NORTH ADAMS — Jim Roberts, the man with the all-important black binder, climbed the steps of the parade grandstand on Main Street here Sunday and handed it over to Jane Swift, the city native and former acting governor of Massachusetts.
“Here it is,” he said.
If the city could’ve given a collective sigh of relief, it would have. That black binder contained the script for a parade no one was sure would even happen this year. With the badgering threat of a persistent coronavirus pandemic lingering, planners didn’t announce until August that the parade was a go.
Indeed, it was a go. By parade kickoff at 1 p.m., thousands of spectators had assembled along State, Main and Ashland streets as the city celebrated its 65th Fall Foliage Parade.
Swift served as the announcer, introducing each unit marching in the parade. She drew upon that black binder that contained descriptions, beginning with the State Police and ending with those whimsical Melha Shriners from Springfield doing chaotic curlicues in their famed tiny cars.
Sure, it drizzled a little, then turned sunny, then drizzled some more. And sure, the parade’s duration was shorter than usual (it lasted about an hour), but planners viewed this year’s parade as a reboot, a new beginning for a tradition they feared might come to an end after last year’s cancellation.
“We all just have felt that if we don’t make this happen, it’s the end,” said Richard Alcombright, a former mayor and a float builder.
Roberts, 79, who held the post of parade director or co-director for about a decade beginning in 1979 and who still helps out when needed, took his seat in the grandstand, a seat with his name on it, the color of VIP red.
“With all the crap happening in the world all over the place,” he said, “this is just a great thing. You got to have the parade. It’s so good for the community.”
Last year was only the second time the parade had been cancelled in 67 years. The first time was in 1987.
“October 4, 1987, to be exact,” Roberts said. “We had about 15 inches of snow here. You could hear the branches snapping.”
At 1:15 p.m. Sunday on Main Street, he could hear the sirens coming as the parade made its way toward downtown.
“And look, the sun is coming out,” Roberts said.
Swift, who was joined at the announcer’s table on the grandstand by her mother, Jean, clearly was enjoying herself. When North Adams Youth Cheerleading members approached the grandstand, Swift said to the crowd, “I was a cheerleader once. Cheerleader. Next: the Statehouse.”
This year’s parade theme was "Games, Movies & Takeout," honoring the games played, the movies watched and the takeout dined upon during the pandemic. 1Berkshire was the parade organizer.
The Regional Emergency Planning Committee of the Northern Berkshire COVID Operations Center was honored this year as the parade’s grand marshal. Members of the committee rode upon a float that contained a roller coaster — for a roller-coaster year. The float had a sound system that blasted out a recording of Pat Benatar’s song “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and included outlandishly large hypodermic needles set upon swivels and that squirted water at the crowd.
Roberts sat there clapping. Watching a parade with him is like watching a ballgame with a sports analyst. He knows his parades. The retired contract negotiator for General Dynamics was instrumental years ago in making sure that the firetrucks and other emergency vehicles were put at the front of the parade, a tradition that continued Sunday.
“We had been getting complaints from the marching bands that they were losing their tempo because of all the sirens and horns,” he said.
Leaning over, elbows on his knees, he said, “The biggest problem we always had was spacing. We made sure we had spotters out all along the parade route who could tell marchers when to slow down and when to speed up.”
Photos: 65th North Adams Fall Foliage Parade
The 65th annual Fall Foliage Parade
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On Sunday, Roberts couldn’t help but remark upon the yawning gap between the Adams Hose Company and the banner for Adams Bank.
“That’s the parade director’s nightmare,” he said. “But it’s OK, it’s OK.”
He also was instrumental years ago in banning Silly String.
“It just got too messy,” he said.
As the Drury High School Band approached the grandstand, Roberts waved to the bandleader, Christopher Caproni.
“That’s my next-door neighbor,” he said.
Meanwhile, Swift was relishing in her role.
“… And here’s Maria Ziemba, Register of Deeds, and she has candy!” Swift told the crowd.
The Northern Berkshire Girls Softball float, which consisted of a lot of softballs flying all over the place, won the Parade Director’s Award. Greylock Elementary School’s Disney-themed float won the Hayden Award. The "Mad Max"-themed float co-sponsored by the music venue HiLo and Very Good Property Development won the Mayor’s Award.
The float created by Northern Berkshire LGBTQ+ — it was a fashion runway with several participants adorned in elaborate costumes made from game boards, game pieces and takeout menus — took the Harry S. Orr Award. The float by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts — it depicted in-person learning — earned the Grand Marshal Award.
When it was all over, Roberts leaned back in his chair.
“That was an excellent parade,” he said, with a huge grin. “This was a great comeback, and we can build on it from here.”