Tradition No. 3: Amsterdam Parades
As long as Amsterdam, NY remains the home of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes and the Greater Amsterdam School District does a good job making sure those talented organizations have good quality leadership, instruction and resources, parades in this town will be worth attending. I don’t care how old you are, when you’re standing curbside on a parade day in and you hear that familiar drum cadence in the distance, you smile, you start feeling a sense of pride and you tell your kids or grandkids, “Here comes the Marching Rams”. Marching student musicians from our community’s high school have been one of this city’s most treasured assets since the late Gerald Barnell, the “Godfather” of the Amsterdam School District’s instrumental program started the ensemble in the 1930’s. This band has been winning national awards for excellence for the past half-century and they truly are the “Pride of Amsterdam”.
One of the things Amsterdam has lost that has hurt its parade tradition is our downtown shopping district. That section of East Main Street used to be the most popular parade route in town because it was straight, long and had plenty of parking. Disney World wasn’t the first place to figure out that a parade on Main Street was a great way to attract thousands of customers. Amsterdam’s downtown merchants understood and took advantage of that fact generations ago. The hours before and after one of this community’s downtown parades were amongst the busiest of the year for the stores, eateries and specialty shops that use to line the route.
The largest parade in Amsterdam history took place on Saturday, September 15, 1945. Dubbed the Victory parade, it celebrated the victory of the armed forces of the United States and its allies over the Axis Powers in World War II. Over 4,000 participants marched in the six-division formation including nineteen different marching bands led by the Amsterdam High School Band in division one. There was also a plethora of floats sponsored by several different Amsterdam organizations and employers including one from the Bigelow Sanford Company that featured a loom in actual operation producing an actual Army blanket, jut like the five and a half million the firm had supplied US troops during the just completed War. The parade commenced at 3:00 PM and took just over one hour and twenty minutes to pass a given point. Over 30,000 spectators lined the route, which began at the former Coessens Park on the eastern end of the city and ended at the corner of Division Street and Wall Street where the reviewing stand was set up on the steps of Amsterdam’s old post office building. Amsterdam native, Lieutenant Charles DeGraff, who had just returned stateside after 42 months of island fighting against the Japanese Army in the South Pacific, served as the parade’s Grand Marshall.
Some of the other great parades in Amsterdam history included the Amsterdam Sesquicentennial Parade held on July 5, 1954, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of Amsterdam’s incorporation as a village. It included ten divisions, thousands of spectators and unique little chapters of neighborhood based Rug City men and women who dubbed themselves Brothers of the Bush and Sisters of the Swish! This photo of that illustrious event, published in the July 6, 1954 edition of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder offers a classic view of what a major downtown Amsterdam parade looked like back in the day:
Another memorable Amsterdam parade took place in June of 1985, in celebration of Amsterdam’s 100th anniversary as a chartered city. Kirk Douglas, Amsterdam’s most famous citizen returned to his hometown to serve as Grand Marshall.
Amsterdam High School Homecoming parades deserve special mention here. They are an annual highlight of this community’s fall season. They begin in the residential section of upper Lindbergh Avenue and feature the award winning Marching Rams band and majorettes, four usually wonderfully creative floats constructed by members of the high school’s senior, junior, sophomore and freshmen classes and a string of sharply polished convertibles carrying the Homecoming Queen, King and their respective courts. The participants march down Lindbergh and into the eastern entrance of beautiful Lynch Stadium and then circle the football field. This yearly event serves as a constant reminder that Amsterdam’s best product and most valued asset are our children!
Tradition No 5: Amsterdam’s New Year’s Eve Celebrations
Amsterdamian’s still celebrate New Year’s Eve the same way they did back when I was a kid. You either attend a house party or you go out to a restaurant or club of some sort and celebrate in public. The difference between then and now was that thirty, forty and fifty years ago, Amsterdam offered a lot more options for your New Year’s Eve celebrating. It seemed as if every fraternal (i.e. Elks, Masons) religious (i.e. K of C, St. John’s, St. Agnello) veterans (i.e CWV, VFW, PAV) social (i.e. Century, Columbian) and ethnicity-based (i.e. PNA, ALC, Ukrainian Club) organization in Amsterdam, hosted catered New Years Eve parties in their club rooms, complete with noisemakers, open bar, and live music. The phrase “From 10 PM to ?” was a common element in each of their newspaper ads, signaling that the evening of fun would only end when you decided to go home, usually at dawn the next day.
Augmenting these closed group celebrations were the New Years Eve parties hosted at many of Amsterdam’s restaurants and bars. Several of these establishments brought in live music for the night, offered special menus and provided plenty of party hats and noisemakers. Going back to the 1930’s, Amsterdam had major hotels, the Warner, the Barnes, the Philip Schuler and the Conrad each offering Complete New Year’s Eve packages that included dinner, dancing and a room for the night. Decades later, the Holiday Inn would revive this total package concept at their new Market Street location.
As you might imagine, every band, combo and quartet both from in the city and from miles around would be working that night. For local musicians like Tony Brooks, Deanie Dale, Dusty Miller, Johnny Cole, Alex Amendola, Art Hoefs, Butch Robertshaw and every Polka Band on Reid Hill, New Years Eve was just another work day.
It was also the one night of the year that my Mom and Dad would actually dress up and go out on a real date. Me and my brothers would end up doing what the rest of Amsterdam did to celebrate. Go to a house party.
