The 20th annual Pimlico Preakness Celebration parade began last night under a downpour that had spectators scurrying for shelter under umbrellas, tarps and tablecloths, under awnings and plastic garbage bags.

But by the parade's end 2 1/2 hours later, the rain had tapered off and the show concluded with a fireworks display that lit up a hazy sky over the Inner Harbor.

The parade stepped off at 6:15 p.m. and made its way along Charles Street to the Inner Harbor.

Hardy spectators, sparse along Charles Street but lining Pratt Street by the hundreds, braved the chilly downpour to enjoy bands, drill teams, clowns and balloons.

The rains came about 15 minutes before the parade was due to start. Arthur Blanchett of Essex, hawking cotton candy along Charles Street, said he'd never seen such rain for the parade in the 10 years he's been working the event.

"I'm kind of ducking in and out of places," he said as he took a

break under an awning. "As long as there are people out here in the rain, I'll be out here."

A drill team, the West Baltimore Christian Warriors, led off the parade. The members, dressed in red skirts and gold shirts, strutted down Charles Street to a driving beat, bringing the crowd to life.

"Look at them strut. They'll put on a good show," said Gordon De George of Severna Park.

Some of Baltimore's drum and majorette groups pared down their routines to conform to parade organizers' wishes. But the fans they attract couldn't be discouraged. As about 90 members of the Baltimore Westsiders made their way down Charles Street, an equal number of exuberant teen-age fans followed.

Organizers had hoped to streamline the parade for television. But Jeff W. Pitts, founder of the Westsiders, said last night, "We're not interested in TV coverage. Any time [the fans] stick around on a day like today, well, that tells you all they want to do is participate."

The rain presented special problems for some marching units. The slick streets made for treacherous footing for the drill teams. But it was perhaps most annoying for Jill Gramer of Fells Point, who was juggling three bowling pins with metal handles as she marched along with a troupe of clowns.

"It makes the handles slippery," Ms. Gramer said. But she was still juggling the pins without dropping them. "With so many years of practice, it's OK."

The Severna Park High School marching band was outfitted in sharp-looking parkas that matched their uniforms.

Band director Dennis Davis of Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge admitted he was a little worried about the band's sharp red, white and blue uniforms. "We'll set them out to dry and see what happens," he said.

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