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Long before Catonsville's July 4th parade, seat savers wait

Chairs, toilets sometimes seen before parade in annual tradition

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

8:27 PM EDT, June 30, 2011

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Catonsville's Fourth of July parade is bound to be an impressive event Monday afternoon, with 17 marching bands, Lone Ranger look-alikes, wailing firetrucks, color guards, 25 floats and a renowned local waitress drifting by in a long red gown. But before that, unfolding as you read this, goes the spectacle of the chairs.

To be more precise, the chairs, blankets, tarps, ropes, twine, steel cable, yellow "Caution" tape, bricks, stones and, at last count, two seated mannequins — one torso only, one whole figure — intended to reserve parade viewing spots. Remain alert for updates.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," said Lisa Savarino, a longtime Catonsville resident who on a bright morning this week was making her second contribution to the array of spectator place-holders that line the 1.1-mile parade route along Frederick Road. She had pulled her black Chevy van in front of Catonsville Presbyterian Church to lay another blue tarp on the lawn — her guest list had grown since she put out four chairs and a blanket over the weekend.

That's right, as in more than a week before the parade is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Monday, sweeping west to east like a weather system. The chairs, blankets and associated rigging appear chiefly in the more residential area to the west, harbingers of grander things to come.

This is not to slight the ingenuity of the pre-parade, which appears to be growing with time.

Maureen Sweeney Smith, one of the parade organizers, said it seems the early chair placeholder phenomenon has been going on for decades, perhaps a little earlier each year and a bit more creatively.

Her husband, Rick, was mowing a lawn Monday morning near where the parade begins when he saw a woman sitting on the north side of Frederick Road, perhaps resting from a long walk. On closer inspection it turned out to be a mannequin settled into one of eight empty plastic chairs in front of the Summit Park Health & Rehabilitation Center.

He thought she must have arrived Sunday night or early Monday. What a show she makes — a full figure with long, brown hair flowing from her high, red-white-and-blue hat, with blue T-shirt, red jeans, white shoes, a can of National Bohemian in her right hand and a plush black-and-brown dog sitting to her left.

She's more elaborate than the dummy set up in a chair a bit to the east on the south side. The gender-free torso lashed to a beach chair has no face but is wearing an expressive straw hat pulled low on the brow and a red Catonsville T-shirt with a logo of five motley chairs in a row.

Early reports mention no toilets along the route, though Rick Smith said he's seen them in the past and promptly removed them.

"It's not the image we want to put out," said Smith, an unabashed community booster, decked out in his "Where's Your Chair" Fourth of July T-shirt. This year's parade theme is "Creating Smiles Since 1947," the year the parade began.

Indeed, the Smiths said drivers have been slowing down to check out the full-figure mannequin, evidently getting a chuckle out of it.

Then there was the wise guy who some years ago put out a chair on New Year's Day at Catonsville Presbyterian with a sign declaring it the first parade chair of the season.

Local people look for that first chair, much as they might watch for spring's early robin or the inaugural hint of autumn color.

Lisa Teal, who had already put out blankets to hold spots for herself and neighbors who were vacationing in North Carolina's Outer Banks, said a friend who moved to Kansas City a few years ago insists that she email him as soon as she sees the first chair. This year it was last Friday in front of Hillcrest Elementary School.

The sighting of the first chair is "sporadic every year," she said.

"This is just the beginning," said Rick Smith, conducting a tour of the chair parade early in the week. "By the end of the week there'll be 10 times this."

They pop up overnight like so many spring mushrooms, usually lashed together and affixed to a utility pole or parking sign. Camp chairs, woven beach chairs, folding chairs appear alone or in groups, along with sundry blankets and tarps weighted with bricks and stones or staked to the ground. Their very presence spurs the neighbors on, lest you lose your spot.

"It's kind of funny," said Maureen Sweeney Smith. "I think, 'I'm not putting my chair out,' but then it's, 'I better put my chair out.'"

She is amazed that there have been no reports of vandalism or stolen chairs. She said some have complained about the chairs blocking sidewalks, but the kvetchers make up a small constituency.

Neysa Silvestri said she's heard of people writing letters to the local paper to complain, but the spirit of the impromptu promenade marches on. She showed up one morning this week with her daughter Callie to put a blue tarp on the lawn at Hillcrest Elementary.

"It's enthusiasm," she said. "It's craziness."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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