Bay Area ‘mad’ crazy about Mad Hatter Holiday Festival

Organizers will often say their upcoming event is better than ever, but due to recent weather reports, it’s hard to doubt Frank Malifrando.

Malifrando is the co-founder of the annual Mad Hatter Holiday Festival in Vallejo, which is now in its 13th year. Although he’s put in work over the years to advertise the event in movie theaters, cafe bulletin boards and highway billboards, Malifrando is also optimistic this year’s event will be better thanks to Saturday’s weather forecast.

Hardly any chance of rain.

A year after the event was hindered and shortened due to a number of storms in Vallejo, the Mad Hatter is back with more than 60 parade entries after only having approximately 35 last year, according to Malinfrando.

The parade will once again feature dancing groups, local schools and their bands, the Vallejo Fire Department, grand marshals the Tonga Twins, local dignitaries, nearly two-dozen stormtroopers, recently crowned Mrs. Vallejo, a Grinch, a church, a number of vehicles put together by Obtainium Works, a rhinoceros vehicle that shoots fire, members of a theater group and of course, Santa.

A girl enjoys watching Rhino Redemption, a gigantic rhinoceros that shoots fire, at the Vallejo Mad Hatter Holiday Festival in 2022. (Thomas Gase – Times-Herald file) 

If one has never been to the yearly event, think along the lines of Willy Wonka meets Tim Burton meets Alice in Wonderland. Once again, thousands of people want to line the street and go down the rabbit hole.

“Last year it rained but we still had the die-hard fans show up,” Malifrando said. “It’s become one of the biggest traditions in the Bay Area and it’s more regional now. I won’t even put out a news release and other news outlets are describing it as one of the best holiday festivals in the area. This year we have more entries and our vendors are swamped. The event is completely sold out.”

Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell recently gave praise to Malifrando’s annual event and his tireless work.

“Frank Malifrando began the Mad Hatter Parade festivities over 12 years ago, and it was one of the best things to ever happen to Vallejo,” the Mayor said. “He came to town with the idea when Vallejo was facing one of the darkest times in our history. The community was reeling from bankruptcy. Frank gave us joy and instilled renewed hope to our community … He continues to engage the entire community and entertains many families throughout the entire area.”

The event will have its share of favorites such as the “Rhino Redemption” vehicle made by Kevin Clark, Lisa Guiterrez-Wilson as the Grinch with her flash mob consisting of approximately 30 people, Obtainium Works’ Magic Lamp, Solano AIDS Coalition, the fire-breathing “Dragon Wagon” and the “Gnome Mobile.”

The Grinch and the Grinchettes dance during a flash mob before the Mad Hatter Parade in downtown Vallejo. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
The Grinch and the Grinchettes dance during a flash mob before the Mad Hatter Parade in downtown Vallejo. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald file) 

Schools will once again be well presented as the Cal Maritime cadets will return after missing a year and will join Jesse Bethel, MIT Academy and Hogan Middle School.

Churches will also be in the mix, which Malifrando says is rarity.

“Bridgeway Church will be in it this year and will be coming as Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Malifrando said. “I’m really glad because I want churches involved and this is only the second time it’s happened at this event. Emmanuel Church of Vallejo was involved in the July 4 Mad Hatter Parade, so I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The community grand marshals will be Tim and Sue McDonald of the Empress Theater, while the official grand marshals will be the Tonga Twins – Kaoz, born Steffanie and Kona, born Ashley – won the Women in Wrestling Tag Team Championship this summer.

“The Tonga Twins were happier than I was when they accepted!” Malifrando said, with a laugh. “We are supplying them with makeup and hairstyle people as they will be in character for the parade, which I think is really great. Hopefully they don’t knock me out at the tree-lighting ceremony.”

The grand marshal last year was DL da ARSUN, while past grand marshals include Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and Grammy-award winning artist H.E.R., both Vallejo natives.

Santa will once again be portrayed by Thomas Bilbo, who has played the role since 1995 when he lived in Mississippi before taking on the character in San Francisco and Vallejo for over a decade.

Santa, played by Tom Bilbo, dances as he delivers Mad Hatter Parade grand marshal DL da ARSUN to the tree lighting ceremony on Saturday. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
Santa, played by Tom Bilbo, dances as he delivers Mad Hatter Parade grand marshal DL da ARSUN to the tree lighting ceremony in 2022. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald file) 

“Oh yeah, we’re glad to have Thomas back,” Malifrando said. “I mean, he’s easily the Santa of the city.”

Former Times-Herald staff writer Rich Freedman will be the MC of the event, while Malifrando also said that there also be plenty of activities like a bounce house for kids at “Unicorn Park” between Sacramento and Santa Clara streets.

The Vallejo Historical and Naval Museum will have a USS Saginaw float this year, while Malifrando also noted that the “Stairway to Heaven” float with a 15-foot ladder will return for the first time since the second annual event.

Although activities are slated to begin with the day’s Farmers Market around noon, the actual parade is scheduled to start at the corner of Sonoma Boulevard and Georgia Street around 4:30 p.m. and conclude at approximately 6 p.m. to kick off the tree lighting ceremony near Martin Luther King Park.

A lighted boat parade will take place at the waterfront from around 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., while live bands will continue to play throughout the night.

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