by Dawne Belloise
“When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.”
Just before he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 John Adams visualized the future of the holiday when he wrote, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Here in Crested Butte, it’s a party day. It’s a homecoming. It’s the day the Declaration of Independence was entered into existence. We’re free. And we love our parade, barbecues and potlucks, lots of pancakes, laughing dogs and giggling kids, tank tops and flip-flops weather, water fights and sparklers, friends and family returning home and the grand finale of fish and whistles and 36-inch shells of variegated chrysanthemums exploding into bouquets of titillating color in the night sky overhead. Yes, John Adams, you got that right.
Crested Butte is especially known for its community-wide Fourth celebrations and our outrageous parades. Throughout its history Crested Butte’s local population has put on a spectacle of creatively wacky floats and processions that border on the preposterous and always in good humor.
A procession such as we have needs an interpreter, a liaison between the audience and the crazies marching up Elk Avenue. Than Acuff took the reins of announcer in 2013 from Denis Hall, who had been injecting his own style of emcee for 30 years.
“I have no idea why Denis picked me,” Than shrugs and smiles. “It was a surprise and an honor. I’ve announced at a bunch of sports events and I’m comfortable with a microphone in my hand. Denis was my Fourth of July emcee sensei and I think because I’m sober, he figured I wouldn’t totally screw things up.”
KBUT deejay Josephine Kellett offered to jump up there and co-emcee with Than and now the duo rocks the parade. “I thought it would be great to have a woman’s energy up there and she provides the necessary sass,” Than says and describes his favorite thing about announcing. “Being a part of one of the longest-standing traditions in Crested Butte and seeing the same people year-in and year-out, whether they’re visitors or locals cruising down Elk, either in the parade or in crowd,” he says, and then, there are the Twinkies. “People throw Twinkies at me… I love Twinkies. I put them in my bike pack and eat them on a big ride,” Than laughs, saying that at some time, some friends found out about his Twinkie habit and began showering him with the cream-filled cakes.
Of the all the innovative floats, Than’s favorites are “Anything that a group of people obviously got together to build and spent all night and morning making some sort of mess that is creative and teeters on the edge of destruction.” He’s seen 25 years of parades and recalls many of the wildest floats all seem to have been created by former mayor Alan Bernholtz, like the ski jump packed with snow on the back of a truck and Alan in full disco threads with his wig hat on his head.
Then there was Alan’s daring bike jump through a hoop of fire, and his water slide during another parade, all on the back of a truck.
There was one other float as fearless as Alan’s, Than recalls, “Tucker Roberts doing full back layout on a trampoline while the float was moving. Then there was the time when Burt Rentals would ride snowmobiles in the parade with wheel attachments on the skis. And who can forget Tony Wildman in an American flag g-string on a horse? You can’t un-see that. I miss that kind of rogue energy of the Fourth of July parade.”
Alan Bernholtz is one of the favorite rogue energizers and has been paying tribute to Independence Day Buttian-style since 1989 but confesses, “I don’t remember anything about the first one. The most memorable one for me was when I used to partake heavy duty into the whole water escapades before it got sectioned off.”
Alan was around when the water fights weren’t limited to the west end of Elk Avenue. “We’d hang out at the post office parking lot with smaller water vessels. The rule was no animals, no kids, no old people as targets,” and he laughs, “Back then I was like 22 so anyone in their 30s was old. We splashed people with water who were partaking in splashing us back. But in ‘98 other people took the water portion of the parade to an unsafe level and so the town got upset.”
One of his recollections is when Eric Baumm (aka H-bomb) got whomped by a local woman who thought he had hit her with water. Apparently the angered woman had made it clear she didn’t want to get wet and Alan recalls, “She threw her Crested Butte Bakery mug into the crowd hitting H-Bomb, who then goes over and soaks her and she gets off the float and starts beating him up. H can’t hit her back because she’s an older woman and he’s looking for help but no one will help him so he’s getting beat up in the middle of Elk.”
In Keystone Cops form, the infamous H-Bomb had indeed poured water on Ted Bosler, who was on Town Council and driving the town’s backhoe filled with manure. Bad move. “Meanwhile Ted puts a giant scoop of horse poop over H’s head, which diffuses it all and everyone just goes back to doing what they were doing. They banned water in ‘98. But H-Bomb wasn’t the culprit. It was others who were throwing water balloons at horses and kids. People were out of control,” Alan says of the good ol’ days. “So in ‘99, I had my parade down the alley behind my house during the same time as the town’s parade. We only had six floats but they went around and around for two hours with a two-hour water fight. Everyone came from the other parade and it went on forever. We had music. We were shooting shotguns off the back porch, vendors came over. There were 200 bikes in my front yard. It was super fun.”
