Courant.com

Marching To Beat Of A Different Boom Box

Susan Campbell

July 1, 2007

It is both right and good that America's oldest continuously published newspaper would report on the nation's oldest continuously run boom-box parade.

In their own ways, both entities add a sense of - well, something - to the state milieu. Both have withstood the tests of time. That's the beauty of Willimantic's goofy 22-year-old tradition. Anyone can march, but you must bring a radio and tune it to WILI-AM (1400 on your radio dial), which provides the music.

WILI's Wayne Norman, parade marshal for life, adds his own tradition. Among other broadcast duties, Norman is the host of the state's longest continually running radio morning show.

But it almost didn't happen. The parade was the idea of Willimantic's indomitable Kathy Clark. When Windham High School turned up without a marching band on Memorial Day of 1986, she approached WILI to play marching music. She said people could come, tune their boom boxes to 1400 and have a parade anyway. But Norman thought they didn't have enough time to organize. And, he thought a "no" would kill the idea, but Clark, who died of cancer in 2003, was not deterred. She came back to pitch a boom box parade for the next march-able holiday, July 4. Norman had said he needed a few weeks to plan, and now he had them, she said.

Still skeptical, Norman set up organizational meetings that seem a little precious to him now, and he fretted that people would not understand that they needed to rely on radios they brought from home for their music.

But that first year, the eclectic march lasted 44 minutes, and a loopy tradition was born.

These days, Norman said the event pretty much runs itself, and organizers don't bother with many rules. Any one dressed in patriotic togs can march. No pre-registration is required. People who bring large squirt guns are welcome to use them, but they are encouraged not to soak people with radios. Wet radios short out. If there are no radios, there is no music, and if there is no music, well, it's not much of a parade now, is it?

The idea has caught the attention of press worldwide. Norman called his mother to brag the day the Los Angeles Times ran a color photo of him in the parade. An event like this in a state known for its lock-jaw ways just gives one hope.

These days, as many as 8,000 people show up to watch the 2,000 or so marchers. To be honest, Norman said, the number of spectators has flattened out a little, but he attributes that to the phenomenon of people watching the parade one year, and then returning the next year to march. Some do little more than don red-white-and-blue T-shirts, but others go all out. One of Norman's favorite entries is the Fish Head Club of Northeast Connecticut, and its huge papier-mâché fish. They've been around since the second year of the parade, and the fish is known to carry messages. The year after The Courant ran a series of stories that labeled Willimantic "Heroin Town," the fish countered with a sign that said it was proud to live in "Herring Town." Norman, who started off trying to be a moderately dignified marshal, has long since given up. After The Courant's profile, CBS news came to town. To complement "Herring Town" that year, Norman wore a patriotic vest and drove a mini antique car holding a sign that said, "Where's Dan Rather Today?"

(Sadly, that august broadcaster did not appear. If he had, in keeping with the spirit of the event, he probably would have been super-soaked within an inch of his life.)

The tone of the parade - there is never a theme - is consistently playful, and no one is safe. The year John G. Rowland left the governor's office in disgrace, a marcher marked the event at the boom box parade by dragging a No. 3 washtub (significantly smaller than the infamous hot tub) and a briefcase marked with "Ex Gov" in white tape.

The parade, which lasts about two hours, steps off at 11 a.m. Wednesday from Jillson Square in beautiful downtown Willimantic. Bring a radio. You've been warned.

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