by Jim Bulls
My first parade experience was during WWII in Fort Worth, Texas at P.T. Barnum’s circus. It was under the big top and the ringmaster shouted “Strike up the Band!” The parade was led by elephants ridden by beautiful girls wearing brightly colored head dresses of ostrich plumes. They were followed by other circus performers, wild animals and clowns. It was quite a sight.
The grand finale of the circus was a girl being shot out of a canon. Since we lived on a military base where they produced bombs for the war effort, I was well aware (even at that young age) of the explosive power of TNT. I lived in fear that the whole plant might go off like a Roman candle and light up all of Texas. It was a surprise to me that the girl flew gracefully through the air, landing in a net at the far end of the circus tent without a scratch. She jumped to the ground, smiled big, and waved at the crowd.
We moved to Reedley in 1947, and that led to my second parade experience: the first Fiesta parade following the War. This parade was led by the veterans of the 185th Infantry, followed by the combined Reedley High School and Reedley College marching band. There weren’t any special band uniforms. Everyone just wore blue jeans, plaid shirts, tennis shoes with white socks and straw hats.
By the 1950s, the band got brand new uniforms. They were a grey, military style with a chest shield that buttoned on the front of the jacket. One side was green for Reedley High School and the other side was orange for Reedley College. The last time I saw one of the old grey uniforms was at a Halloween party, worn by David Browning. Most of those uniforms were destroyed in the high school fire of 1974.
When Reedley College was relocated to their new campus on the corner of Reed and Manning, Reedley High received new uniforms. These uniforms made their debut at the annual spring concert in 1960. This uniform consisted of a black jacket with a green front, green pants with black and white stripes. The band’s next uniform appeared in the late 1970s (I think). It was green with a white chest shield that had a big, green “R.” In the 1990s, the uniform we all know and love came into being.
This was in the era of legendary band director Burl Walter, Jr., a man who was always thinking out of the box. He made some revolutionary changes in the band’s performance style, and just like Rodney Dangerfield, the band didn’t get “no respect.” Jazz and blues tunes were rarely heard west of the Mississippi, much less bands doing the kick step. Pauses of any kind before the judge’s stand was always an automatic disqualification and Reedley bowed! The crowds could care less about protocol. They loved every bit of the band’s performance; tapping their feet and clapping their hands and shouting loudly with every kick step.
The uniform was well suited to the jazzy music played by the band, and were unique compared to the military-style uniforms being worn by most other high schools. Nothing, I mean nothing, shows off those kick steps better than the black uniform pants with the white stripes. Every parade spectator knows who is marching down the street when a sea of green appears and it can only be the “Big, Green Marching Machine”.
One of the high points of the Reedley High School Band’s career had to be the invitation to the 2000 Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California. Thinking of the logistics involved in organizing a trip like this is overwhelming. Everything had to be thought out beforehand: rest stops, fueling stations for the buses, food services, chaperones, bus drivers for example. Not to mention making sure every uniform was in tip top shape: mending, dry cleaning, shoe polishing. And then there was the practice time: hours and hours of marching up and down the streets, in order to play without stopping throughout the entire parade route.
Everyone who saw the band perform that New Year’s Day, either live or on T.V was filled with pride. The entire community of Reedley was involved through financial donations or volunteering in some manner. Those fine young musicians made us all very, very proud.
This 20, or so, year old uniform is about to be retired – a new uniform is just around the corner. At this writing, the final decision on the design has yet to be made, but I have been assured by the current band directors that a new uniform does not mean changes in the band’s performance style. The jazz and the kick steps will continue – I mean why mess with a winning combination?
Just like this story started, I’m going to end with another circus tale. As a bus driver, I was one chartered to drive for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, shuttling performers from the circus train to the Selland Arena in Fresno. On board my bus were some of those beautiful girls who rode the elephants. There wasn’t one of them over five feet tall! Their height had been an illusion because of the fabulous feather headdresses they wore. They were all mostly Russian or Brazilian and spoke very little English.
One of the perks of driving the circus performers was getting to eat free at the food cart. A fellow driver and I were eating pizza, sitting on a big green crate when a circus employee cam up and said he needed to move the crate into the arena. We casually followed him into the staging area, when we heard the ringmaster announce the next act: “The Alligator Whisperer!” Yep, we had been sitting on a crate of live alligators.
For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.