‘Hup, two, three, four’
Get in step with the WILI Boom Box Parade
By Margaret DeMarino
May 22, 2008
What’s a parade without a marching band?
The Willimantic Boom Box Parade, which might be one of the best parades you’ll see this Fourth of July.
“It’s an amazing display of creativity,” said grand marshal and parade head honcho Wayne Norman. “We call it ‘Connecticut’s unique people’s parade’–the largest parade of its kind in the world. In other words, find me a bigger one.”
Marchers–many of them carrying boom boxes blaring patriotic music broadcast live by parade sponsor WILI-AM (1400), where Norman hosts Connecticut’s current longest-running morning show–range from the purely patriotic to the outright quirky.
In parades past, you’d find everything from a cocker spaniel sporting sunglasses and a stars-and-stripes bandana t a woman dressed as Ben Franklin.
The Haggerty family has planned reunions around the parade and calls its entry “Haggerosa.” The Traveling Fish Head Club of Northeast Connecticut members have marched underneath giant handcrafted fish every year except the first since the parade’s inception in 1986.
“There are no rules,” said Norman, although he cautions against bringing super-soaker squirt guns and advises that participants bring a boom box or a radio so there won’t be parade “dead spots.” Participants are also encouraged to wear red, white, and blue if possible.
Otherwise, anything goes, from political protests to local restaurants handing out goodies.
“The creativity really shows. It’s not General Motors putting together a professional float. It’s some guy in a back yard with a hammer and nails getting together a boat with an American flag mast,” Norman said.
Norman loves to get in the spirit of things by concocting creative costumes. “I try to set the bar to give people the idea it’s OK to go over the top,” he said.
One year he was a greaser (2007) with rolled up shirtsleeves, slicked back hair and fake tattoos. Another year (1998) he donned roller blades and tethered himself to “the world’s largest boom box that looked suspiciously like a bus in disguise.” Another time (2005) he “paddled” down the street in a kayak, adorned in the uniform of the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox.
It all started one day in 1986 when “a couple of local parade people came to us, and said, ‘Hey, we dont’ have a marching band for our Memorial Day parade,” Normal recalled. They requested that the station broadcast music but the preparation lead-time was too short.”
“I said ‘no’ and figured they would go away and not come back,” quipped Norman. But then (the late) Kathy Clark returned with the request that they try a boom box approach to a Fourth of July parade. Norman and WILI agreed.
He remembers the queasy feeling he got waiting for the first parade to start. “We had massive meetings before and involved community leaders. We didn’t want it to be a major embarrassment, which it had the potential to be if things didn’t work out.
“The day of the first parade, we went by the staging area at 9 a.m. The parade would start at 11, and no one was there. My initial thought was, ‘Well, wasn’t THIS a good idea.'”
But his fears were ungrounded. “It turned out people DID show up–it was a big hit. The first parade took 44 minutes.”
It actually made international news, as a result of a story generated by a free-lance writer who “coincidentally happened to be visiting in town.”
“I have a copy here quoting me in Spanish in a newspaper from Guatemala,” he said.
Norman put together the soundtrack with a lot of parade standards: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Yankee Doodle,” “76 Trombones,” Anchors Aweigh” (the U. S. Navy song), the U. S. Marine Corps Hymn, and the Air Force Song. Later, upon request he added the Coast Guard march, “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready).
He also added the University of Connecticut fight song–his station broadcasts UConn Husky football and basketball games. And to kick off last year’s parade, he put together a ‘virtual flyover” of an A-10 Warthog of the Connecticut Air National Guard that he had tapes 20 years ago from the back steps of the WILI building.
“I figured if they have a flyover at the Super Bowl and on opening day at Fenway Park, why can’t we do it?”
The parade draws an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people a year. “I don’t understand why other towns around the country don’t pick up on this,” he said. “Its a festive, fun type of day.”