The Pulaski High School band practices for months to hit its mark in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“One! Two! One, two, ready, play!” Tom Busch signals his marching band to launch into “All That Jazz,” a song he hopes the students will nail in 40 days. In New York City. On Herald Square. At the 77th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Leading a band to the prestigious parade has been a dream of Busch’s since he was in the 8th grade. This mid-October evening, however, the 39-year-old, goateed band director is glad to have more than a month of breathing space.
A moment after the students hear “play!” the chilly Wisconsin air is filled with music. Loud music. Drums pounding, horns blaring, flags waving. But Busch cuts the song short.
“We’ll get it, we’ll get it,” he yells loud enough for some 175 kids gathered in the back parking lot of Pulaski High School to hear. “Some of us aren’t even getting their horns up,” he adds in exasperation, pacing around in his red-and-black parka, a field of corn and alfalfa in the distance.
“Again,” Busch commands, not for the first—or last—time during the practice.
He often tells the students they shouldn’t settle for being good; they should strive to be great. So he pushes, and pushes.
Busch doesn’t really talk with the band about what the parade means to him personally. He doesn’t want them to do this for him. Even so, the dream is proving contagious, at least for some students. They’re discovering their talents and learning that, sometimes, hard work really does pay off.
But there’s a lot still to do. Busch has just returned from a meeting in New York City, where Macy’s and producers with NBC, which broadcasts the Thanksgiving Day tradition, offered feedback of a recently videotaped performance by the Pulaski High band.
Their two main critiques of the Red Raiders? One, the rendition of “All That Jazz,” from the musical “Chicago,” at about a minute and 40 seconds, was still 15 seconds too long. And two, the marching fell short of the promise shown in an audition tape the band submitted last spring.
“NBC had this to say,” Busch tells the students. “Your steps are not the same. Your knees are not the same. Your feet are not the same.”
This day’s 90-minute practice is shorter than many since August, when the students first began preparing. They stick it out until a few minutes past seven. By then, the big red star painted on the blacktop—a replica of the surface they’ll march on in front of the flagship Macy’s store in Herald Square and where the NBC cameras will be stationed—is all but invisible as darkness settles in.
The Pulaski Red Raider band is one of just 10 marching bands to win a coveted spot in the Macy's parade this year, out of more than 300 entries.
The Pulaski Red Raider band is one of just 10 marching bands to win a coveted spot in the Macy’s parade this year, out of more than 300 entries. Every Thanksgiving Day, some 2½ million people throng the sidewalks of Manhattan to watch. Tens of millions more watch it on television.
With the school’s football team going 3-6 this year, it’s the halftime show that’s headed to the “Super Bowl.”
The school of about 1,100 kids is on the southern edge of Pulaski, a small town some 20 miles west of Green Bay. It serves 176 square miles of mostly rural Wisconsin, though a growing segment of the high school’s students are from suburban communities near Green Bay.
“We are Hayseed High,” Busch says with a smile. “Cowpie High.” Raised on a dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, he ought to know.
But the musical roots run deep in Pulaski, home of the Polka Days Festival, which attracts thousands each year. Those roots also run deep in Busch’s own family, tracing back at least five generations, when the Busch family band emigrated from Germany.
Band is very popular at Pulaski High. Just ask the school board. When word spread a few years ago that the band budget might be cut back, a couple of hundred parents and students swarmed the next board meeting to protest. The idea was quickly scuttled.
“The other teachers said, ‘Man, you’ve got a Mafia now,’ ” recalls Busch, who’s in his fifth year as band director.
The school’s well-organized music boosters raised more than $47,000 to help pay for the six-day trip to New York City.
This isn’t the band’s first big gig. In the past four years, it has marched in a Walt Disney World parade, the Fourth of July parade in Washington, and was named Grand Champion of the Lilac Festival Parade on Mackinac Island, Mich. In November 2002, the band even performed during halftime at a Green Bay Packers game.
Pride runs high here. The percussionists have black T-shirts that say “Very Important Percussionist.” The color guard wear sweatshirts that proclaim, “One guard, one flag.”
About one-fifth of Pulaski students take part in band. The members are as varied as the school, from student council members and computer whizzes to football players and even a punk rocker with a mohawk.
For some, it’s a casual affair. And then there are the devotees, the kids who jokingly call themselves “band geeks,” such as Rachel Czarapata, a junior with long brown hair and a dash of freckles on her face.
