Saluting the President

1,382 performing groups applied to perform at the inaugural parade of President Barack Obama, but only 108 were selected for the historic event. read the stories of a few of the 12,602 people who made it from all across the country to Pennsylvania Avenue to march in front of the new Commander-in-Chief.

Photo courtesy of the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee

On a cold day at Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte, Mich., instrumental music director Mark D’Angelo received a phone call from his local senator, congratulating him and his band on earning a spot in the inaugural parade. D’Angelo was so shocked and confused that after the call ended, he called back and confirmed that this news was for real.

“When I first found out, I didn’t believe it,” D’Angelo says. “They announced it over the loudspeaker at the end of the day, and you could hear thunderous applause. Some of the students have some priceless stories about where they were when they heard. For example, being the only band person in a chemistry class and jumping up and screaming.”

D’Angelo wanted his band to travel, having only taken a short in-state trip during his tenure, so this year they scheduled a trip to D.C. for a national music festival whether or not they made it into the parade.

“I wanted to provide my students an educational and musical opportunity,” D’Angelo says. “Getting to perform in the parade was going to be the cherry on top of an already historic trip.”

For other groups, getting to perform in the inaugural parade is a dream they’ve been trying to reach for years. The Lesbian and Gay Band Association (LGBA), a nationwide all-age group based in New York, has applied many times.

“We’ve been around since 1982,” says Judy Ames, a board member for the band. “We provide a network for local gay and lesbian community bands. Our goal as an organization is a quiet kind of activism; we try to put a non-threatening base in the community and hope we’re able to battle some of the stereotypes about our community.”

The group performed at pre-parade inaugural events twice during the Clinton administration but kept applying for the chance to march down the street.

“The day we got the call we were accepted, I was the one who got the call,” Ames says. “And I just couldn’t believe that we finally got in. It was quite a statement from the Obama administration to include us, and I think it’s a statement about the kind of change he has promised with his administration.”

Other groups, like the Colts Drum and Bugle Corps from Dubuque, Iowa, applied more on a whim.

“I think we applied to be in the inaugural just because of how once-in-a-lifetime it was,” says Jeff MacFarlane, controller and designer for the Colts. “A board member brought it up, we researched the process, the board voted, and we submitted our application along with a video. We found out in the middle of December that we were selected.”

Due to the nature of the application process, the groups had very little time to make all the arrangements for their trips.

“From an organizational standpoint, we were nervous about what had to be done in the short time available,” MacFarlane says. “We had six weeks to organize and fundraise $60,000, hotel, travel and food. We were excited and nervous all at once, but it all came together.”

As illustrated by these three ensembles, the inaugural parade brought together a wide array of groups representing all 50 states as well as units from each branch of the military. The ensembles ranged from high-profile college bands such as the Ohio State University Marching Band in Columbus to smaller but inspirational groups such as the Bonnie Brae Knights, comprised of 12 troubled New Jersey youths who have found some solace through drumming. In addition, several groups—such as those from the Punahou School from Honolulu and the University of Delaware in Newark—represented the home states or alma maters of the president, vice president and their families.

Roadblocks

The road to Washington proved to have some difficult roadblocks for some bands. The Colts, for example, had a bus break down while driving through Pennsylvania. Thankfully the group had taken precautions, ordering six buses instead of five, so that if one broke down, the other buses had enough room to fit the stranded musicians.

Other issues the bands faced weren’t so easily overcome. When the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) announced that Pastor Rick Warren, a vocal advocate against gay rights, would be giving the invocation at the event, a general outcry arose from gay and lesbian activist groups around the country.

“When that all started, we had some pressure from our community not to march,” Ames says. “But it was really discouraging to us because we had worked so hard to get in. We were so happy that we had been accepted, but then for about 10 days it seemed as if it would be without the support of our community.”

The LGBA decided to put music first and put politics aside, accepting that inclusion of its group and of Warren in the inauguration showcased Obama’s embracing of diversity on both sides of the issue.

“We’re musicians first who just happen to be gay,” Ames says. “And we felt a responsibility to go and represent all the other musicians who didn’t get in and to make the most of the opportunity that we had been given.”

