Marching Through Details

Towson's parade panel rechecks the to-do lists before today's event

Maryland Journal

July 04, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

For Jackie Sims, it's been the Fourth of July since before Halloween.

There are funds to raise, a grand marshal to find. Chairs to set up, a sound system to wire. Roads to close, coolers to fill - and marchers, musicians, costumed characters, convertibles, antique cars and fire trucks to line up, about 1,000 moving pieces in all.

Staging the annual Towson Area Fourth of July Parade is a bit like hosting a political rally and inviting an amateur circus to march through it, with 75,000 people watching.

The parade lasts about 25 minutes, but takes months to choreograph and plan.

"It's a picture people think they know," Sims, the parade committee chairwoman, says. "But until they peel back the layers, they can't imagine the minute details."

After 12 years of serving on the parade committee, Sims has learned that this annual tradition has its own version of Murphy's Law: Someone in the parade will be late. Someone's car will break down. Something will go wrong by 7:30 a.m.

And yet, Sims says, the parade will be as glorious as ever.

"The kids come down on their bikes. The flags go up. The firetrucks are gleaming. The A-10s come screaming overhead. The band starts playing. And I start crying," says Sims. "It's still so Norman Rockwell, even at 11 a.m. on a 100-degree day."

Frank Kaufmann, a retired elementary school principal from Towson, has been watching the parade for about 25 years, and he's worked on it, as a former treasurer of the committee.

"It's fun. It's colorful. It's noisy," he says. "Everyone's happy."

Sims, a professional event planner, has had about 20 other volunteers on her team this year, including a lawyer, a priest, a teacher, an amateur radio operator, a neighborhood activist and a geographer.

At their last preparade meeting a week ago, they huddled in a downtown Towson law firm conference room with pages of notes, like budget analysts preparing for the fourth quarter.

Sims looks at a clock: 7:40 p.m. Ten minutes late already. Then she begins reciting their 10-page to-do list.

Does Jill have the coolers? Who needs a parking pass? Who will hose down the bus shelter in front of the old courthouse? Who can help Judy put the names of the VIPs on the back of folding chairs at 7:30 a.m.? Who will pick up the pastries from the bakery on Sunday and promise not to eat them before Monday?

Who can bring a water bucket for the horse?

Sims was still firing off details more than an hour later.

The parade committee began these monthly meetings in September. No one can count the number of e-mails and phone calls that have gone back and forth.

This is not Towson's biggest or longest parade, nor it is the only one held in Baltimore County on the Fourth of July - Catonsville, Dundalk and Arbutus each have a parade. That fact brings another round of details to consider.

If a band is marching in Dundalk's 8:30 a.m. parade, they'll need to be at the back of the line in Towson's parade, which begins at 10:30. And if a group is participating in the 12:30 p.m. Arbutus parade, they'll need to be at the front of Towson's parade. Catonsville's parade doesn't start until 3 p.m.

"It's like a ballet," says Sims. "Each of the parade committees works together on the lineup. Otherwise it would never work."

Fund raising for the parade began in October. The county government doesn't subsidize the parade, which will likely cost nearly $30,000. Gone are the days when bands marched for free. It's customary for bands to charge anywhere from $500 to $3,000.

"Unlike a public school, we have to rent our buses for the day. We often have to feed our kids. It's mostly to cover the costs we incur," says Mark Hart, director of the Calvert Hall College High School band, which has about 100 band and color guard members who will march in the Fourth of July parades in Dundalk and Towson.

Some of the funding and donations for the parade will come from local businesses, such as the Country Club of Maryland, which will gas up a few of its golf carts so parade organizers can zip back and forth across town. A local amateur radio operators club makes it possible for the parade organizers to spread out but still talk.

By January, the parade committee is negotiating parking spaces from garage owners, securing permits to close roads and finding ministers to say the blessing before the parade begins. By April, they've ordered ice, portable toilets, cardboard trash bins and secured two enormous water tanks - called water buffaloes - from the Maryland National Guard.

The committee begins tackling the lineup in June. A strict protocol for the order of the politicians must be followed, lest a more powerful elected official be offended by marching behind someone in a lower office. There are also safety concerns to think about, Sims says. "You don't want a Girl Scout troop marching behind a big truck, inhaling exhaust fumes."

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