SPRINGDALE, Washington County —

Just when you think you've heard of everything possible to do with a box of green Jell-O, along comes Larry McKown and his kooky annual ritual.

This Saturday will be the 26th time that the motel owner has helped stage a green Jell-O sculpting contest in honor of St. Patrick's Day, the arrival of spring and the official beginning of tourist season in what is arguably Utah's prettiest small town.

Besides the annual jigglin' o' the green competition, there will be a parade down Lion Boulevard with the Green Jell-O Queen, assorted pipers and dogs marching in green sweaters, and people who simply couldn't figure out anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon.

"We always start the parade at 1 p.m., because most people are too tired from partying the night before to get up early," says McKown, 69, longtime owner of Flanigan's Inn, just down the road from the entrance to Zion National Park.

"We don't have many Irish here, but anyone is welcome," he says. "And if you want to bring a giant green Jell-O sculpture, that's even better."

It was 1978 when McKown drove from his home in Salt Lake City to Springdale, intending to buy an old motel to fix up and resell. Stunned by the area's red-rock grandeur, he and his wife decided to stay, moving into a back room and christening the lodge Flanigan's after a Zion mountain named for an old Springdale Irish character.

Although his wife eventually left him and "ran off with the cook," says McKown, he wouldn't want to live anywhere else, especially on the Saturday after St. Patrick's Day.

Hoping to get the word out about the annual festival he started in 1985, he recently took time for a Free Lunch chat at his inn, where he'll soon be serving up hundreds of plates heaped with corned beef and cabbage.

"Not long after I moved to town, I could see that something needed to be done to perk things up in March, during the slow season," says McKown, who has served on every council and committee in Springdale over the years.

"A St. Patrick's Day celebration seemed like the natural solution. To draw people in, we thought, 'Why not do something with green Jell-O instead of green beer?'"

The idea was a huge hit, drawing Irish wannabes from miles around. Since then, McKown has seen every kind of Jell-O creation imaginable, from "Jell-O Brick Road" to "Mount Kiliman-Jell-O. "

"One year, somebody even made a Jell-O submarine," he recalls. "We've had people turn green Jell-O into mobiles and hang them from tents. We've had people sculpt Jell-O into prisms, cars and a five-foot cactus. The superintendent of Zion had an entry one year that duplicated a Michelangelo painting. He called it Michelan-Jell-O."

A few years back, one family decided to show their appreciation for McKown by sculpting a Jell-O leprechaun in his likeness. McKown chuckles at the memory. "When the contest was over, they rolled the sculpture into a ball and kicked me down the street."

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Out-of-towners are surprised to find such a big Irish celebration in an old pioneer town, but McKown is always ready to answer their questions.

No, he tells them, most green Jell-O sculptures aren't complete without pineapple and carrots. Yes, he says, tourists are welcome to use his kitchen at the last minute if they'd like to prepare a masterpiece for the big bash.

"People come to Springdale and wonder where all the Irish are," he says with a bemused grin, "and I have to tell them the truth: During the St. Patrick's Day celebration, every single person in Springdale is Irish."

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