The town of Willimantic, Connecticut’s annual Independence Day parade once again will include the traditional Little League teams, floats sponsored by local businesses, fire trucks and politicians. But, for the 30th consecutive year, there will be no marching bands.
In what has become an offbeat tradition, the participants and the spectators will instead be carrying radios tuned to the same local station, which will provide traditional marching music.
More than 5,000 people are expected to attend the town’s annual Boom Box Parade, which kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday.
“I didn’t think the idea would work,” said Wayne Norman, the WILI-AM radio personality who has served as grand marshal for all 30 parades. “I didn’t think people would get the concept. Boy was I wrong.”
The parade dates to 1986, when the town couldn’t find an available marching band for its Memorial Day parade. Organizer Kathy Clark approached the radio station for help. Station officials said it was too late to organize and publicize for that holiday, but they began planning with Clark for July Fourth, and the tradition was born.
Norman said the staging area was empty two hours before the parade but by the time it was ready to start more than 2,000 people were there, all carrying boom boxes.
Norman said there were some evolutionary pains as the portable radios, ubiquitous in the 1980s, went the way of the cassette tape and were replaced by iPods and other portable electronic devices.
He said any radio or device with a speaker and a way to access the radio station is welcome.
“We ask people to please not wear headphones,” he said. “We don’t outlaw them, but it kind of defeats the purpose.”
The parade, he said, celebrates independence in all its connotations. There is no registration to march. Anyone can participate, and people are free to bring signs, promote causes, even advertise for their businesses.
Norman said that in an ironic twist the Windham High School band, which was not around to march in 1986, this year provided a recorded piece that will be played during the parade.
A lot of groups just have fun with the event. That would include the Traveling Fish Head Club of Northeastern Connecticut, which Norman said walks up from the nearby Hop River to join the parade disguised as a giant fish made from wood, wire and papier-mache.
“We don’t have many rules,” Norman said. “We just ask people to wear red, white and blue and bring a flag and a radio.”
Members of the state legislature and Congress and the governor often march in the parade, though Norman said they usually get a bigger turnout of politicians during an election year.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal shows up every year. He said he loves the parade because it has a spirit that is quintessentially American.
“It’s good old Connecticut ingenuity,” he said. “Let’s use boom boxes if we can’t have a band. Let’s make do. Let’s invent. Our ingenuity will make it happen.”