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Pulling Thanksgiving Together

Tue, Nov 18, 2014

StreetWise pulling together ThanskgivingAs Kelly High School’s marching band prepares for the November 27 McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade, Hugo Estrada is excited.

“As cold as it might be, to see all the floats, the pretty balloons and to pass by the judges’ stand and hear them say, ‘this is Kelly High School, they’re coming from the South Side of Chicago.’ I am excited to hear all that stuff again,” said Estrada, a junior and section leader for the band’s drum line.

Kelly clarinet player Yvette Morales also mentions pride. “I am looking forward to showing people even though this is a public high school, there is a lot of talent and there’s students who show a lot of commitment. Our [athletic] park is being constructed and we don’t have enough resources, not like suburban high schools.”

The Kelly High band, however, will march in the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade with $40,000 worth of new band equipment – 28 to 30 instruments – thanks to a grant from the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. The music composer for the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” which focused on a dedicated music teacher’s effect on his students, started the foundation that aids schools with low-income populations across the U.S.

The band also has new uniforms obtained with a $50,000 grant from Country Financial, which they hope to debut at their December 12 concert.

Located at 4136 S. California, Kelly High’s student body is primarily Hispanic, as well as 8 percent Asian, 3 percent Caucasian and 2 percent African-American. Many students started out learning English as Second Language and almost all of them entered high school without any music education.

As the program has gotten larger, “we’ve been able to open up the community a little bit more, which has given us more notoriety,” said Richard Daily, Kelly fine arts department chairman and director of bands, who obtained the two grants.

More incoming students are now interested in the band. There are 240 students in freshman band, a 90-member intermediate band and the 105-member advanced band with color guard, the one that will appear in the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Although there is gang activity in the neighborhood, Daily says Kelly’s no-tolerance policies inside the building create a place where the students can feel safe. “I think the students find this place as kind of their second home.”

Many band members go on to college in music, pre-law or finance, sometimes on band scholarships, Daily said. Estrada and Katheren Gallegos, a drum major and concert band saxophonist, said that music helps academically because it builds memorization skills.

Playing in the band is also a release from schoolwork, said Gallegos and Morales, both seniors. “I am an International Baccalaureate student, which means that I have a lot of work. Band for me is a way to leave that life and it just unstresses me in a good way. I have fun,” Morales said.

Mike McCain, marching and jazz band director at Kelly High School, rehearses students on a free day.

Mike McCain, marching and jazz band director at Kelly High School, rehearses students on a free day.

“I feel passionate, I feel good about how it contributes to me, it has changed me in a lot of ways,” said Jesus Mendiola, a senior who is marching band drum major and concert band bassoon player.

Among the students’ most-cited experiences is travel. The Kelly High band has performed at the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown and at the Lilac Festival Parade in Lombard. It was also among 21 secondary schools in the state to perform at the University of Illinois at Champaign for Band Day this September.

Among the 25 high school bands in the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade are other local favorites: Rich South High School in Richton Park, Bartlett High School and Marist High School on the southwest side, which has performed in the Tournament of Roses Parade as well as the St. Patrick’s Day and South Side Irish Parades, and the Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Peach Bowl and Sugar Bowl parades.

The Pearl City Chargers are flying the longest distance — 8.5 hours from Honolulu. The band has marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade, in London’s New Year’s Day parade, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and in the Beijing International Olympic Youth Festival.

Their Chicago itinerary includes Wrigley Field, Willis Tower, Millennium Park and the “Bean,” all on their arrival the day before the parade. Afterward, they will see the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum and Christkindl Market – and eat Thanksgiving dinner. They will also shop on State Street, Michigan Avenue, Navy Pier and see the Museum of Science & Industry.

Members of the Bay High School Million Dollar Band from Panama City, FL dressed up as 1920s flappers and gangsters for their spaghetti dinner fundraiser backed by a local restaurant. “They’ve asked us repeatedly to come back,” Robin McNew, the band’s publicity chair, told the News-Herald there. “Waiting four years, we have a whole other group of kids that have never been before, and they’re pretty excited.”

