Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Local kids ready to step out

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Members of the Miami University Marching Band practice Wednesday on the Miami campus.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
At 9 a.m. Thursday, when 10 bands, 21 floats, 15 oversized balloons and Santa Claus himself line up in midtown Manhattan for the 77th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, about 300 young Cincinnati area performers will be there among them.

The audience: two million or more people on the 21/2-mile parade route and upward of 60 million TV viewers.

"I go home at night and I can't sleep," confesses Lynn Kelley, coach for the Kings Firecrackers jump rope team from Kings Mills Elementary School. "I'm thinking about what I have to do and what I'm forgetting. But it will be worth it.''

For months now, the Miami University Marching Band, the Oak Hills High School Varsity Singers and the two dozen jump-roping girls from the Kings Local School District in Warren County have been preparing for and dreaming of their Macy's moment of fame.

Parade organizers sift through hundreds of applications from all over the country before choosing the invitees on the basis of musical ability, showmanship and marching skills.

Only the best get to go.

Miami student: 'I'm ready'

When the 220 red-clad members of the Miami University Marching Band step off from Central Park West Thursday morning in their prime parade position - right in front of Santa, the star of the show - no one will feel the excitement more than T.J. Meloy of Mount Healthy, who will carry the band's banner.

"I won't see it," says the 20-year-old percussionist, who has been blind since birth. "But I'll sure feel it."

Meloy, a political science major, performs with the band on the sidelines of Miami football games; the complicated formations the marching band uses on the field aren't possible for a person without sight.

But in New York, the marching will be straight ahead, for 21/2 miles through the heart of New York. Meloy can handle that. He'll hold one end of the Miami marching band banner with a sighted student at the other end, helping guide him along.

"I've got to count on others for some help," says Meloy, who will take his guide dog, Auggie, to New York, although Auggie won't be in the parade. "But I'm ready."

Last week, on a crisp, clear autumn afternoon, the band gathered outside Miami's Center for the Performing Arts to practice its parade marching.

With Meloy at the front, Miami's Western Drive played the role of Broadway, as the band marched in perfect tempo, playing the Christmas favorites it will perform on Thanksgiving Day - "Jingle Bells," "March of the Toy Soldiers," "Here Comes Santa Claus."

David Shaffer, the band director who has been part of the Miami University Marching Band since his undergraduate days in the 1970s, marches briskly alongside the band as it high-steps down Western Drive, occasionally passing on instructions to his assistant. .

"This is a dream come true for these guys," says Shaffer. "It's a dream come true for me. This is a very big stage we are going to be performing on."

Miami was not just chosen to perform - it was chosen for the prime marching band position in the Macy's parade, in front of the Santa Claus float. It's a position that guarantees Miami at least five minutes of national television exposure when the band stops in Herald Square to perform for the NBC cameras.

"We're in the spotlight," Shaffer says, as his band marched by. "We'll be ready."

Second trip for Firecrackers

Nine-year-old Brooke Andrews and her 10-year-old friend, Kayla Kircher, were the first to arrive for Firecrackers practice Thursday at Kings Mills Elementary. Their segmented, brightly colored ropes clacked against the hardwood gym floor as they warmed up.

Brooke and Kayla are rookies, first-year members of the Kings Firecrackers jump-rope team - two dozen fourth- to eighth-grade girls.

Slowly, the other girls drifted in, parents in tow, and did stretching exercises on the floor.

Kelley burst into the room as the clock strikes 4:30 p.m., clad in a red, white and blue Firecrackers jumpsuit.

"We've got a lot to do today, girls," Kelley hollers.. "Let's do it."

On Thanksgiving Day, the Firecrackers will be the 20th unit to step off onto the Macy's parade route, performing their complicated and stylish maneuvers.

This is the Firecrackers' second trip to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - they were there two years ago.

As the energetic group performs its signature number - "Even Hamsters Fall in Love" - Kelley stops the music when she sees something she doesn't like.

"What if that TV camera zooms in on you and you look like this," she says, frowning and slumping her head to her chest. "Remember - smile, smile, smile."

Most of the Firecrackers' parents will be going along for the New York City trip. They will all stay in New York until Sunday - the group has a second performance scheduled for Saturday, at a Madison Square Garden NBA game.

"Let's be the first act in New York City to get a standing ovation," Kelley told the girls.

Emilee Slowik, an eighth-grader who made the New York trip two years ago, pumped her fist in the air. "That's our goal," Emilee shouted. "Let's do it!"

'Jump as high as you can'

For the 40-member Oak Hills Varsity Singers, there is more to the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade than just strolling down Broadway, singing show tunes and holiday anthems.

There are plenty of dance steps to learn as well - The Basket of Worms, Popcorn, The Windmill.

Friday, the vocal ensemble gathers in the classroom of vocal music teacher June Hill for one of their final dry runs before they load onto a bus and travel to New York City to become part of an 800-voice choir made up of high school students from around the country called America Sings.

Two other local high school students, Sara Schmalz and Crystal Graham of Lakota West High School, also will be dancing on Broadway as part of an 800-member group sponsored by the Universal Dance Association.

Friday, the Varsity Singers spent the hour before lunch hour working up an appetite.

"There won't be any ceiling on Broadway or 42nd Street, so jump as high as you can," said Hill, as the choral group jumped up and down to a dance number. Some taller boys banged their heads on the low-panel ceiling.

They all wear bright yellow T-shirts with the legend "We're in a New York State of Mind."

During a break in the rehearsal, the Varsity Singers gathered in small groups around the music hall and talked excitedly about their chance to perform on a national television stage.

. Like the Miami and Kings groups, they will end their Thanksgiving Day with a dinner boat tour around Manhattan.

"Big city, bright lights," said senior Kristi Niehe, 17. "It will be a great Thanksgiving."


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