Tomorrow night, Pensacola will ring in the New Year with its fourth annual “Pelican Drop.” Palafox Place will be closed off, with live music and other festivities leading up to the midnight countdown, when a 14-foot tall, 20-foot wide metal pelican is lowered á la the Times Square Ball.
The pelican was designed by Michael Dicks, who continues to maintain and operate the pelican every year. Dicks is the proprietor of Paper Napkin Design Studio, located across from Five Sisters on Belmont Street (which is a pity, because I would have loved an excuse to name this article “Birdman of Alcaniz”). Working with metal, wood, and just about anything else, Dicks specializes in functional design. The name Paper Napkin is a reference to his process with clients.
“Basically, you bring something in on a paper napkin, it doesn’t matter what it is, and I’ll help you build it,” Dicks says.
That’s sort of what happened four years ago, when CRA staff Thaddeus Cohen and Becky Bray were searching for someone to construct the pelican.
“What they wanted was something like the pelicans we have around town — the fiberglass painted pelicans,” Dicks recalls. “‘Something like that with lights.’ That’s what I was asked to make.”
The CRA had previously put a call out to local artists, but received no responses. With only a few months left until the event, they started looking at outside vendors.
“It was getting down to the wire,” Dicks recalls. “They were going to hire the guy who did the Peach Drop in Atlanta to build them something. I heard about it and submitted a bid and a mockup, and the rest is history.”
Originally the pelican was only going to be about 10 feet wide, but they quickly realized it would need to be bigger to be visible from atop the crane. Each of the 2,000 metal feathers were cut by hand and placed in overlapping layers. Because they’re cut from sheets of aluminum, the pelican itself is surprisingly light — only about 200 pounds. The whole rig weighs about 900 pounds, with scaffolding and cables accounting for most of it.
Dicks knew the lighting needed to be weather resistant, easily replaceable, and cost effective. His solution? Christmas lights. There are over 3,000 lights of different sizes and styles covering the rig.
“Every year when Christmas is over and they’re all on sale, I go and buy some extras,” Dicks says.
Not only do they burn out, but several bulbs are usually broken in transit to and from the pelican’s “nest” — a warehouse at the port where it resides most of the year. Then there’s the dust.
“Warehouses for whatever reason are amazingly dusty, and that one’s huge, with tons of stuff moving in and out. He looks sort of like asphalt when I show up there.”
So a few weeks before New Year, Dicks takes a pressure washer to the warehouse and gives the bird a bath. He also fabricates a new number for each year.
“The first year they were just plywood with aluminum skin, and every year that I change one out I’m making them with thicker sheet aluminum,” he says. “Eventually we’ll have a set, and we won’t need to keep making more. Once I have 1 through 9 and then an extra zero, we’ll have a set that will go through 2228 or whatever.”
On the morning of December 31, he helps transport the pelican from the port to Palafox, checks all the bulbs, and makes any necessary replacements. There’s a three-person team that operates everything for the show: Dicks, city employee William Smith, and a crane operator from local firm Tex Edwards.
“The crane guy, Tyler, is amazingly good,” Dicks says. “Last year we had some slack in the wires, and he simultaneously lowered the pelican while pulling the slack out of the scaffold part to keep it from moving.”
Together they tackle any unexpected issues that may arise during showtime, and there have been plenty.
The first year, there was so little time to construct the pelican that they couldn’t do a test run until the event day. When they got to the site they realized that the generator couldn’t sit right beneath the pelican, so they had to scramble to find 50 more feet of electrical cable.
That was nothing compared to the second year, when an errant news van drove over the switch box at 6 pm, crushing the light controls. ”So we had two hours to rewire the entire switch box before the event started,” he remembers. ”We didn’t have the parts and not many places were open, so I called a friend of mine who brought down extra switches and boxes. Not my favorite.”
And last year it was rainy — not severe enough to call off the show, but not the most pleasant way to spend a 20-hour workday.
“But every year there’s been something,” Dicks says, “so this year we’ll see.”