In some ways, it was similar to many of the other Independence Day celebrations that took place throughout the country today.
Flags flew proudly up and down the length of an old-fashioned Main Street. Several hundred people participated in a big parade--old, young, on foot, in cars or waving from homemade floats--while a thousand or more spectators came to watch and cheer. And stirring march music, composed by John Philip Sousa and other practitioners of the trade, provided a rhythmic and melodic impetus for the whole shebang.
And yet the 2000 Boombox Parade, which ran its course in this gritty, charismatic mill city this morning at 11, is unlike any such gathering in the country. Its most immediately apparent distinction is the lack of a marching band--or for that matter, of any live music whatsoever. Instead, participants and spectators bring their own radios and tune them in to WILI-AM, which then provides a sort of soundtrack to the day's activities. The two-thirds-of-a-mile procession thus takes place to the accompaniment of dozens, maybe hundreds, of radios all playing the same tune.
"Canned" music for a real parade.
Photos With Bozo
Kathy Clark, a Section 8 subsidy coordinator for the Willimantic Housing Authority, came up with the idea for the Boombox Parade in 1986. Funding for the arts had been cut throughout the United States and Willimantic was no longer able to support a high school marching band.
"I was drinking with some friends at the Victorian Lady," she said, referring to a popular restaurant in the middle of town, "and we came up with this crazy idea. We agreed to get our friends involved, and then we took the idea to the radio station. And I think they may have thought the idea was pretty weird, but they went with us. We had only a few floats the first year, and not too many people. But we kept coming back."
As it happened, the event was widely reported and greeted with some initial shock. John Glasel, then the president of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, issued a Jovian statement calling the parade "grotesque."
"The Orwellian year of 1984 has come and gone and the predictions of 'Brave New World' are coming true," he wrote.
If so, on today's evidence, it's a fun new world.
Many would agree that the diminishment of arts funding is no good for anybody, let alone in a place like blue-collar Willimantic. And yet the Boombox Parade is now more popular--and unquestionably more interesting--than many a "live" celebration.
Lynn Castelli, director of Arts in Action, an educational and presenting organization in Willimantic, applauds what she calls "a very artistic parade": "There is no sign-up, no structure. Anybody can be in the parade. There's no accreditation, no set message. It's merely a reflection of the community."
For Wayne Norman, the WILI radio host who has been associated with the event from the beginning, the parade "captures the true spirit of Independence Day. No matter who you are, you're welcome in our parade. There's a mixture of historic pride, local politics, and a certain tongue-in-cheek quality that makes it all a little wild."
Westward along Main Street traveled representatives from the Light on the Hill Christian Fellowship, the Moose Lodge, the 4-H Club, the Green, Democratic and Republican parties and the Wild Women of Willimantic. Several floats called for the preservation of Hosmer Mountain, an 82-acre enclave of open space reportedly being considered for development.
Residents of the dilapidated Hotel Hooker (a name that has inspired giggles for years) came out to look over the festivities. Doug Fraser proudly paraded by in his 1956 fire engine, which was towing a plastic buffalo and an even older firetruck--a Model T from 1926. At the encouragement of the crowd, he turned on his old siren and the crowd heard a moment that might have come from a 1950s movie.
A poodle, fancily shaved and decked out in wildly clashing pastels, was a favorite of some children. Candy and beads were thrown from the floats, as if this were a little northern Mardi Gras. You could have your picture taken with W.C. Fields, Albert Einstein or Bozo the Clown. A woman in front of a Baptist Church offered free lemonade, while a young boy made an Indianapolis-size roar with his go-cart. It was a hot day and one gentle soul wandered around with a watering can, drenching the bare feet of kids' sitting on the curb.
The Peoples' Party
Willimantic, a city of 15,000 located seven miles south of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, has been through some rough times. In 1974, it was the first city to go bankrupt since the Great Depression. (It is now officially incorporated as part of Windham County.) The following year, a mall opened just over the border in Mansfield, and many of the businesses on Main Street moved to the newer site shortly thereafter. Suddenly, the city took on an eerie postwar quality.
In 1984, it was announced that the American Thread Co. was moving south to Georgia, and the largest industry in Willimantic closed up its vast and wonderful Victorian factory within two years. Many people feared this was a mortal blow to the city.
And yet, somehow, Willimantic has persevered. Gigantic gingerbread homes on Prospect Street have been lovingly restored, and the old post office is now a thriving bar and restaurant. There are ambitious plans for the old factory building. The city seems battered but absolutely unbowed.
"Willimantic is turning around," affirms selectman Tom DaVivo. "There's a lot of positive mental energy here these days."
As the floats went by, Catherine Crossgrove, a 10-year-old who will begin classes at Mansfield Middle School in the fall, collected sack after sack of what used to be called penny candy. "I'd like to build a float that said 'Happy Fourth of July!' on it and then I'd throw Tootsie Rolls over the side. I'd bring along some streamers and some farm animals, too--a chicken and a rooster."
"Everybody cheers and nobody boos," said her aunt Camilla Crossgrove. "The parade is diverse and friendly. People put aside their differences."
Poet Gray Jacobik, a professor of literature at Eastern Connecticut State University, celebrated the parade in a recent opus titled "Under the Sign of Walt Whitman."
Church groups, clubs, proponents of this-or-that, businesses, bureaus, kids on bikes and skateboards, dogs, politicians and librarians all convey themselves down Main Street, so American you could cry and of course you do for the wonder of it, for the glory of the human pageant and its gift for self-expression. . . . In this wild discombobulated American-style hubbub, we celebrated community and the blessing of liberty, we celebrate ourselves.
Kathy Clark is certain that there will be another Boombox Parade next year. Despite the success of her endeavor, there are no plans to "move up" to live music.
"A band wouldn't really work with what the parade has become," she said. "As a matter of fact, we had a group of musicians in from Venezuela and they wanted to play in the parade. We talked it over with them and they understood. In the end, they carried radios. And they had a very good time."