As members of the Fallston High School marching band strutted before the crowd lining Bosley Avenue yesterday morning in the 80th annual Towson Area Fourth of July Parade, Jen Diener nervously took the lead, concentrating on not tripping over the giant cougar paws covering her feet.
Diener, 17, had planned on playing the clarinet deep in the ranks of the Fallston band but at the last minute found herself drafted by the band director to play Gar, the Fallston High School mascot.
For Diener, playing Gar was "the opportunity of a lifetime."
"I always kind of wanted to be Gar," Diener said, though she was worried about keeping her balance in the paws, which extended in front of her feet like furry flippers.
"Hopefully my head doesn't fall off," she added, eyeing the smiling, top-heavy cougar head that would soon sit on her shoulders.
Craig Harvey, the band director, said Gar is an important part of the band's performance at each Fourth of July parade.
"The kids get real excited when they see the big animals walking by and waving," said Harvey, who has seen former cougars go on to mascot fame. One became a feathered Ravens cheerleader. "She can't say anything inside the costume, but once she starts clapping, the crowd will, too."
Gar was just part of the celebratory show yesterday as a whole zoo of costumed characters marched through Towson to the sounds of patriotic tunes. There was Smokey Bear, Ronald McDonald, Ben Franklin's mouse Amos, and Puffin, a spokesbird for the National Aquarium.
But some of the favorites were missing this year, for the first time in a decade.
Costumes for Barney the dinosaur, Pongo the Dalmatian and about 18 others who usually march in the Towson holiday parade were destroyed in a house fire in January, said Skip Koritzer and Jeanne Kline, who have managed the costumed characters for the Towson Area Parade Committee since the early '90s.
"We lost costumes from Dalmatians to dinos, from chipmunks to tigers," said Kline, who made many of the costumes by hand. "Some we'll never be able to replace."
Although the parade committee ordered a few $1,500 replacement costumes after the fire, none arrived in time for this year's parade.
For the crowd in Towson, a few missing critters and cloudy skies failed to dampen spirits.
To help keep things moving there were bagpipe bands, firetrucks, classic cars, baton twirlers, Scout troops, Precious the skateboard dog and the reigning Miss Maryland, Towson University undergraduate Kelly Glorioso.
The oldest and largest Fourth of July march in the Baltimore region, the parade lasted about two hours, with participants marching up Bosley to Allegheny Avenue and then south past the county courthouse on Washington Avenue.
At the end, Diener the cougar said that though the costume was hot and the walking was tiring, she hoped to be Gar again next year.
"I'd like to," she said. "I'm getting used to having three fingers here."
"Next year there will be more furry animals," Kline promised.