 they did things a little differently, deciding to embrace the Nain instead of banishing him, and the whole globe saw disastrous results. 

"Two years ago, on our 10th anniversary, we succumbed to some folks that had said, 'Oh, we should be inclusive and embrace everyone.' And so we did, and then the world ended," he said. "It might have been a bad move.”

The parade may have been canceled a third time, according to Clare Pfeiffer, also an organizer, who said it was only a few weeks ago that they knew they would be able to hold it at all this year.

“We really didn't know if we were going to have the parade or not, so we're just ecstatic that we could actually do it.”

Costumed revelers participate in the Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit.

As the tradition goes, folks at the Marche du Nain Rouge dress up, dusting off their finest red and black clothes and Grim Reaper costumes, and chase the devilish hobgoblin, taunting him like he taunted and tortured Detroit's founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, in the 18th century. 

The parade falls near the beginning of spring, or on the actual first day of the season as it did this year, and in Detroit is a farewell from parade goers to winter and a welcome to warmer days. On Sunday, as the sun shone warmly and brightly on attendees, that sentiment rang particularly true. 

Lisa Bohm’s best friend attended the last Marche du Nain Rouge in 2019 and many others before it, but passed away before she could see the parade return on Sunday to Cass Corridor after a two-year pandemic hiatus.

This year, Bohm, 43 of New Baltimore came to the march for the first time, with her friends and they each wore something their late friend, Gillian Bentley, wore to her last one. 

Jenny Farah, 41 of Armada chose Bentley’s boots to compliment her red and black outfit. Sofia Timkovski, 33, who drove from Toronto to honor Bentley and attend the parade Sunday, wore a red woolen coat. And Bohm, who had spiked red hair, and her daughter, Nya Bohm, each wore a necklace that belonged to Bentley.

A costumed reveler participates in the Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit.

For Timkovski, though the Nain Rouge, or the Red Dwarf, is a harbinger of doom whom she personally blames for the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of the march designed to have people taunt and then banish him meant that she got to see friends she hadn’t seen in two and a half years.

“I kind of love the Nain, to be honest,” said Timkovski. “But it’s still all his fault.”

The tradition of the Nain Rouge is still very much alive for Robert Ybarra, 40 of southwest Detroit who has attended the parade every year it has been around. 

“Oh for sure, you’ve got to get the evil out," said Ybarra. "And you have to come dressed as an alter ego so the dwarf doesn't recognize you."

Ybarra went to great lengths to make sure he would not be recognized by putting on display many different traditions in his outfit, all at once.

He was dressed in a Scottish kilt and matching blazer, a green Tshirt that pays homage to St. Patrick's Day but reads "kiss me, I'm atheist," and a cowboy hat with a plague doctor's mask on it. 

He alternated blowing air out of a vuvuzela to guide the parade goers down Second Avenue, and an Aztec death whistle he said was used to scare enemies during battles.

Outside the Masonic, to a large crowd standing on the steps of the temple, on Temple Street and spilling into Cass Park, organizers spoke during the closing ceremony about the transitional theme of this year's parade, and the post-apocalyptic extravaganza people have to look forward to next year.

Star Wars-clad John Dunivant of Lathrup Village poses with the A-Wing Fighter he built and entered in the Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit.

One of the speakers was the optimistic Spirit of Detroit's Future, played by organizing committee member Jamie Kaye Walters. She tries to convince her sister, the pessimistic Spirit of Detroit's Past played by Courtney Burkett, that this celebration is still meaningful, even though it wasn’t everything the parade sets out to be. 

"It matters that we are here," said Walters. "…We are the romantic fools who are willing to do passionate, stupid, glorious, grandiose, pointless and futile things to overcome what holds us back to bring us to a better tomorrow."