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Sun shines on 25th Star City Holiday Parade

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Elmo floats down O Street
File photo: Elmo floats along O Street on December 5, 2009. The balloon entry was sponsored by Union Bank & Trust. (Robert Becker / Lincoln Journal Star)

A crowd up to 10 deep lined the sunny streets of downtown Lincoln Saturday to watch the 25th annual Star City Holiday Parade.

They cheered as the inflatable Elmo squeezed under the O Street skywalk.

They tapped their feet as 18 marching bands played "Joy to the World" and other upbeat holiday favorites.

And they sipped coffee and hot chocolate to ward off the effects of temperatures struggling to reach the 30s.

Deb Johnson, executive director of the parade-organizing Updowntowners, said the attendance appeared to be of record proportions.

"We had at least 100,000 people down here," Johnson said.

She bases her very unofficial estimate on personal experience that goes back to 2001.

"The buildings were full of people, and the crowds at 10:30 a.m. were as big as I've ever seen them," she said.

Keith and Athena Hill brought their children - Armani, 6; Keilyn, 5; Alaysia, 3; and Nevaeh (that's "heaven" spelled backwards), 2 - to the corner of 11th and O to soak up the festive atmosphere Saturday.

Hill, 28, said he has been coming to the parade every year "since I was his age," nodding toward Armani.

As they warmed up in the Gold's building an hour before parade time, he said the kids hadn't seen Santa yet.

By long-standing tradition, Mr. and Mrs. Claus are the last entry in the parade and their presence provides the signature statement on the holiday season.

"We saw his sled," Hill said. "He wasn't there, but he's around."

Carol Jess, among the planners of the first parade and still involved with the Ross Media Arts Center entry in 2009, has never forgotten the employer who called her the day after his company participated in the event years ago, during a previous economic crunch.

He wanted to tell her how it lifted his spirits and those of his employees.

"We were going through tough times," Jess said, "like we are now."

Johnson said she's gotten some of the same feedback this year, including from parents who say they can't afford to spend much on presents for their children.

"The fact that they can do something like this with their kids is really special. That's very touching to me," she said.

About the only sign of negative feeling along this year's parade route came when a leashed Labrador began some deep-throated "woofing" and strained to get at the team of horses pulling Mayor Chris Beutler's carriage.

More typical was the "low five" exchanged between the guy driving the miniature Lincoln Fire & Rescue truck and the Lincoln police officer on traffic control duty at 10th and O.

Long before the parade began, the Hill family already had plenty of company among parade watchers and participants.

Jimmy Pattavina and other members of Lincoln's Corn Republic Parrot Head Club - part of the nation-wide fan club of "Margaritaville" musician Jimmy Buffett - gathered outside the south doors of the Wells Fargo Bank to review their crowd control assignment.

LeRoy Cole watched his Cole's Concessions crew disperse 400 bags of cotton candy.

Melissa Prettyman-Meranda beamed as six of her classes entertained the crowd with some pre-parade tap, ballet and jazz dancing.

Greg Reeder of Linweld presided over the operation that transferred helium into Mighty Mouse and other balloon attractions.

"It's easy. It's nonflammable," Reeder said.

Experience, of course, helps. The sudden bang from a book-shaped balloon much earlier in Reeder's parade experience helped drive home the lesson about how helium expands as the sun climbs higher.

To minimize that risk, he and his team leave a few wrinkles in the balloon surface. "You keep topping them off until the parade starts."

Among many repeat entries in the 2009 parade was the Deshler High School marching band.

"I actually can't remember when we haven't come," said band director Deb Pohlmann.

Pohlmann is quick to downplay any discussion of 2006 and the band's 90-mile trip to Lincoln.

That was one of the nastier years for parade weather, and the Deshler Dragons band - clad in their purple and black, with a gold stripe - ended up being the only band that didn't cancel out because of snow.

"We went ahead and came on into Lincoln," Pohlmann said, "not realizing that most of the bands had cancelled. It was really kind of a fluke. We were not trying to be the bravest ones in Nebraska or anything like that."

It had more to do with coming from the south, where the early signs of wintry conditions were confined to snow flurries.

The Deshler band was named the best marching band in its size grouping for the 2009 parade.

Carol Jess said bringing shoppers to the downtown area was one of the big motiviations for the first parade. Through license-plate surveys and other means, "we knew at the very beginning that we got about 23 percent of the people from outside Lincoln in downtown at that time."

Even though downtown retailing has shrunk in 25 years, the parade marches on.

"It's a free event," Jess said. "It doesn't cost anything to go, and you see things that you don't see anywhere else."

She compared it to "a mile-long stage."

Pattavina, the Jimmy Buffett fan, said he realized about as quickly as he got all his parade clothes on Saturday morning that it was time to leave the house, because he felt sweat beads forming.

How did he stay warm later?

"Layers and layers and layers," he said. "And this grass skirt helps."

Reach Art Hovey at 473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.

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