PITTSFIELD

Imagine this: The Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade -- Berkshire County's leading Independence Day celebration -- "Canceled!"

That's tantamount to no Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or New Year's Day minus the Tournament of Roses Parade.

But in 1977, the city marked the nation's 201st birthday without bands, floats, fire engines, political dignitaries or veterans marching down North Street lined with tens of thousands of patriotic men, women and children.

The Pittsfield Permanent Firemen's Association had ended its sponsorship of 30 consecutive parades following the 1976 American bicentennial celebration because of skyrocketing parade costs.

Enter a group of city residents unwilling to let die a patriotic tradition rooted in the post-American Revolutionary War years.

"I didn't care if all we had were three bands and a float," said Jim Brassard, the parade's coordinator from 1978 to 2001. "We were bound and determined to have a parade."

By the spring of 1978, Brassard had joined a committee of citizens that would raise between $12,000 and $15,000 -- with $2,000 in seed money approved by the City Council. On July 4 of that year, the committee staged a 93-unit parade viewed by an estimated crowd of 20,000, according to The Eagle's archives.

Since its revival 35 years ago, the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade has emerged as one of the top 10 Fourth of July parades in the country, as deemed by USA Today in 2008. The city's signature patriotic event is viewed by crowds estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 and likely seen by thousands more on local television and on the Internet.

The star-spangled spectacular features the region's finest marching musical talent, creative floats, helium balloons, special guests, leading local, state and federal elected officials, and most importantly -- say past and present parade organizers -- veterans.

The parade has also helped make the city a destination place.

"We hear from people who come from all over the country just for the parade," said Ken Wheeler, a parade volunteer of 31 years.

The Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade dates back nearly 190 years as a tribute to those who fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1824, The Pittsfield Sun newspaper reported a "numerous and respectable procession" of war veterans going through the town (Pittsfield became a city in 1891) on their way to the meeting house for a celebration.

Some form of a parade was held most years until 1946, when it was called off as part of a privately organized three-day welcome home celebration for World War II veterans. According to a Berkshire Eagle article, the veterans' lack of interest in a parade and the city's unwillingness to help fund the $15,475 celebration led to the parade and associated activities being canceled.

In 1947, the Pittsfield Permanent Firemen's Association took over sponsorship of the parade and carried it through 1976. Every year, it included the Pittsfield Firemen's Muster.

National exposure

The Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade's reincarnation in 1978 would evolve a decade later into a made-for-television event that included four years of a live nationwide telecast.

Pittsfield Community Television initiated the parade's live broadcasts in 1988 -- the first program PCTV produced live or recorded, according Executive Director Bernard Avalle.

For the next four years, PBS televised the parade on dozens of the network's affiliates in the U.S. and Canada, before PCTV resumed sole broadcast of the parade in 1993.

While PCTV's telecast is only countywide, the parade has slowly regained national exposure in recent years because it's streamed live on the Internet.

"We're covering the parade the best way possible, but we're not influencing it," Avalle said.

Television also offers a different perspective of the parade.

"You are seeing things not necessarily seen from the sidewalk," added Shawn Serre, PCTV's chief engineer.

How ever people view the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade, they are likely to see a showcase of area talent, drawing some of the biggest cheers along the parade route.

While parade-goers in recent years have been wowed by the well-plumed Philadelphia Mummers and star-struck by celebrities such as Dr. Ruth Westheimer in 2012, they wholeheartedly applaud homegrown performers who enjoy basking in the local limelight.

Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade committee president Peter Marchetti recalls the thrill of leading the Pittsfield High School marching band in the 1986 parade, a month after he graduated from Pittsfield High School.

"I was going out on top, [because] everyone wanted to be the drum major," Marchetti said.

Parade participation is also a family affair.

From 1995 to 2003, Debbie Cahill -- along with her husband, Kevin; daughter, Ali; and sons, Jamie and Joe -- were all part of the drum line of the Berkshire Highlanders.

"Once a drummer, always a drummer in our family," said Debbie Cahill, who spent a total of 13 years with the bagpipe and drum band.

Cahill says her most emotional parade was in 1995. That year, she convinced the Berkshire Highlanders to forgo their traditional headgear and wear a red baseball cap in honor of her friend, Sue Fields O'Connor, also a member of the groups drum line. Fields O'Connor was battling cancer, a fight she would lose a year later.

"The band stood by her," Cahill said. "Sue's trademark was the red baseball cap -- she wore it everywhere."

Parade's future

The anticipation of taking part and enthusiasm of attending the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade remains high 35 years after its rebirth, according to organizers. However, they say its future hinges on new ideas to keep it entertaining, financially afloat and ensuring plenty of volunteers to plan and stage the event.

"We need to have a plan in place for the parade to continue and make sure that plan isn't dependent on one or two person," said Marchetti, a leading parade organizer for more than a decade.

After months of planning and sweating the small details, Marchetti says the parade committee looks forward to marching at the end of the procession, often hearing "thank you" and applause from an appreciative crowd.

"There's no doubt the parade is a premier community event we just happen to be stewards of," he said.

 

Parade timeline ...

1824: Pittsfield, still a town with population of 2,500, had biggest July 4 celebration to date with fireworks and a "numerous and respectable procession" of Revolutionary War veterans, according to the Pittsfield Sun. Held on July 5, because July 4 fell on a Sunday.

1872: First known Pittsfield firemen's muster, a competition of area fire companies, held in conjunction with parade.

1911: Parade marks Pittsfield's 150th anniversary as part of three-day celebration Sunday, July 2, through Tuesday, July 4.

1947: Pittsfield Permanent Firemen's Association begins sponsorship of parade, ending after nation's bicentennial in 1976. Group cited high cost of staging the parade.

1977: No parade held.

1978: A Pittsfield citizens-led committee formed to bring back parade. Organizers raise more than $12,000 -- $2,000 in city funds -- to stage a 93-unit parade viewed by an estimated crowd of more than 20,000 people.

1982: Parade committee stages first Precision & Pagentry, parade fundraiser featuring some of the nation's top drum and bugle corps performing at Wahconah Park, usually before sell-out crowds. Event lasted held in 2006.

1987: Parade committee in March returns $2,000 in seed money from city to help revive the July 4th parade in 1978.

1988: Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) broadcasts the parade live; it was PCTV's first program.

1989-1992: The Pittsfield Fourth of July parade is broadcast nationally on PBS, via satellite across U.S and in Canada.

1990: Parade budget breaks $100,000 mark. By 2009, budget holds steady at the current $85,000.

1992: PCTV resumes live broadcasts and in 2005 begins a live stream of the parade on the Internet.

2009: Parade returns to current route of proceeding straight from South Street to North Street to Wahconah Park after more than a decade of the parade route circling Park Square.

 

Parade route

This year's Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade begins at the intersection of South and West Housatonic streets at 10 a.m. on Thursday. The march continues straight up South Street to North Street via the southbound lane and proceeds from North to Wahconah Street, ending at Wahconah Park.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.