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SINCE YOU ASKED: WILLIMANTIC

No Trombones, No Glockenspiels, But Plenty Of Tunes

November 21, 2007

What can you tell me about the history of Willimantic's Boom Box Parade? D.C., Hebron.

W
illimantic's quirky July 4th parade started in 1986, when budget cuts forced Windham High School to cut its marching band, and the town had no band for its Memorial Day parade. The late Kathy Clark had a solution: marchers could provide their own music by tuning their portable radios boom boxes to local radio station WILI (1400-AM), which would play marching music. She presented the idea to WILI program director Wayne Norman, but there wasn't enough time to pull it together. In mid-June, she suggested the station take on the plan for July 4, and Norman thought, "Why not?"

Clark obtained a parade permit and gave the station a homemade cassette recording of marching music. Norman was parade marshal.

"It wasn't broadcast quality, but it got the job done," he said of the tape.

The parade received worldwide coverage, but an hour before it was to start, Norman wondered whether he had made the wrong decision: the stepoff point was deserted. But at noon, hundreds of marchers took to the half-mile route along Main Street. Some rode bikes, pushed baby carriages or walked dogs. They dressed as Abe Lincoln and Superman. It was organized spontaneity wrapped around the idea of what it meant to be American. The only requirements were that marchers sport red, white and blue and carry boom boxes tuned to WILI.

Not everyone loved it. John Glasel, then president of the Associated Musicians of New York, called recorded music at a parade "grotesque" to music and music lovers. But a tradition was born.

The following year saw the birth of the Traveling Fish Head Club of Northeast Connecticut, a giant painted paper fish wrapped around a wood frame under which eight people can march. A new fish emerges and carries a different message each year. Norman also made a studio tape of marching music from 33 RPM records that Clark provided.

The route remains short 0.7 miles to concentrate sound and eliminate dead spots. The town's recreation department arranges for permits and lines up marchers the only nods to organization. Norman remains parade marshal.

In 1991, the town honored Clark for community service by naming her a Romantic Willimantic Cupid. She died Oct. 6, 2003, of cancer. She was 62.

Information is available at
www.wili-am.com/parade.htm.

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