The Pride of the Devils Green Devil Band from Greeneville High School in Greeneville, TN, meanwhile, benefited from a portion of sales from a local car wash this summer. During their five days in Chicago, the students will see Blue Man Group, Navy Pier, Willis Tower and Lincoln Park Zoo.

The McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade is telecast live from 8 to 11 a.m. November 27 on WGN-TV across the U.S. and last year reached 3.91 million households. Another 400,000 spectators lined its State Street parade route, from Congress Parkway to Randolph Street.

Besides the marching bands, the 81st annual parade’s honored guests will be the U.S. Little League Champions from Jackie Robinson West and the Harlem Globetrotters. The multicultural parade also features 10 equestrian units, including the Ray of Hope Riders, a sidesaddle synchronized Mexican drill team and the Red Hats and Purple Chaps, a unit of the Red Hat Society (women over 50) that has also ridden in the Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade.

Honorary Parade Marshal Ronald McDonald and his Big Red Shoe will be among the 10 floats, along with the Assyrian American Civic Club of Chicago, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jewel-Osco and Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theatre.

Planning the parade is a year round job for Chicago Festival Association Executive Director Philip K. Purevich, who views videos from around the nation. “I’m looking for something new and different and exciting: high quality entertainment that is family-friendly that people are going to enjoy.”

Getting a chance to see Chicago is a draw for parade entrants, and so is the WGN-TV national exposure, Purevich said. “If a group is from Los Angeles, their family and friends can’t come to see them, but they can watch them on TV.”

The parade was created in 1934 to boost spirits and the economy during the Great Depression. Its placement on Thanksgiving Day itself helps tourism today, Purevich said.

“We know from our own research that people travel to Chicago to see the Thanksgiving Parade. They stay in hotels, go shopping, eat in restaurants. Chicago has become a Thanksgiving destination and the parade is the catalyst to drive tourism to Chicago.”

Thanksgiving parade volunteers

Stephanie Thomas, left, and Christine Bromley.

Very much a traditional parade, the Chicago event is almost totally staffed by volunteers. “It’s cold, people get sick, we try to recruit 1,000 people,” said Stephanie Thomas, a member of the volunteer leadership board. Signups will open in about a month.

Thomas started out as an intern with the Chicago Festival Association while at DePaul University and began working the parade itself a decade ago. She convinced her cousin Christine Bromley to join because of Bromley’s interest in event planning.

Thomas has spent most of her parade career in staging. Specialty units, equestrian units and bands each wait in separate areas before they enter an integration zone. Then, as they move to the step-off, Thomas makes the final check to make sure everybody is in order before they head down the parade route.

Bromley is one of the block marshals stationed on each corner of the route. “We have to make sure the timing of the parade is pretty close to perfect,” she said, because of commercial breaks and specific performances within the parade’s television zone. “If anything goes awry – if the horses run into an issue where they see something and get scared or if a float breaks down — we have to let the TV unit know, because they have a scheduled list of floats, so they are not saying, ‘here is the Pink Panther unit’ and it’s actually the Bolivian dancers.”

Handling the enormous character balloons is one of the most desired gigs, because of the chances of winding up on TV. Ditto for banner carrier. There is also a need for people who shuttle VIPs and celebrities and for liaisons who accompany each unit all the way down the route.

A surprisingly popular position is on the “Poo Crew,” which cleans up after the horses. “I think it’s because they’ve made it fun,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen people turn the trash cans into the North Pole. They wrap their trash cans and they get dressed up.”

The balloons are being blown up as Thomas arrives on State Street at 5 a.m., suited up in snowpants, a winter coat, hat and gloves. “You kind of start to see the parade come to life. There’s no cars on State Street. It’s almost surreal, bringing everybody together for such a wonderful family-friendly event. It’s great for our community, it’s great for organizations that come in from out of town, it gives them great exposure to Chicago. It’s just a wonderful event that we’re so thankful to have and be a part of. And then afterward, Christine and I go home to have Thanksgiving with our family.”

“We usually make some food the night before so our moms are not doing everything,” Bromley said. “We get home and take a nice hot shower and put on our lounge clothes. We lay on the couch and watch movies. If we DVR the parade we’ll watch it because we don’t get to see it. We have Thanksgiving dinner and we’re usually passed out at 7 o’clock because we got up at 4.”

By Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-in-Chief

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