New Years Eve celebrations at my grandmother’s house are one of my favorite childhood memories. Talk about tight quarters, she lived in one side of a two story duplex in Amsterdam’s West End. There would be eleven of us crammed into her 12 x 10 living room that seated five. Instead of Carson Dailey or Ryan Seacrest on a 55 inch flat screen with stereo sound system, we’d watch and listen to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians orchestra ring in the New Year on my gram’s 15″ black & white Philco. My Aunt Onnie would make fried dough with raisins (Italians called them azeepoolah) and dozens of sandwiches which she’d package in those tiny wax paper bags that were used before Seran wrap came along. Us kids would drink Shirley Temple’s out of the same bell-shaped green and black circled glasses she’d use for our Sunday night ice cream sodas in the summer. At midnight, she’d make us a genuine highball. Since I was only five or six year’s old, she’d only give me half a shot of Seagram’s 7 with my ginger ale! (I kid you not) The dining room in my Gram’s apartment was the same exact 12 x 10 size as the living room and it also contained the dreaded gas stove that used to heat the place. They’d keep that sucker so hot they would actually roast chestnuts on it. The temperature in the room would get so high, the grownup men would take their shirts off (in January!) At exactly midnight, my crazy Uncle would grab his shotgun and go out in the middle of Leonard Street in his long john’s to fire a salute to the New Year. We celebrated New Years exactly the same way for the first ten to twelve years of my life. The only thing that changed was that when I turned ten, my aunt would make my highball with a full shot of Seagram’s instead of half. It’s one of those great memories you store away and never ever forget. May your next New Year’s eve celebration be the best yet and may it usher in a year filled with good health, much love and good fortune (and at least one azeepoolah!)
Tradition No 9: Amsterdam’s Halloween Celebrations
Halloween in Amsterdam spawned three traditions that entertained an entire community, especially the Rug City’s young ones.
I Paintings on the Windows of Downtown Stores
Every October back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70’s, the Amsterdam Kiwanis Club sponsored a Halloween window painting contest for the youth of our community. Instead of soaping windows as a Trick-or-Treat prank, the Kiwanian’s awarded cash prizes to the teams of Rug City students whose plate glass backed depictions were judged to be prize-worthy. Over fifty different downtown merchants would participate in the event, donating one or more of their store’s display windows to serve as canvases for the amateur artists. Dozens upon dozens of kids would descend on Amsterdam’s downtown armed with paper sketches of what they were planning as their finished piece, wax pencils, paint brushes and jar upon jar of different color paints, heavy on the orange and black. Each sketch had to first be approved by the children’s art teacher. When all the windows were done, downtown would become very crowded with amateur art lovers who would walk the L-shaped outdoor Halloween gallery, which extended all the way from the corner of Market and Division to the Bargain City discount store on Main Street. In 1962, the talented team of Louise LoBalbo, Sharon Pallotta, Stella Kohut and Agnes Boccio collaborated on the ghostly checker game that is pictured with this post, which appeared on the window of Morrison & Putman’s popular music store then still located on Market Street. The four young painters split a first prize of $10. Such a paltry sum is a clear indication that the kids who participated were in it for recognition more than money. How valuable was that recognition? A kid named Paul Tonko made the prize list at least a couple of times during his childhood and today he’s a US Congressman!
II The Annual Halloween Parade
Another Amsterdam Halloween tradition once sponsored by the Kiwanis Club is the annual Halloween parade. Every year for as long as I can remember, the kids of this city put on their costumes and head toward downtown to march past thousands of parents, grandparents and kids who were either a bit too old or thought they were a bit too cool to join the promenade of witches, ghosts, monsters and some of the most creative disguises many of us have ever seen. The Little Giants players and cheerleaders and all of Amsterdam’s various youth scouting organizations had it easy when it came to figuring out what to wear because they always marched together as groups dressed in their uniforms. All the other costumed marching participants were divided up by which school they attended. One of the highlights of each year’s parade and a custom still being practiced is the appearance of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes all dressed in their own costumes of choosing. I remember my own four kids marching in this parade and in fact have a vivid memory of myself as a youngster doing the same. The late ABC Newsman, Joe Spencer, his little brother Phil and I marched in the 1964 parade as the Spirit of 76. We won a pen set, but so did everyone else. The Amsterdam Elks Club took over sponsorship of the Parade in 2000 and have made sure it continues on as an Amsterdam tradition and they deserve the gratitude of our entire community for doing so.
III Trick or Treating
My own children still don’t believe this. When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ’60’s, Amsterdam had three official nights of Trick or Treating. That’s right, Rug City youngsters would gobble down their suppers, put on their costumes, grab the brown paper grocery bags their Mom’s used to fold up and store on the back porch and spend the next four hours knocking on doors seeking full-sized Milky Ways, Hershey Bars, Almond Joys, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups etc. I repeat, home owners and apartment dwellers in every neighborhood of this city used to hand out full sized versions of these popular sweet treats not the little miniatures they do now, for three full nights. Of course those big bar versions were only a nickel back then and lot’s of people still gave us apples and the dreaded popcorn balls, but it did seem that it was a lot easier for everybody to get into the candy-giving spirit than it is now-days. The three-day span also gave kids the opportunity to scope out a trick-or-treating travel strategy to maximize both the volume and quality of stuff dropped into your bag. We used to do the flat streets of the West End the first night, the hills the second and then on the third, we’d attack the fringes of surrounding neighborhoods always making sure to revisit the places that gave us the best treats from the nights before.
Here’s a list of the Top Ten Amsterdam, NY traditions I’ll be addressing in my new book, which will be released later this year.
1. New Years Eve Celebrations
2. Winter Traditions
3. Easter Traditions
4. Sunday Family Dinners
5. Memorial Day Services
6. Amsterdam Parades
7. Church Festivals/PolkaFest
8. Summertime Traditions
9. Halloween Traditions
10, Christmas Traditions
Frank Derrico has shared with me his favorite memories of coaching ten special AHS Football teams. I will share some of those memories in the June issue of my free Amsterdam, NY Top Ten’s Newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.