The controversy died down after openly-gay Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to lead an inaugural prayer. The Wyandotte Marching Chiefs found itself brought into an unexpected controversy when it received a 26-page letter protesting its moniker.

Harvey Gunderson, president of Religious Americans Against Indian Nicknames and Logos, urged the group to change its name. The school district agreed to change it because it didn’t want to bring negative publicity to the band. “We had an identity crisis thinking about possibly having to change our name,” says D’Angelo. “Everyone was out of town, and we were all trying to communicate and figure out what we were going to do and if we would have to change or cover our logos and banners; even our uniform has an Indian chief on it.”

After an outpouring of support from alumni and community members as well as extensive media coverage, the district reversed its decision when Chief Leaford Bearskin of the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma publicly supported the Marching Chiefs in a radio interview and through subsequent open letters.

“I consider it an honor to have the logo in the parade,” Bearskin told the Detroit Free Press. “I give them my blessing, totally.”

D’Angelo and his band were incredibly relieved to keep their mascot, which they are extremely proud to represent.

“Honestly it was an ‘Oh, brother,’ kind of situation,” D’Angelo says. “Here we are trying to do something great for these kids, and now we have to tell them that everything they’ve represented may have to change? We are the Wyandotte Marching Chiefs; this is who we are and what we represent.”

Turning the Corner

After the long bus rides and rehearsals, it was finally time for the big day. Most groups rose well before 5 a.m. to get back on buses and head to the Pentagon for security screening. Then they waited in warming tents with other bands, watching the swearing-in and other ceremonies on large screens.

Due to schedule delays and a medical emergency surrounding Senator Ted Kennedy, the president and the parade were about 90 minutes behind schedule. Bands waited outside in 30-degree weather or inside the warming tents for around five hours.

“As soon as we stepped on Pennsylvania Avenue, everyone forgot about that,” D’Angelo says. “Some of them are convinced the president made eye contact with them.” Ames agrees. “It was only hard because it was cold, but it’s so exciting that you don’t care.”

Because of the delay and the cold, virtually no crowd lined the parade route, and some worried that the new president would not stay for the entire parade.

“The route was disappointing because it was dark and late, and there were no spectators,” Ames says. “After turning the corner on the block where you play for the president, it’s lit up like day time. Barack and Michelle were still there; they fully engaged and waved at us; it was all very exciting.”

MacFarlane was both excited and relieved to reach the president’s booth. “I was actually on the left side of the formation, so I was closest to that side; it was very exciting,” MacFarlane says. “As you turn the corner on to Pennsylvania Avenue, the excitement was built in because you saw the booth, cameras and the bright lights. There was definitely a feeling of excitement as soon as you turn the corner. As the oldest [Colts] marching member in the parade, I was just struggling to get through; I was excited, but I wanted to be done.”

Simply Unforgettable

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that the inaugural parade experience is something they’ll never forget. D’Angelo says his students are treated like celebrities, practically royalty, back at home.

“They’re going to remember that for the rest of their lives,” D’Angelo says. “I did all of this for the kids, and I’m very proud. I’ve got kids that now are really motivated more than they have ever been; it took marching in a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue to make that happen for a lot of these kids.”

For the LGBA, its performance represents the years of work done by the organization and the future of change promised by President Obama. “We thought we sounded great and looked good; we were really thrilled with all of that,” Ames says. “It’s still the biggest thing we’ve ever done, and we’re pretty proud of it. It was the performance opportunity of a lifetime for our folks.”

In MacFarlane’s case, the magnitude of the event didn’t hit him until later. “It wasn’t until a day or two later that it actually started to settle in that I performed in a marching unit for the President of the United States, and not only a president but this president,” MacFarlane says. “The spirit of the day was so overwhelming, and that was one of the biggest things I was left with, the overall feeling of goodwill and hope and what might be ahead of us; that anticipation had everybody a little choked up that day. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

Note From the Editor

Click here to read the full lineup from the 2009 inaugural parade.

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is an editorial intern at Halftime Magazine. She is currently a senior majoring in print journalism at the University of Southern California. She began playing fl ute 11 years ago in her hometown of Placentia, Calif. Now she plays in the USC Trojan Marching Band and has supported the teams at four Rose Bowls, the NCAA basketball tournament and as many other games as possible. She also serves as the band librarian.

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