Don't rain on our Preakness Parade!

Baltimore Glimpses

May 10, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

ON the cold, rainy Sunday of Mother's Day, May 11, 1969, a thin, short and mostly silent parade of five floats rolled bravely out of the Fifth Regiment Armory south down Howard Street.

The paraders would go to Baltimore Street, turn east to Holliday and end up at City Hall. The marshal of the parade, such as it was, was Frank Hennessy, a local sports and media personality best known as spokesperson for National Beer and its promotional sailing vessel, "Chester Peake." Police estimated the crowd, all the way from the armory to City Hall, at fewer than 150 people.

This was the first Preakness Day parade and the first of the so-called Preakness Festival Weeks -- not, in the parlance of the race itself, off to a good start.

Twenty-five years have gone by since that first, feeble civic attempt to make the Preakness a world-class event and draw the eyes and ears of the world to Baltimore.

This year, according to Terry Romanelli, spokesperson for Preakness Celebration, Inc., there will be "no less than 17 mega-events, including the big parade, the hot air balloon festival, Bud Lite Nights on Water Street, the Bay Bash at Sandy Point and maybe a dozen lesser events."

All this is leading up to the race -- which lasts about three minutes. Next week, a good portion of Baltimore will turn into a singing, dancing, betting, frolicking, hell-raising festival of celebration.

But in 1969, on that long-ago and unpromising Sunday afternoon, Preakness Week festival was an idea whose time obviously had not yet come.

Speaking of the civic leaders who organized it, a reporter wrote early that April, "They have taken on the challenge of trying to excite Baltimoreans -- something that so far only the Colts and the attacking English back in 1814 have been able to do."

A look at what went into Preakness Week that year reveals that it was nothing more than a package of whatever civic stuff was going on that week anyway: regularly scheduled Hopkins lacrosse, dinner theater, baseball games, Sherwood Gardens.

"So far as they related to the Preakness," one who remembers the days says, "the Preakness was just another horse race."

Opening up the infield to the sunlit, shirtless, rock-and-roll, beer swigging craziness some five hours before the race, according to Zee Williams, spokesperson for Pimlico, did not come along until 1970.

But back to the parade -- the first one. When it arrived in the downpour at City Hall, Roger Goss, then in promotion with National Brewery, stood in the shelter of the alcove -- shivering and lonely.

"I remember thinking, who would go downtown to watch what we called a 'Preakness Parade' on a Sunday afternoon in those days?"

Those days have finally became these days, and here we are looking next week at a dizzying calendar of concerts and dances and tournaments and kooky event!

Come Monday -- and they're offs!

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