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MARCHING ORDERS Preakness Parade marches on on the March for 25 years; PREAKNESS PARTY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Westsiders march in the Preakness Parade, it's always a grand reunion. Former band members cluster along the route to cheer them on. And this year, they'll be turning out full force -- after all, Saturday is the parade's 25th anniversary.

And just as she's done every year for the past quarter century -- except for 1993 when the parade was canceled -- Corlis Pitts will be marching with the band. Back during the first Preakness Parade in 1972, she was proudly carrying the American flag. She was 15 then. This year, at 41, she'll be leading the drummers.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Corlis while reminiscing about her first Preakness Parade. "It was such an honor to be carrying the flag, and it made me feel special. I was very conscious of holding the flag high and straight . . . never wavering."

In addition to still actively participating in the band, Corlis is also the group's director.

The Westsiders were founded 36 years ago by Corlis' parents, Dorothy and Jeff Pitts, to provide a recreational outlet for children in the West Baltimore community.

Through the years, the 150-member award-winning band has made a name for itself along the East Coast, marching in #F parades from Florida to New York.

"But the Preakness Parade remains our favorite. . . . It's always like a homecoming," says Dorothy who, along with her husband, stays actively involved in the band's management.

"Years ago, the parade was not as large and the route was shorter," remembers Dorothy. "Before Harborplace was developed, the parade ended at Hopkins Plaza."

And for many years, the parade was conducted in the evening, much to the Pittses' delight.

"That was my favorite parade . . . everything sparkled in the reflection of the street lights," adds Corlis.

The evening's glitter and magic also appealed to Shelia Goodwin, a Baltimore Office of Promotion staff member who has worked with the parade about 17 years, the past eight as its coordinator.

"The illuminated floats and uniforms were a breathtaking sight for the thousands of spectators, but very taxing on the police department," Goodwin says, adding that the parade returned to daytime hours in 1990.

Winding its way through downtown Baltimore beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday, the 25th Annual Preakness Celebration Parade will be led by grand marshal and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson. Booming marching bands, giant helium balloons, stately equestrian units, costumed mascots, the Budweiser Clydesdales, the Avenuers Mummers of Philadelphia, decorated floats and color guards will follow along the two-mile parade route that starts at the intersection of Eutaw Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, continues northeast on Martin Luther King Boulevard, east on Chase Street, south on Charles Street and east on Pratt Street to the disbanding area at Market Place. The reviewing stand, with hosts Rouse & Company of WQSR, is at the corner of Pratt and Light streets.

Also joining the celebration as guests are ESPN commentator Gary Jobson and George Collins, owner of Chessie Racing, a participant in the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race.

This year's parade can be seen live, in its entirety, on WMAR-TV NewsChannel 2 with hosts Sandra Pinckney and Dan Rodricks.

"Close to 100 units are expected to participate," says Goodwin. "And it gets quite chaotic during lineup. But once everyone steps off and turns around the corner, it's totally orderly."

Though floats are becoming more elaborate each year, giant helium balloons still grow taller and drill teams offer more difficult routines, the basic parade lineup has not drastically changed over the past 25 years.

"What has changed is the technology," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion. "We used to stand at the street corner with bullhorns, now we communicate with cell phones and pagers."

Except for 1993, the Baltimore Preakness Parade has been a much-anticipated annual event since its inception. "Rain or shine, we go on," says Gilmore.

"We've been pretty lucky with the weather," adds Goodwin. "We've had miserable downpours during lineup and everything got drenched, but then the sun comes out the minute we step off."

Mother Nature wasn't that kind 25 years ago, remembers Robert Kemp, organizer of the first parade and then the director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Council.

"We had to fight all odds. We had no money and everybody thought I was crazy to even think about putting on a parade," says Kemp. "It was less than four years since the riots in Baltimore [after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination] and people just weren't coming downtown."

Kemp went ahead with his plans and even though it rained all day and he was afraid floats would turn into giant spitballs, the first parade was a booming success.

"Crowds lined the streets, hovering under umbrellas," says Kemp.

Kemp loved the parade. He loved it so much that he retired from his city job to start his own business -- building floats and balloons for parades.

The Preakness Parade is Kemp's baby. He might not be a spectator each year, but he's definitely part of it. His company, Kemp Balloons, supplies the helium-filled balloons for the parade.

Four balloons are entered in this year's parade, among them the massive Mighty Mouse.

"Fifty-six feet long and 22 feet wide, Mighty Mouse is one of our largest balloons, and he will be a real challenge to maneuver, especially along narrow streets. He's so big, we have to fly him diagonally," explains Linda Johnson, general manager of Kemp Balloons.

Johnson says it takes about 30 to 40 minutes to inflate Mighty Mouse and 21,000 cubic feet of helium to fill all four balloons. And 116 volunteers are needed to hold the ropes and guide the balloons through the streets.

"Everybody will be instructed in doing the limbo under electrical wires and how to watch out for street lights and other obstructions," says Johnson.

The Preakness Parade is part of Preakness Celebration, a weeklong festival of hot-air balloons, black-tie balls, schooner races and block parties starting tomorrow and leading up to the main event May 16 -- the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, the middle jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown.

Since 1988, Preakness Celebration has staged a weeklong series of events designed to attract media attention and to generate tourism, says the event's executive director, Terry Romanoli.

"Once the Kentucky Derby is over, the attention shifts to Baltimore and we wanted to capitalize on being the focus of the nation," says Romanoli.

Meanwhile, at the Winchester Armory, the Westsiders are practicing for their favorite parade.

Five-year-old Kiahanna Miles was shaking her bright red pom-poms, trying not to miss a step to the beat of the drum. She says she's ready for her first Preakness Parade. Her mother, Tanghia Rogers, 30, who joined the band at age 13, is still a member, and her grandmother, Patsy Smithwick, is on the board of directors. Even her father used to play the drums.

"It's a real family affair," says Dorothy Pitts. "Once you join, you pTC continue to stay part of it. We started the band for our five children, now our grandchildren are members too and I'm sure their children will be part of it."

And after preparing her troupe for parades for the past 36 years, then marching with them along the sideline, where will Dorothy be this year?

"For the first time, I'll be sitting on a folding chair along the route, enjoying the parade walk by," she says with a laugh.

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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