Alan also remembers the parade when “It used to be small and we did it back and forth,” he says of that tradition of turning around and marching back up Elk Avenue. “Biro used to drive his snowmobile with wheels on the skis. People would put rafts full of water on their pickups and snowmobiles in the back of trucks that would spray snow everywhere. I loved seeing the float of just kids or a family in town. My favorite thing is that we shut down Elk Avenue and everyone had a fun gathering. It’s a fun time to enjoy how beautiful it is here and going from neighbor’s house to neighbor’s house eating.”
But don’t worry, the parade participants haven’t gotten totally conservative in these times. The ecologists and biologists at Rocky Mountain Biological Labs (RMBL) in Gothic are brilliant researchers and scientists who work hard and let their hair down for Independence Day. It’s the only day they get off during their summer work. In all their greenery the RMBL folks have been favorites in the parade for as long as they’ve been marching. They come with spears and pots and pans, whistles and bells and wild primitive faces that tell of being in the sun too much, alone with plants, insects and marmots. They live under the towering cathedral spires of Gothic Mountain until the flora dies and snow threatens. They costume up in only corn lily leaves, sewn into the outfits of aboriginal biologists, proudly chanting and stomping their way up the parade route. In past years, after marching through to the end of Elk, they’d walk backwards down the avenue, but these days, the parade is too big for that.
Jim Schmidt, aka “Deli,” has been in town for the celebration every year since 1977. Having served as mayor and on Town Council for more than two decades, he says of his 1995 brainstorm, “I decided that what the council should do was scoop up the horse poop in the parade.
How could a Town Council be of better service to their community than slinging poop? I thought it was very symbolic.” He laughs and adds that both tourists and locals got the message. Deli laments that he wasn’t around for the bicentennial parade of 1976 when the scandalous Red, White & Blue Girls used only paint as their costumes. “They painted their bodies and most of them were topless, some were completely naked,” he says of the now legendary tribute to freedom of speech.
Deli feels the holiday is so special in the Butte because everybody gets to celebrate it in their own way and as for the parade, “There are no boundaries as to what you can put into the parade as far as floats. It’s freedom of expression and that’s what the Fourth is all about. A few of years back, there was a move to ban political statements in the parade but the Fourth is a political holiday. We rebelled—that’s what we’re celebrating. That’s why I think if somebody makes a statement, whatever the statement is, it’s cool that they’re in there even if I don’t agree with it.”
As times changed and the town grew, Deli reflected on some of the parade aspects he misses. “I was disappointed when we stopped running the parade both ways… it was so short,” he remembers the parade getting to the Four-way Stop and turning around to march back up Elk Avenue.
“It was like a snake that ate itself because they would take it around the block and suddenly you’d run into the other people coming back up. It just got too long. Pretty amazing that we’ve never had a real marching band in the parade. There’s been the boom box band from KBUT and RMBL sort of band with their kazoos, chanting, and pots and pans.” Deli reflects the sentiments of most in this valley when he says, “The whole tradition and people are all so great.”
Crested Butte’s parade and celebration are eccentrically different from anywhere else, mostly because of the community of locals who make the town as funky as it still is. Ashley Upchurch, executive director for the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, says they’re working to make the July 4th celebration have even more of a carnival atmosphere, especially for kids with post-parade games and events. She notes that there are new float entries this year but they’re always looking for marching bands.
“Right now, we have one super enthusiastic kid who’s a one-kid-band on his own. We want the noise and fun that comes with a marching band so we’ve waived the parade registration fee for any marching band.” Ashley says she loves all the floats, but of them her favorites are the KBUT float because, “It’s always a blast no matter what parade they’re in. The Red Ladies are on my list as number one juicies, and a must-see. And the Flauschink Royalty is fabulous because it’s Crested Butte tradition. I like the Crested Butte way.”
There’ll be other acts and events on Elk Avenue after the parade. Chuck Grossman will be playing his fingerstyle Americana blues music live at Third and Elk after the parade, and there’ll be many different kids’ activities provided by various organizations.
Starting at 7:30 p.m. there’s live music on the mountain at the Red Lady stage in Mt. Crested Butte with Diamond Empire Band. As the night falls and the skies darken, it’s the much-anticipated finale of dazzling fireworks, also on the mountain. You can also see those from all over town but the best way to really feel the community love is to take the Mountain Express free shuttle up so you’re getting the full Crested Butte experience.
Whatever the Fourth of July means to you, celebrate that you’re here in a very spectacular and special paradise with the freedom to enjoy life to the fullest.
“Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.”