“I love band,” the affable 17-year-old says. “I’d rather go to band than any other class, and I’d rather hang out with the people in the band than any other people. It’s like a family.”
Twice a week, Czarapata arrives at school before 6:30 a.m. to play saxophone in jazz-band practice. But in the marching band, she’s the assistant drum majorette, sort of like the vice president. On parade day, she and senior Jennifer Rietz, the lead majorette, will stand before the band, setting the tempo, signaling when to start and stop, and helping to keep the rhythm with precise, synchronized arm motions.
“I get to be in front, flap my arms, and fly away,” Czarapata jokes.
The majorettes also do a lot behind the scenes, helping at practices to identify and correct problems, and keeping the students in line, when needed.
“The responsibility list is quite long,” Busch says. “You’re in charge of making sure the performances come off without a hitch.”
Czarapata is a natural, with strong musical and marching skills, plus something more. “She’s not afraid to assume the role of a leader,” Busch says. “She has a lot of self-confidence. ... It’s hard to rattle her.”
No doubt those steely nerves and confidence are helped by her winter hobby: car racing. Come January, she can be found driving on frozen Shawano Lake. That’s right, ice racing. She won “Rookie of the Year” last season. She also has a black belt in Tae Kwan Do.
‘Start Spreadin’ the News’
Manhattan. It’s about a thousand miles from Pulaski, but might as well be a million.
The one- and two-story buildings lining the small town’s main drag, the modest homes with trimmed lawns, the surrounding fields dotted with barns and silos, are replaced by a sea of skyscrapers and yellow taxis, massive electronic billboards, and the rumble of subway cars.
The band rode from Wisconsin for more than 20 hours in a caravan of red-and-white tour buses, stopping only for food, gas, and an afternoon tour and rehearsal at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. In all, about 210 students, 50 chaperones, and 10 school staff members are on board.
Finally, Thanksgiving arrives, the day these Midwestern tourists become the tourist attraction.
Early Thanksgiving week, the Red Raiders hit Times Square, the Empire State Building, and the five-level American Museum of Natural History. They take a dinner cruise, catch the Broadway musical “The Lion King” and the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall, featuring the Rockettes. More than a few of the youths notice how tight the dancers’ steps are.
“I love the lights,” says Czarapata, who, like many of the teenagers, is on her first trip to New York City.
“There are so many things that I will remember forever,” says Lacye Ressell, a tall, blonde senior in the color guard. “I mean, who gets to go ... on the cruise we got to go on last night, to see the Statue of Liberty that close with all of their best friends?”
Wednesday morning, it’s back to business, with a Gotham-style twist. The band has been invited to rehearse atop the U.S.S. Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier berthed along the West Side of Manhattan.
The practice affords a spectacular backdrop of skyscrapers, the Hudson River, and military planes resting nearby on the deck, but the intense workout leaves little chance to enjoy the surroundings. Time is tight, especially because, unexpectedly, every student has to go through a metal detector, and every instrument case must be inspected by security guards. The other glitch? A 10th grader left her flute back at the band’s hotel, near the Newark, N.J., airport.
Finally, Thanksgiving arrives, the day these Midwestern tourists become the tourist attraction.
The band greets it very early. Just past 1:30 a.m., the hotel lobby is swimming with groggy teenagers.
Aaron Silvers, a tall senior with dark, scruffy hair who plays saxophone, never went to sleep. Czarapata got almost four hours of shut-eye, which is good, since she’s fighting off a sore throat. Busch went to bed around 11 p.m. and rose less than two hours later.
The students file off the buses for dress rehearsal in Herald Square around 2:40 a.m. A routine sweep by chaperones reveals one oversight: a freshman clarinet player on Bus A is snuggled in his seat, sound asleep. But there’s still time, so he hustles to catch up.
The band runs through its performance twice. Afterward, Busch is worried. The first time, the band was out of position in the square, shooting several feet past the Macy’s star, which is meant to center their performance. He laments that the red “ready” line, designed to help the band measure the exact distance to the star, seems misplaced.
“That red line that they put down, I might be telling lies of out of school here, but that’s not where it is on the handbook that [Macy’s] sent us,” he says. “I mean, we took the pains of drawing out a star in Pulaski, everything, dimensions, but that red line is not” in the same place.
