Meet the Grand Marshal of the Montauk St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Gordon Ryan marching with the Montauk Friends of Erin in the Am O'Gansett parade Durell Godfrey

The first time Gordon Ryan had a float in the Montauk Friends of Erin’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was around 1980, “and we snuck into the parade,” he said last week, looking back on his dozens of parade entries as he looked ahead to his role as 2019 grand marshal.

“We had a dune buggy. We went as Joe Surfers. We wore wetsuits and we had zinc oxide on our noses and we put seven surfboards — seven! — on the roof of this buggy.” A sign on the front read: “Geek Surf Club.” He and his buddies squeezed in just in front of an ambulance and a bus at the tail end of the lineup. This was back when the parade ran in the opposite direction, away from downtown rather than toward it. “We made it as far as the Shagwong, and our friends tried to bring the buggy into the Shagwong. They lifted it up onto the curb and the surfboards broke loose . . . and the parade went by. We couldn’t catch up.” 

The next year, they went back with a pickup truck. Mike Finazzo, who at the time was the president of the Friends of Erin, said, ‘Look, you guys are messing up the whole line of the march. Why don’t you just sign up?’ “ Mr. Ryan recalled. “And we said, ‘Because we don’t want to pay the entry fee,’ and he said, ‘You boneheads, it’s free!’ “ 

Mr. Ryan’s floats — hilarious, satirical, irreverent, and often quite raunchy — have been official entries almost every year since. By year three, they were under the banner of the Promised Land Salvage Company, a marine towing company that Mr. Ryan operated for about two years back when he was just starting out as a lawyer. “We had a whole bunch of floats with the theme the ‘Geeks Love Our . . . ”  — there was the Geeks Love Our Beaches, the Geeks Love Our Discos, the Geeks Love Our Motels, the Geeks Love Our Restaurants — “and we staged a pie fight in front of the judges.” 

“Then we started getting into current events,” Mr. Ryan said, a mischievous glimmer in his eye. His floats tackled the violent Greyhound bus strikes. He skewered the Salman Rushdie book “Satanic Verses” with a float titled “Satanic Nurses.” Each float walked just up to the line and sometimes crossed over it, often leaving parade-goers laughing and groaning in equal parts. After Lorena Bobbit was charged with cutting off her husband’s . . . umm, well, if you don’t remember, look it up . . . Mr. Ryan’s crew came up with Lorena’s Famous Sausages, and the crew dressed as bloody butchers.

“That one was wild, because we had strung hot dogs off the mirrors of the flatbed, and the Paddy Wagon hot dog truck gave us chopped up weenies. We were throwing them off the float, and by the end of the parade, there were dogs chasing the float.”

“That was the one I thought we were going to get kicked out for, but they gave us a hundred bucks and fourth place.”  

“A lot of the floats are other people’s ideas,” he said. His sister will call to tell him to turn on the TV news because she has seen something that might work for the next parade. That’s how Dick Cheney’s Gun Club came about in 2006, after the vice president accidentally shot a lawyer he was hunting quail with in Texas. 

The prostitution scandal that ended in the resignation of New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer led to Elliots Angels in the 2008 parade. A Bernie and the Debts float was the Promised Land Salvage Company entry after Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme came to light. There was Michael Jackson Day Care — “We were ahead of the curve on that one,” Mr. Ryan said — and Janet Jackson: Thanks for the Mammary after the singer’s infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The extramarital affairs of the golfer Tiger Woods were fodder for Tiger’s Cathouse: Kittens to Cougars. 

One year, it was Ultimate Hamptons S.U.V. With a View. “My friend had a great big cherry picker. . . . So I drove the truck and he was up in the bucket. . . . We would stop the float and raise the bucket way up. They guy would wave, get down in the bucket, and then throw a dummy out on a bungee cord.” The crowd would go wild. “We had the whole routine down to 12 seconds.” 

Another year, a dressmaker’s dummy outfitted to look like Saddam Hussein was shot out of a “rocket launcher” from the back of a dump truck. 

“Of all those floats, probably 35 or so, we’ve only won first prize twice,” he said. One was for Martha Stewart’s In-House Outhouse after the lifestyle guru was jailed in connection with insider trading scandal. The other was for the more recent Trump: Putin America First. 

The Friends of Erin, having told other marchers to steer clear of politics, “asked us not to be too political after that,” Mr. Ryan said. “So we said, ‘Okay.’ “

“The Friends of Erin didn’t like it, but the judges loved it and gave us 500 bucks.”

Every float is a show. Mr. Ryan credits his wife, Dianne Ryan, with all the fine-tuning. “She’s the brains of all these jokes.” She pulls together the costumes, finds the music to match, and usually rollerblades alongside the truck as one of the costumed spotters keeping the path clear. 

While his crew makes sport of poking fun at current events, Mr. Ryan said the Promised Land Salvage entries are “not party floats.” Pulling it all together is a serious operation, fueled by humor. The work trucks lent to the effort are often on the job until Saturday afternoon and need to be cleaned up and ready to go back to work by early Monday morning. 

This year, his duties as grand marshal mean the Promised Land Salvage Company will not have an entry in the parade. “I can’t babysit the float while I’m marching down Main Street.” 

When he was selected as grand marshal, he said, he “was floored. I really thought they would leave me alone as long as I was putting floats in the parade. I thought, ‘When I’m too old to climb up and down a flatbed, they’ll toss me a bone.’ “

Mr. Ryan, who has had an office in Montauk since 1983, is one of the few grand marshals not to come from the hamlet. “I see being grand marshal of the Montauk parade as the biggest honor that Montauk can deliver to someone,” he said last week. “I was just totally blown away by it.”

He has great respect for all of the good things the Friends of Erin do in the community, from funding scholarships to supporting sports teams to mounting the parade. “The work that they do is pretty compelling,” he said. 

In his legal practice, Mr. Ryan focuses on real estate and criminal law. Even there, he tries not to take himself too seriously. Maybe you have seen his bumper sticker: “Gordon Ryan, Esq., He’ll Get You Off.”

Mr. Ryan was a volunteer attorney advisor to the now-defunct East Hampton Youth Court for 11 years. He has done training seminars for local police and taken part in community forums on subjects like school violence and drunken driving. He and his wife run the race-committee boats for the Breakwater Yacht Club sailing races in Sag Harbor in the summer. He is also a past Mr. Amagansett, winning the crown in 2015 as Preacher Gordy George from the Parrish of the Promised Land.