Duke Steals The Show

Allan Appel PhotoA movie star spread joy at this year’s festive tree-lighting on the Green. And no one even asked for his hoof-a-graph.

Move over Frosty and Rudolph and all you mythical and mechanical reindeer. Meet Duke, a genuine real, live equine cinema celeb.

Duke was happy to haul hundreds of delighted kids and their parents around the Green in the carriage ride at Thursday night’s jam-packed holiday tree-lighting.

He did it all for an occasional pail of diced oats and hay.

At just after 6 p.m., at least 5,000 revelers paused in their promenading and taking photos with Frosty and with Santa. The eastern quadrant of the Green hushed. Then came the countdown. . . . three, two, one ... and the assembled crowd in unison oohed-and-ahhed as the city’s official 65-foot Norway spruce clicked on its red, white, green, and blue electric finery.

Long before that anticipated moment, in fact for the previous two hours, Duke, an imposing 20-year-old white Percheron draft horse, pulled a carriage chock full of at least a dozen people around the Green every ten minutes or so.

Each time his circumambulation of the Green was complete, Duke paused at the midpoint of Temple Street. There passengers like the Taylor and Bellamy family disembarked, and a new group climbed on.

During the break Duke was fed oats and hay.

Here was an opportunity to get a different angle on the holiday celebration this year in downtown New Haven.

As Duke’s toothy mouth bobbed with gusto in and out of the bucket offered to him, his black blinders made it hard to make eye contact. Duke also didn’t want to use all his break just to answer questions. Especially when there was food around.

Still, a portrait emerged of a horse who turns out to be quite a star.

Duke is all business, said his driver and interpreter Don Bezanson.

That’s likely why he has nabbed so many roles in the movies. A star doesn’t like to admit this, but Duke is owned. Yes, owned by Allegra Farm in East Haddam.

Duke said he spends a lot of time at Mystic Seaport pulling carriages, but that’s not all.

Over the years he has been rented to appear in many movies. He has played big roles in some, including Amistad, director Stephen Spielberg’s cinematic take on the 1839 slave ship mutiny, whose legal aftermath unfolded in New Haven.

As Duke hauled his load of Christmas celebrants on the dirt path, the statue dedicated across the street to Amistad revolt leader Cinque neared. It was not clear if Duke paused to ruminate.

“He’s a star,” said Bezanson, who noted that Duke’s other credits include the 2009 film Light Keepers with Richard Dreyfus and Golden Boys with David Carradine.

Such period films set in the early 20th century needed some horses you can believe in. Duke is certainly one of them.

John Allegra pulled up in another carriage pulled by two of Duke’s stable mates, fellow big draft horses named Joe and Zena. Allegra said not to miss Duke’s latest film: Something Whispered. Starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., it’s about the underground railroad.

He said Duke’s career has included attending an event in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.

Well, how does a star who has dined at the Waldorf and rubbed shoulders, as it were, with the likes of Anthony Hopkins react to the clearly more mundane job he was performing on Thursday night at the Green?

Duke referred the question to his driver, who answered: “Duke likes to work. Horses [in general and Duke] like repetition. They like to know where they start and where they stop.”

And to know that bucket is there when the stopping point arrives. After the night’s chores, Bezanson said Duke would receive a treat of Christmas goodies, mainly apples and carrots.

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