The Carnival King Gets His Day

By Beacon Staff

In the late 1990s, Doogie Howser’s dad almost fell out of a limousine in Whitefish.

Fortunately, James Sikking had quick reflexes, as did his companion, Rick Donahue, sitting next to him. Sikking, an actor who played the father on the television show “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” had fallen out of the limo when the vehicle took a sweeping turn and his door somehow flung open. He latched onto the door, dangling precariously over the open road, while Donahue held him from behind.

Donahue finally reined in the actor and the Whitefish Winter Carnival proceeded without incident. Sikking was one of the carnival’s celebrities that year. For Donahue, it’s one of dozens of stories that bring a smile to his face when he discusses his more than 30 years of participation in the carnival, one of Whitefish’s most well-known and unique events.

“(Sikking) took it very well,” Donahue recalls. “He thought it was a fun little ride. You certainly don’t want to lose your celebrity coming down the road.”

The Whitefish Winter Carnival is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The nearly month-long festival culminates this weekend – Feb. 6 and 7 – with two days of parades, plunges into the icy waters of Whitefish Lake and jubilant bagpiping through the city streets, among many other activities. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, more than 120 past royalty honorees are returning to Whitefish to serve as grand marshals for the weekend.

The carnival kicked off on Jan. 10 with the Merry Maker dinner and party at the Great Northern Bar. Other events in the following weeks included a disco party and a skijoring competition, where skiers are pulled behind galloping horses. This Saturday, there will be a grand parade through town beginning at 3 p.m., followed later that evening by a torchlight parade and fireworks at Whitefish Mountain Resort at 7 p.m.

Saturday’s events also include a pie social, snowskate jam, the famous “Penguin Plunge” into Whitefish Lake and a “kiddie carnival” for the little ones. An international hockey tournament at Stumptown Ice Den will be held Friday through Sunday, while the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex hosts a cross-country skiing race on Sunday.

“There’s something, I believe, for everyone,” said Hillary Smith, one of the carnival’s organizers.

This year, Donahue was crowned the carnival’s king. He has been Herald the Hark, prime minister and prince of the carnival, but never king before. There is no man better qualified for the position than Donahue, whose ties to Whitefish run all the way back to the town’s origins: His adoption more than a half-century ago, which brought him from a convent in Iowa to Whitefish, was arranged by Sister Mary Regis, the first recorded woman born in the town in the early 1900s.

In Whitefish, Donahue grew up running the streets during winter carnival, picking coins out of piles of snow set up for the event. Now he finds himself standing as the carnival’s king on this 50th anniversary.

“Here I am, the 50th king of Whitefish,” Donahue said. “Destiny has its way of swinging around.”

Whitefish’s carnival is known throughout the nation. Five other carnivals in the country are based off of the same story of King Ullr, the Nordic “God of Winter,” but Whitefish was the first and is still the biggest, Donahue said.

According to the fable, Ullr left the Nordic regions when his followers had lost interest in him. He arrived in Whitefish with his prime minister and queen. Here he found a population of humans tormented by ill-intentioned yetis. When Ullr proved his power by protecting the humans from the yetis, they became his followers and began throwing an annual festival in his tribute. That festival is the Whitefish Winter Carnival.

Today, along with Ullr, the prime minister and queen, the yetis also run loose through the streets, along with penguins and goats. These costume-clad characters, Donahue said, are essential to the quirky vibrancy of the carnival – even the yetis, who persistently try to abduct the queen.

The characters create an aura of whimsical splendor, which Donahue said makes the event a treasure for children. Donahue’s favorite part of the carnival every year is the parade when he said he gets to look down and see the smiling kids.

“The look in their eyes, the wonderment – they’re just having a ball,” Donahue said.

The first carnival was held in 1960 by a group of locals who wanted to provide a refreshing escape from the doldrums of long, gray winters. Today, carnival organizers say the original group had no idea what their gathering would eventually become.

“They thought, ‘This will be a nice little party,’” Smith said. “Never in their wildest dreams did they think it would have a parade with 90 entries.”

The mastermind behind the carnival was Norm Kurtz, who loosely based his idea off of a similar celebration in St. Paul, Minnesota. Kurtz originally offered his proposal to Kalispell, Donahue said, but officials there declined. So the yetis and penguins came to Whitefish. The carnival’s popularity grew rapidly and it never slowed down.

“That snowball got bigger and bigger and bigger and kept rolling down that Big Mountain,” Donahue said.

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