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July 12, 2009

It Rained on Our Parade

 P1160751_2 At about 5 p.m. today, a novel assortment of people crammed themselves into the Edmunds Middle School gym. There were people wearing silver streamers and fish on their heads. Fife players dressed in Revolutionary War-era stockings and breeches. On the stage, a ensemble in velvety full Elizabethan attire — the Renaissonics — was performing a stately dance. Outside in the hallway, some shirtless young men were conversing in loud, Québecois-accented French.

Lightning was cracking in the skies outside, and the Quadricentennial parade had been postponed. But not for long.

P1160768_2 At about 6, the go-ahead signal came from a guy with a megaphone outside. Rain was still sizzling steadily on the pavements, but everyone who'd taken shelter in the gym rushed gamely to get into position. The organizers were serious about that "rain or shine" thing.

And the parade lurched down Main Street. Unlike your basic Fourth or Mardi Gras procession, the Quad parade was designed as a showcase for artists all over the area (some came from as far as Boston). So at predetermined intervals, the parade halted, allowing the performers to show their skills to a new segment of the crowd.

The thunder had retreated, but it kept raining. And raining. Main Street was starting to look like a shallow stream bed.

Never have I seen so many people so determinedly ignore a downpour. The colorful Morris dancers ignored it. The Bread & Puppet folks toting papier mâché effigies of elemental spirits with a Wild Things vibe ignored it. "Samuel de Champlain" and his two strapping Abenaki companions — floating above the crowd in their canoe — ignored it.  A whole truck bed of very courageous young dancers in Roaring Twenties gear ignored it. Some of the participants walked barefoot — the better not to slip, presumably — and some swathed their costumes or gear in plastic sheets, but most simply allowed themselves to be drenched. And they kept on dancing, gesticulating, clowning or whatever.

For the (somewhat attenuated) crowd along Main Street, it was an odd experience. Some people clapped resolutely to encourage the performers; others just stared. It was impossible not to think about how the parade — a one-of-a-kind jumble of historical periods, ethnicities, performance styles and political messages, a parade like most of us will never see again in our lifetimes, all revolving around the nominal inspiration of 1609 — would have looked under blue skies, gleaming in the sunlight. Then again, if the sun had shone, if the rain had even briefly stopped, we wouldn't have seen quite such a display of mettle. It was affecting. I'm not one to pull out this word lightly, but it was inspirational.

Yeah, it would have been better in the sun. (And, as if those elemental spirits were adding insult to injury, less than an hour after the parade ended, the sky cleared and the sun shone once more.)

But it was still a pretty damn cool parade. It had a horse that two-stepped (or something) with a guy in Shakespearean gear on its back. It had a llama and a drenched German shepherd. It had dragons. It had a scrappy clown guy on a bike wearing the head of a brontosaurus. It had a large and proud VSA Arts contingent. It had a giant Wicker Woman adorned with cedar branches. (OK, maybe she wasn't wicker, but I couldn't help wondering who might get ritually burned inside to appease said elemental spirits, as was once druidic custom. Perhaps one of the tall papier mâché billionaires who begged for a bailout, while a much smaller Bread & Puppeteer marched behind them with a sign that read simply UNEMPLOYED?)

In short, it ran the gamut from the silly to the touching to the sublime, and that's what a good community parade (or in this case, watershed heritage parade) should do.

Then everyone went indoors to dry off and eat dinner or socialize and see Ween at the waterfront or Ice Age or Bruno, and the sun came out. As it will do. And we now know that, while rain on your parade is nasty, it doesn't mean no parade. Thanks, folks.

Sunday update: How could I forget to mention that my long-suffering sister Eva Sollberger (pictured) was filming the whole thing for Stuck in Vermont while holding a leaky umbrella over her camera? One of the local  celebs who served as guest umbrella holders was none other than Merrill Jarvis III of Merrill's Roxy.

Dang, I can't believe I missed it. I just couldn't face dragging the kids down there in the rain. But now I wish I had.

I think you captured the parade perfectly, Margot. My mom, dad and I watched the whole darn thing from City Hall Park and I have to say that "inspirational" is definitely the word that continually popped into my head throughout the show. My favorites: the Peruvian mestizos dance troupe and the Roaring 20s tap dancers. I'm not sure how they fit into the whole Champlain 400 thing, but it didn't matter to me too much.

There was never an excuse to say to myself: "I'll just leave now and see this again next year." It was a one-time deal and the amount of time, work, creativity and endurance that it took to put the whole thing together was palpable — it was the definition of Vermont moxie.

The organizers and participants deserve major kudos.

Is that Eva Sollberger I see standing there in that photo with her camera? I hope she got some video of this grand procession.

I can't believe there were Morris dancers and I missed it! If I had known those kooky white-trousered stick-knockers were in the parade, I would have braved the torrents of water rushing down my street and falling from the sky to catch a glimpse.

Very well said, Margot. I was standing on the corner of S. Winooski and Main for the whole thing--the slight elevation of land in front of Kinko's allowed a good view up the street. It was tempting to skip it, but I too thought about all those people who worked so hard to put this on and decided the least I could do was attend, applaud, and take on water in my shoes.
The rain clearly came FOR the parade, as if to join in the celebration and, as you say, test the mettle of these durable tribes as Champlain and his native friends were tested by the raw challenges of the "new" world 400 years ago.
We have Mardi Gras floats in February. We parade (or watch) in a torrential downpour. Burlington simply rocks, and those who opted to stay home--or, worse, didn't even know it was happening--really missed out.

Thanks for the apt account Margot, and thanks also for carrying my camera bag around and listening to me complain about my wet feet for the next couple of hours! More pics of the parade can be SEEN HERE.

Thank you for the descriptive comments and photos!

Organizing this parade was as rewarding a process as was rolling it out in the pouring rain. At a supercharged triple-time.

It worked thanks to committed artists; and all the helpers, and to the police and all city departments. The City support was phenomenal.

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