By Nikita Stewart and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Marching bands are tuning instruments and cheerleaders are readying pompoms in anticipation of getting selected to stroll on Pennsylvania Avenue in President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural parade.
Just one hiccup.
If hopes are realized and they get the nod, they've got an even bigger challenge: finding a place to stay within marching -- or driving -- distance to the city.
Band directors, trying to make contingency arrangements, are facing the same struggle as other would-be visitors, with demand high to get near what could be the biggest inaugural celebration in the country's history. It's one thing to find a hotel room for your family or a couch to crash on. It's another to find a block of rooms for a group that may number 200 or more. Plus the drums, tubas and the like.
"The furthest we've ever put a group is Rockville," said Justin Shuler, owner of Group Travel Network, which arranges trips for marching bands and student groups. "Now we're looking at southern Virginia and Pennsylvania. . . . It's impossible to find rooms. It has never been this difficult."
Hotels, he said, are so busy that they don't have to be flexible about a marching band's traveling plans.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee, the group in charge of pulling together the parade and other festivities, is working with city officials to identify alternative accommodations, such as high school gyms and churches that might be suitable for overnight stays.
"Part of our commitment to holding the most open and accessible inaugural activities in history is working closely with officials in the District and surrounding jurisdictions to find creative solutions to the challenge of housing as many of the parade participants who need it," said Josh Earnest, the inaugural committee's director of communications.
Such assistance would be welcomed by parade hopefuls. The District's hotels are just about booked up, along with an additional 70,000 or so hotel rooms in what is known as greater Washington. Houses and condos are getting scooped up on Craigslist.
For the past few weeks, the Lowndes High School marching band, from Valdosta, Ga., has been trying to reserve lodging in hotels around Washington just in case.
The closest they could get? Williamsburg, a 150-mile, 2 1/2 -hour trek to Pennsylvania Avenue on a good day.
"We'll probably leave Williamsburg at 3 or 4 a.m. We're just anticipating the traffic to be horrendous that day," said Charles E. Todd, the school's director of bands.
Interest in the parade has been unprecedented.
The Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, which does the first screening, received 780 applications from groups that were appropriate to march in the parade, more than double the number that applied for the 2005 parade for President Bush's second term.
Fewer than 100 bands and other groups were selected in 2005.
An additional 600 acts -- choirs, poets, vocalists and other performers -- applied to participate in whatever else might be happening inaugural weekend, said Navy Lt. Mike Billips, a spokesman for the armed forces committee.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee, which makes the final choices, has not set a date for the announcements.
"I would expect that [the presidential committee] would want to do it quickly so that the groups can make their travel arrangements," Billips said.
The contestants are trying their best angles. In its application, the Grant Wood All-City Drum and Bugle Corps of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, noted its status of being from the state that kicked it all off for Obama. "We would be honored in this particular year to rise up from our flooded community and represent the state that gave President Elect Obama his first caucus victory," the group's submission stated. "We ask your profound consideration to be a part of such a memorable, defining moment in history."
If the group gets chosen, it plans to stay in Philadelphia, where the 45 children and 45 adults can visit the Liberty Bell and grab cheese steaks. It would be much deserved after a marathon bus ride.
Slayton Thompson, Grant Wood's band director, was reluctant to make solid plans until the group could find out whether it has been selected -- a hesitation that has had a cost.
Grant Wood performed in the 2005 inaugural parade and stayed that year at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center, a relatively short drive from downtown, which could have been secured this time with a $1,000 deposit. But Thompson didn't send in the money. "I didn't follow my gut," he said.
Karen Blazaitis, of Michigan's Mid American Pompon All Star Team, said her group, which has performed choreographed cheerleading in four inaugural parades, wants to march again this time. The group has been making calls but turned up no accommodations.
But some potential parade participants are lucky enough to have housing lined up.
The 18 horses of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Mounted Patrol Unit have reservations at the Prince George's Equestrian Center, said sheriff's Deputy Paula Hite.
Finding shelter for the riders has proved more difficult.
She said the sheriff told her that he could help the humans into some welcoming homes. "I said, 'Okay, not a problem,' " Hite said.
It's that or snuggling next to Cisco, her quarter horse.
"My horse is pretty warm. I guess I could bunk down there with him," Hite quipped.