The Famous Marching Presidents will be placing pocket editions of the United States of America Constitution into the hands of 1,500 students along the Constitution Day parade route in Nevada City on September 13, 2009. Thanks to two local service organizations, Nevada City Rotary and Gold Country Kiwanis, each generously donating $250.00, the Famous Marching Presidents will begin a new era of educational outreach by sharing our nation's most precious document with area youth who attend the parade. Presidents Michael Colantuono (Rotary)and Homer Nottingham (Kiwanis) and their civic-minded organizations are to be commended for their significant contributions to the youth of Nevada County.
Sparky, Patti transfer power to the marchers
We are snaking along Newtown Road off Highway 49, past grazing horses and twisting manzanita and under wisps of clouds, to see David “Sparky” Parker, the Wizard of the Famous Marching Presidents, the man who set this whole thing into motion 21 years ago.
Seated to our right is Patti Foster, the woman who joined Sparky 10 years ago to put a little, uh, structure into the process. If Sparky birthed the Marching Presidents, Patti civilized them. In the back seat is a six-pack of beer and a bottle of Chardonnay, just in case.
This year, Sparky and Patti are relinquishing their active roles in planning and implementing the annual event. Taking over is a group of presidents and first ladies who have carefully delegated all the many tasks the two pioneers performed alone to make the parade and after-party possible.
“I just decided that after 20 years, we had done the decorations and the party and everything we could do,” Patti explains. “It’s time to bow out.”
We arrive at a large mountain-ranch style home with beautiful pines, a killer view and walls full of his stunning artwork. Sparky immediately takes us inside on a tour, pointing out his inspiration for each painting. The porch, where he works, is strewn with tubes of paint. “Oh, I meant to clean those up,” he says. “Why start now,” Patti retorts.
We’re off to the races.
“It started in 1986. I had watched the parade for years, but there was very little local participation,” says Sparky.
The Constitution Day parade had been founded by Col. William “Bill” Lambert in 1967, but it was, as Sparky described “mostly a huge event for the Masonic guys with their little cars.”
“I just sort of woke up one morning and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have an all new group here?”
“I sent letters to people. It was pretty haphazard.”
But Sparky managed to field a full complement of presidents, although only three or four first ladies.
“The first year we were really rowdy. Drinking, screaming, using some non-presidential language. When we got to the review stand, we dropped our pants and everyone had boxers with stars and stripe on them. It was pretty clever, actually. But I got a letter from the city saying ‘We realize you’re a new group and we encourage you to participate, but if you act like you did last year, you can assume you will no longer be marching in the parade.”
Patti linked up 10 years later.
“George Drum asked me if I wanted to be Mrs. Coolidge. The first year I marched with him, we went down to the Foundry (Stone Hall) and he took one look and said, “This looks like Auschwitz at breakfast. We need to brighten this place up. That’s how we started decorating.”
There has always been an after-march party. The first year, it was upstairs of the old Elks Hall and they have been held at different places over the years.
“One year we went to the Foundry and they were really struggling in those days,” says Sparky. “We paid $100 and started a long relationship (with the venue). Patti has transformed us with style.”
Patti’s first duty: “We started with plastic bunting. We now have real bunting.”
The two would start more than two months out from the event, she working on the catering, the decorating, he on the publicity and the newsletter. She says the last week before the event is the most chaotic. “Every day, I’d pick him up. We had a list. Parker had the vision and he stayed with that.”
As the visionary, Sparky’s duties included maintaining some decorum among the clever, oftentimes irreverent presidents. All were encouraged to get into character and “work with” their presidential images, but requests to drive jeeps or wear stained blue dresses sometimes took it over the top.
On a few occasions, Sparky had to “impeach” a rowdy president. The crime: “Causing more damage than good. They’d either get really drunk or they’d chase all the first ladies around.”
But that was rare. Most of the presidents, probably 80 percent, have been marching since the beginning.
Although Patti will not be marching this year, Sparky will again line up as Martin Van Buren and will be bestowing the Lambert Award, named for the parade’s founder, to a person who has made a significant contribution to the area. Last year, the presidents gave Sparky the prize. A few years back it was the late local folk legend Utah Phillips.
“It’s a prestigious award, not a lampoon. The people who have received it over the years, each and every one, have earned it,” he says.
Both Patti and Sparky are consulting with the committee to ensure that this year’s parade goes off without a hitch, but they are determined that the community take the reins and lead the event.
“The group needs to take the first steps. In our group we’ve had some of the most talented people around. They just need a chance to shine,“ he says.
Sparky, whose list of accomplishments in the area run from getting soccer fields built to pushing to get a Sierra College campus locally, is understandably proud that he was able to create and sustain such a legendary event.
“Two of my favorite times are in the morning of the parade, when nobody is in the Foundry, and I just walk around and look, and later when I usually stay when everyone else is gone. It’s so gorgeous, all the red, white and blue. --Michael Young