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Grueling Tuneup Precedes Long March in Pasadena

Tournament president shepherds bands as they gear up for world's most-watched parade.

November 10, 2002|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

HOMEWOOD, Ala — HOMEWOOD, Ala. -- Under the watchful eye of a man in a red coat, 210 teenagers from this small town are preparing for a marching band's toughest test.

On a field cut into a hillside, the Homewood High School Patriot Band practices turns. The exact dimensions of an intersection 2,000 miles away are painted on the grass. The heat and humidity are overwhelming, and two musicians faint.

"Hmm," says the red coat, Tournament of Roses President Gary Thomas, putting his hand on one of the red, white and blue band uniforms.

"Wool," he says, grimacing, thinking how hot one can get on a six-mile march through Pasadena.

Such visits by Thomas represent a crucial check on behalf of the world's most-watched parade. In an event known for high-strung horses and highly engineered floats, the Rose Parade's bands face the highest challenge.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 438 words Type of Material: Correction
Parade bands -- A map with an article on Rose Parade bands in Sunday's A section mislabeled two states. The labels for Illinois and Indiana were reversed.

Not all of the 5,000 teenagers who march play instruments -- but they all carry medical release forms.

Such precautions reflect the Rose Parade's standing in band circles as the Mt. Everest of marches. It is so physically demanding that a behind-the-scenes transportation system shuttles dropouts to the finish line or to nearby hospitals.

Bands qualify only after a 10-month worldwide competition that divides the planet into 15 regions. Invitations go out 14 months ahead of the parade -- well before selection of floats or horses -- to allow bands time to brace themselves.

And there's the cost. For a single band, the trip to Pasadena can be an investment of a half-million dollars.

All for an appearance before a worldwide TV audience that lasts no more than 30 seconds.

"There are so many moving parts, so many people involved for that payoff -- it's one of the most difficult events a high school can attempt," said Mike Grueninger, an Indianapolis tour operator whose company specializes in transporting bands to the Rose Parade.

The parade is so much work that, though float sponsors clamor to get into the parade, the tournament often finds itself in the position of recruiter -- if not supplicant -- when it comes to bands.

In recent years, American high schools have produced fewer bands as arts budgets have dwindled. Many bands have dropped parading in favor of concert competition. And major parades that once served as proving grounds for Rose Parade bands -- the Orange Bowl Parade in Miami, for example -- are no more.

Though hundreds of bands still apply, the country has a limited number of bands with the musical chops and organizational know-how to handle a Rose Parade gig. So, care and feeding of bands are vital. The visits by the red-coated president to every parade band helps them prepare for the trip. Thomas stays at least three days.

That's longer, joked one teacher in Alabama, than the visit of the team that renewed Homewood High's accreditation.

50,000 Miles in 140 Days

On their 41st wedding anniversary, Gary Thomas and his wife, Lieueen, arrived at LAX by 5:30 a.m.

Visiting bands is the duty of the president, and personal milestones must take a backseat. The Thomases took to the road Jan. 20. Their last band trip, to Hawaii, will be this month. All told, they will have logged 50,000 miles in 140 days.

"I have a very understanding boss," said Thomas, who works full time as an assistant facilities director for an electronics company. "He said, 'You can do this. The only thing I ask is that, when I ask for Rose Bowl tickets, you'll get them for me.' "

Six hours and a plane change in Memphis later, the Thomases landed in Alabama. Homewood, population 25,043, greeted them like royalty.

They were put up at a local university in housing typically used by big donors. The mayor of Homewood -- located just outside Birmingham -- made a point of being at nearly every event they attended. Gary Thomas received an audience with the state's most important official: Dennis Franchione, football coach at the University of Alabama.

As in most communities that send musicians to Pasadena, Homewood puts its band at the center of community life. The band director makes more than his counterpart at the University of Alabama. Six times in the last two decades, Homewood High has marched in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

"People here have been hungry to make a name for themselves," said a former band director, Pat Morrow. "Band was a way to do that."

In January 2001, Homewood's current band director, Ron Pence, submitted an application for 2003, including letters of recommendation from Alabama's governor and two U.S. senators. (Most successful parade applicants have the support of at least one member of Congress).

With his application, Pence entered Homewood in a highly structured competition. Six slots are reserved for perennial band participants: the Los Angeles Unified School District, the tournament's own honor band, the Salvation Army, the Marine Corps and the bands from the universities that play in the Rose Bowl.

Seventeen slots remain.

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