'It's the epitome of hometown': Pittsfield puts on a show for its Fourth of July parade

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PITTSFIELD — Thirty minutes before the start of the city's Fourth of July parade Thursday morning, Alison LaRocca and Vincent Brewer scrambled to make sure that the Albany Berkshire Ballet would have its banner for the event. LaRocca's 8-year-old son, Roger, a student at the company's dance school, was excited to hold it as they marched through the city.

Like her son, LaRocca grew up dancing at the Cantarella School of Dance. Now, she is president of the ballet's board of directors. Brewer is a professional dancer with the group.

"We have the past, the present and the future," LaRocca said, referring to the parade's theme.

The ballet's float, which was dotted with mushrooms from the set of the ballet's original production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the 1980s, was one of 180 units that proceeded through the city during the beloved annual event.

Every year, tens of thousands of residents and visitors flock to the parade route to observe the organizations and departments taking part.

Shortly before the ballet's float began its trek along South Street, instructors Nancy King and Deirde Duffin-Swindlehurst joined the group.

King started dancing with the Albany Berkshire Ballet at age 8, went on to be a principal dancer and has since taught generations of Berkshire students.

"I was in the very first 'Nutcracker' in 1974," she said.

This year is the school's 50th anniversary.

"It's just a legacy of people," LaRocca added, noting that thousands of Berkshire County residents, many of whom were in the crowd Thursday, had passed through the school.

Brewer, of Great Barrington, was the only one in the pack who hadn't previously marched in the event, but he remembered attending it as a spectator. After dancing all over the country, he was able to move back to the Berkshires last summer to join the ballet.

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"It's really great to be able to come home to dance professionally here," he said. Because of the competitiveness of the field, it is not guaranteed that dancers can land a full-time job close to where they grew up, he said.

Many who came to watch the parade prepared for the nearly 90-degree heat by packing coolers of bottled water, donning hats and setting up tents.

The General Dynamics float, a mock ship that was declared the winner this year, fired water guns into the crowd, and many were grateful for the temporary relief.

Paige Dowsett, 2, and her 2-month-old brother, Parker, snoozing in a stroller, were enjoying their first parade with mom and dad Katy and Steve Dowsett. The young Newburyport family kept cool under a small shade tree near the end of the parade route on Wahconah Street.

"Firetruck. Tractor," Paige said as the big vehicles drove by.

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"She loves firetrucks," said Steve Dowsett, a Pittsfield native who regularly returns home for the Fourth of July with his family to run in the Independence Day 5K Run before the parade and to enjoy reconnecting with family and friends.

"I used to march in the Pittsfield High [School] band, so, I never saw the parade. Now, I get to enjoy it after the race," he said.

Nostalgia is what draws many to the parade.

Meghan Holt, of Newburg, N.Y., grew up in Pittsfield and tries to make it back each year for the parade with her four children. Despite living only an hour's drive from Manhattan, the family never travels to the city parades, but the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade is a family tradition.

"We try to come most years," she said. "It's the epitome of hometown."

Terry Richard, who attended the parade with her three sisters, feels the same way. The women grew up in Lenox, but Richard lives in Texas.

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The family remembered taking part in city events and parades as children, having marched as a part of their high school band in the 1980s."It's cleaner," Richard said of how the city has changed since their childhood. "It feels homier."

Dalton native Bill Faye returned to the Berkshires as part of the Moodus Drum & Fife Corps from Moodus, Conn., the marching unit dating to 1820. Faye leads the way as part of the color guard, and his wife, Cathy Faye, plays a fife.

"It's a good group of people, very patriotic music, and I love when the veterans [all along the parade route] salute the flag as we go by," Bill Faye said.

Several years ago, parade organizers moved the veterans organizations from the rear to the beginning of the procession, believing that those who served their country should be at the forefront of the celebration.

"That's where we should be. People clap for us all the way," said World War II veteran Norman Zink, who turns 91 next week. Zink belongs to American Legion Post 155 in Dalton, one of 11 veterans groups represented in the parade.

Veterans were well represented in the air, as well, as the Purple Heart made its Pittsfield debut as one of the four helium balloons rising above the parade route.

A mermaid, sun and elephant also floated by, handled by local volunteers, some with zero balloon-handling experience.

Chief Financial Officer Nick Kirchner was one of the 20 people from Elder Services of Berkshire County guiding the inflated elephant through downtown. Kirchner and his co-workers were first-time balloon handlers, getting 10 minutes of training from professionals before the parade stepped off at 10 a.m.

"It was easier than I expected," Kirchner said. "I thought it would be hard to hold down."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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