After a predawn breakfast in Times Square, three 9th grade girls are getting excited.
“It’s kind of funny because this is the first parade I’ve ever been in before, and it’s like the biggest parade ever,” says Crissy Brunner, who plays flute.
They agree that band has posed heavy time demands, but they have no regrets. “It was a lot of work,” Brunner says, “but it’s all worth it. It was so worth it.”
The Big Moment
By 7 a.m., the students have made their way to the western edge of Central Park, near the launching point for the parade. They mill about on the sidewalk for nearly two hours awaiting the start. When a TV reporter with a cameraman in tow walks by, some students crowd over in hopes of getting their faces broadcast.
The Red Raiders will be the parade’s first marching band, an honor, but one Busch had hoped to avoid, as he’s heard that the first band tends to get rushed.
‘It's just finally sinking in that we're actually here.’
Mercifully, the weather is almost perfect, not cold, windy, or rainy. Just a clear blue sky. As the 9 a.m. kickoff approaches, the Red Raiders line up on five-lane Central Park West, bedecked in their sharp marching uniforms: polished white shoes (with the occasional scuff marks), pressed black pants, red jackets, and hats with red plumes.
“It’s just finally sinking in that we’re actually here,” says Sarah Wengerter, a freshman trumpeter whose dad plays in the Pulaski community band. “I’m really happy, but I’m really nervous.”
And then, it’s time. Rietz and Czarapata, the drum majorettes, shout, “Mark time! Four!” A percussionist delivers four sharp cracks to his snare drum, and suddenly the band becomes one. The students belt out “On Wisconsin,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” They march in lockstep along the western edge of Central Park, onto Broadway, and through Times Square, keeping the lines mostly straight. The 21/2- mile route takes about an hour to march, no easy task for those carrying heavy instruments, like the quad drums and the sousaphones, which weigh close to 30 pounds apiece.
Czarapata’s mother and younger brother, Jeremy—who flew into New York—are standing a few blocks south of Central Park. The crowd lets the two slide up front as the band approaches to chants of “Rachel! Rachel!”
She sees them, but doesn’t wave. “I had a job to do,” she explains later.
Busch, the band geek-in-chief, seems to enjoy himself. His job is pretty much over. He walks alongside the band in a casual Red Raiders coat, occasionally darting in and out to make an adjustment. But he’s really just a bystander now. The students are in charge.
The band director wears a purple-and-white lei, a gift from a Hawaiian high school band also performing. He hams it up, claps along, sings a refrain from “On Wisconsin,” and yells out, “party time!” to the appreciative crowd. He poses for a photo with a burly police officer.
The band members approach Herald Square and halt, awaiting the signal to proceed. This is the moment they’ve worked hardest for, their minute-and-a-half before the NBC cameras. The signal comes, and they’re off. With high-powered TV lights shining, the band launches into “All That Jazz,” executing an elaborate display of marching and playing from memory. The dance team performs its painstakingly choreographed steps, and the color guard members wave their flags in unison. It all happens fast and ends with the band shouting, “Yeah!”
As the band moves on from the TV spotlight, the musicians kick in again with a jazzy rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” arranged by Busch, to finish the last leg of the parade.
When it’s all over, Czarapata and Rietz hug in the street.
“Oh, we did awesome!” Rietz says. “It was awesome. It was soooo awesome,” Czarapata agrees.
‘Oh, we did awesome! It was awesome. It was soooo awesome.’
Some performers are their own worst critics.
“I messed up a couple of times in the beginning because I was nervous and I stepped on myself, causing me to drop my flag,” says Christine Trudeau, a blonde junior.
Even so, she loved the experience. “Usually I have to force myself to smile for color guard,” she says, “but I could not stop smiling.”
“It was fun,” says Colin Freeman, a bespectacled junior trombonist, though to him the Herald Square performance seemed to fly by. “It took like three seconds, after three months of preparation.”
Some were disappointed that the band as a whole wasn’t precisely centered on the Macy’s star. They played great, the marching was tight, but, apparently, it was a tad off the mark.
Busch told them long before they arrived in New York that their best performance would be back in Pulaski.
“The main thing is they’ve had the experience,” he says later, reflecting on the day. “We don’t want to get it perfect the first time. We wouldn’t have a reason to come back.”