Alfred Iannarelli

photo by Giulio Muratori

by Marisa Iacobucci

Alfred Iannarelli was only three and a half when his Zia Graziella took him to see the Santa Claus Parade on his very first day in Toronto back in 1953. Little did she know that she was holding the hand of the event’s future general manager and creative director.

Iannarelli and his parents had arrived the night before, travelling from Popoli, Abruzzo to Halifax by ship, then to Toronto via train to begin their new lives with his mother’s sister (Zia Graziella), who had sponsored his family. “I was so young, but I remember feeling overwhelmed because it was all so new,” says Iannarelli, 68. Iannarelli eventually got used to his new surroundings but never forgot the magic and wonder of his first holiday experience in Toronto. And, it turns out, that magic and wonder would continue to swirl around him.

In 1961, his family moved to the Jane and Wilson area, and Iannarelli attended Downsview Secondary School where he took part in an experimental art program. “My path was definitely art and creativity. From a young age, I would draw all the time. In this program, most of the day was taken up by art subjects, but we had to take English and physical education. We were basically the envy of everyone else in the school because while they were doing algebra, we were doing pottery.”

It was because of this program that Iannarelli would end up working for the parade. In his last year of high school, he did a two-week field placement at the parade. “I was offered a summer job based on the artwork that I did: four teddy bear sculptures.”

Iannarelli, who had just completed grade 12, was ready to move on to a post-secondary education. He got accepted to all the art schools to which he’d applied but wasn’t sure where he wanted to go. 

When he asked the parade’s artistic director at the time, Jim Carmichael, for advice, Carmichael suggested he take a year off, work for the parade and then decide. “I’m still deciding where to go. I never left,” laughs Iannarelli. “I was 19 at the time and just worked from the very bottom up.”

Iannarelli worked for the parade for 12 years while it was sponsored by Eaton’s department store. When Eaton’s dropped out, a volunteer board of directors took over the parade, which became a non-profit organization in 1982. A year after the transition, Carmichael retired and Iannarelli became the parade’s temporary manager. He was soon made general manager and creative director. Some members of his full-time staff have worked alongside him for decades. “When we first took over the parade, we weren’t a corporation that had money, so we worked with sponsors who we see as our partners. And it’s mainly because of these sponsorships that we have survived over the years,” explains Iannarelli.

The city is also an extremely important partner, offering police and ambulance services, as well as all the other services that ensure the parade runs efficiently. And, of course, there are the hundreds of volunteers – from the drivers of the floats who are all paramedics, to the marshals who look after the kids, to the parade participants and the kids who get community hours volunteering for the parade. “The parade brings so many people together,” says Iannarelli. “We hear so many stories from generations of families, and it crosses all ethnic and religious boundaries. The wonderfulness of the city of Toronto is in our crowds.”

After 49 years working for the parade, the excitement never gets old for Iannarelli. His wife Sara is a constant source of support. His daughter Chiara, a talented artist herself and a musician, also helps out at the office whenever she can. “I like to think that I have helped the parade grow and played a part in keeping it alive and bringing the magic and joy to the city of Toronto for as long as I’ve being doing it,” says Iannarelli. “And, certainly, it’s not a one-man show by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a very big team effort.”