Little cars, big hat, fun 4th

Parade: Shriners take a break from the official business of their national convention to celebrate.

July 05, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The vehicles rolling down Pratt Street yesterday were much tinier than usual.

For about four hours yesterday, the Inner Harbor was transformed by a colorful parade of all things great and small about the Shriners, from the Mason group's trademark miniature cars and motorcycles to a larger-than-life walking, waving velvet fez that hugged children in the crowd of about 25,000 lining the street.

"Everybody loves a parade," said Raoul L. Frevel Sr., Imperial Potentate (head of all heads) of the Shriners. "But ours is so different from all other parades."

To say the least.

Of the dozens of Independence Day festivities throughout the Baltimore area - parades in Catonsville and Annapolis, a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performance at Oregon Ridge in Cockeysville and fireworks in Columbia - there was only one place to spot motorized flying carpets and camels, a lighted, spinning fez float and brass bands with marchers who all seemed to qualify for senior citizen discounts.

Bob Ritter, deputy director general of the Shriners' 2005 convention, said the city requested that the daytime parade be held yesterday, in an attempt to attract an even bigger crowd to the traditional Inner Harbor fireworks display.

About 3,500 Shriners from 70 of the 191 Shrine centers in North America tromped along the route from Camden Yards to Market Place near Port Discovery.

Dozens of fire-engine red "Jeepster" convertibles carrying Shriners dignitaries, such as Paul F. Huether, Illustrious Potentate of the Boumi Shrine in Baltimore, heralded the start of the event.

Next came a seemingly endless stream of clowns, floats, bands and miniature vehicles of all varieties. Smiling men waved from motorcycles the size of Big Wheels. Tiny Jeeps, Model-T Fords, airplanes, motor boats, a fire engine - even several "big rigs" that were actually quite small - made figure-eights in the street.

"Fred the Fez," a costumed character with a smile, giant eyes and a long tassel, bounded along the street. Fred mugged for photos with children such as 9-year-old Hana Zevgolis, whose family was visiting from Raleigh, N.C. But did she know what she was hugging?

"Um, a hat?" she said, sounding unsure.

Several "dancing Aladdins" waved their shiny metal swords and swiveled their hips as they marched, to the delight of the crowd. A giant, lighted fez whirled by on a float made by the Syrian Shrine in Cincinnati, Ohio.

There were floats and marchers with a message, too.

A float from Ocean City chugged by with two child-sized mannequins outfitted with crutches and a wheelchair. A banner carried by the Chester River Shrine Club read: "Clowning to help burned and crippled children."

"The parade was a huge success," said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for the Shriners, noting that there were no injuries or heat-related illnesses. She said the Shriners have received "outstanding" cooperation from the city, particularly from police and emergency workers.

Formally called the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the Shriners raise money for their 22 hospitals in the United States, Canada and Mexico, which provide free care to children with severe burns or orthopedic conditions. Most of the members are older men. They wear tall, burgundy caps called fezzes and have Middle Eastern rituals that date to 1872, the year they opened their first temple in New York City.

About 20,000 members are in town for their national convention, which continues through Thursday. The group estimates that it is pumping at least $50 million into the local economy while they're here, mainly through booking scores of hotel rooms. The Shriners last came to town in 1939 and have been planning this event for five years.

When they're not throwing a parade - there's another one tomorrow night - or showing off their cars and bands in various pageants, the Shriners will be conducting official business, such as electing new leaders. Also on the agenda today is a vote on whether to move the organization's Montreal hospital, its oldest, to London, Ontario.

The dozens of bright-yellow helium balloons clumped at the intersection of Charles and Pratt streets looked festive, but they carried a message: Montreal.

About 250 residents from the Southeast Canadian city flew into Baltimore on a chartered plane yesterday morning to urge the Shriners not to relocate the hospital. They wore T-shirts bearing colorful photos of children and the plea, "Please don't close our Montreal Hospital" and chanted "Montreal, Montreal" throughout the parade. It was so peaceful it could barely be called a protest, though the chant grew louder as the Ontario Shriners passed by.

Ryan Peladeau, a 21-year-old who has spina bifida and was treated at Montreal Shriners Hospital from the time he was 9 months old until this year, sat in his wheelchair watching the floats pass.

"It's too bad that it's leaving," he said as his mother reminded him that the move wasn't a done deal. "But people will benefit wherever they go."

His mother, Heather Peladeau, called the potential move "horrible." She said her family had been planning to volunteer at the hospital because it has become like a second home to them.

But yesterday was mostly about fun and floats. "It's another thing we do for the kids," Frevel, the Imperial Potentate, said. Adults seemed to enjoy the spectacle, too.

"I never miss a parade," Baltimore resident Marian Wylie said from her folding chair, taking a break from loudly cheering for just about everyone who passed by. "This is the best one we've had in a long time."

She'll be back tomorrow night, she said, for the shorter, nighttime version of the parade. That's when the Shriners will attempt to mark their visit to Baltimore with an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. They'll try to break a record, set in 1991, of the largest assembly of clowns.

They'll need 851.

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