NEW YORK - The announcement boomed over the loudspeaker at 9 a.m. Thursday. It was the warmest Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on record, and Veronica Cherry seemed fairly certain she knew why.
"That’s because Arizona is here," the 16-year-old shouted back.
Cherry and about 170 of her fellow Highland High School marching band members marched in the 78th annual Thanksgiving Day classic. The Gilbert students represented not only the East Valley — but the entire state — well by putting on what event organizers called one of the best performances of the day.
With just three minutes to starttime, the clouds that threatened the city opened up and warm sunshine rained down instead of the forecasted drops. Those would come later in the day, but the skies were clear for Highland’s march down Central Park West and performance on Herald Square.
It wasn’t only the weather that was warm. The band received some of the biggest welcomes of the parade.
"Hey, Arizona. Thanks for coming," was shouted out in thick East Coast accents many times during the hourlong march. Paradegoers seemed enthralled that a marching band from Arizona would make the trek to participate in the event.
The crowd went wild when a New York City police officer announced over a bullhorn that the band received a 1 a.m. wake-up call so that they could come into the city early to rehearse.
"Give it your all," he told the student marchers. "Make your town proud."
The students looked much different than when they were sitting in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Secaucus, N.J., at 2 a.m. waiting to board buses into the city.
Nobody looked excited. Few spoke. Only one, Jennifer Manwaring, seemed anywhere near energetic. She said she had a secret weapon. Calling it adrenaline in a can, the 14-year-old took out a can of Cheez Whiz and sprayed it directly into her mouth. Her friends were more disgusted than impressed, but that didn’t bother the freshman drummer.
Slowly the grim-faced teens took to their buses. Colorguard members Elise Morell and Katie Newton hopped aboard wearing pink foam curlers in their hair.
The buses arrived in the city by 3 a.m., earlier than expected. A garbage truck came by and the buses were ordered to move farther down the street. There was a lot of hurry up only to wait.
Finally it was the band’s turn to perform in front of NBC producers to iron out the details of their performance. It looked like broad daylight under the lights on Herald Square in front of Macy’s department store. Camera people in every direction captured every flag twirl and drum beat. A producer wanted to see the performance one more time: "Quick! Run everybody run" he yelled. The band lined up again under a store sign that read "Parade of Shoes."
Afterwards, some students said they felt confident their performance would go off without a hitch. "It was so great to execute it out here finally," said Keysha Gonzalez, 16.
Karissa Manwaring didn’t feel the same way. The senior was tasked with leading the band into Herald Square and she said she didn’t feel she had a good grasp on where she was going. She’d have a lot of time to think about it because it was only 4 a.m. and the students wouldn’t march for another five hours.
After a sack breakfast of juice and croissant, the students tried to rest. The time passed quickly. They were ordered off the bus by 7:30 a.m. Four girls crowded around a window of a Toyota Land Cruiser parked on Columbus Park Drive to check their hair and make-up. People walked their dogs and didn’t pay attention to the 170-some students who had just exited a bus wearing marching band uniforms.
The students didn’t seem to register where they were until the first helium balloon, a giant Super Grover, pulled out in front of them. Then, it happened. The announcer enthusiastically called out — Gilbert, Arizona’s Highland High School Marching Band join the parade.
The drumline started banging away and then counted down to the first notes of their parade song. The crowd went wild. A mother of one of the student marchers wiped tears from her eyes.
The marchers’ energy was contagious and everyone seemed swept up in the magic of the Highland High School marching band.
As soon as it started, it was over. The performance they sweated the most, the last one, the one on Herald Square that would be telecast to at least 4 million people, looked perfect from a live broadcast on television monitors at Macy’s.
Afterwards the students cheered their performance — knowing they nailed it.
"What a rush," said Andie Helvig, a junior color-guard member. "I’ll never forget this moment."